Language-Teaching at a Distance


What needs to happen in a remote language-teaching course and why?

In most foreign language programs, the four skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) are practiced during class, in a collaborative setting in which the instructor models, checks, and provides instant feedback, and in which students work together to practice skills and accomplish tasks. Students learn about each other and become accustomed to working with each other as they learn and become accustomed with the new language.

Replicating those activities and interactions in a remote setting can be daunting. In a real-time class, the computer screen provides a limited window into the students and remote audio is often not good at handling multiple speakers simultaneously. Many visual cues go unnoticed even when instructors and students have their video on, and group activities are hard to monitor in a holistic or spontaneous way. Students cannot readily share writing, especially hand-writing.

As we move from teaching in a physical space to teaching remotely, we have to balance new ways to create real-time, synchronous engagement and new approaches to “flipping” the classroom, using asynchronous processes to foster student interaction and collaboration. 

Fostering listening and speaking skills

Listening comprehension and pronunciation practice

While easy to accomplish in a residential setting, class pronunciation activities are a challenge in video-conferencing tools, designed for one speaker at a time. It is possible to do pronunciation activities in an impromptu way, but systematic listening and pronunciation practice are best accomplished asynchronously. Using existing recordings or making their own, instructors can design listening activities for students to practice listening and pronunciation on their own time. Such activities can also be delivered as assignments, in which students record themselves repeating sounds, words, or sentences, or reading them with the correct pronunciation.

Many instructors use VoiceThread to give students a prompt and then ask them to record themselves. Prompts can be audio, video, text, or images, and students can record their voice or voice with video. Because in VoiceThread every recording is part of the same “thread,” it’s easy to review contributions sequentially, and students can hear or see the work of other students.

For individual assignments, instructors can have students post their recordings as Canvas assignments or share them in Google Drive. (Canvas assignments even accept a Google URL as a type of submission.)

Listening comprehension practice can be achieved through similar means. An additional option is for instructors to design a Canvas quiz in which students listen to audio and identify the sound, word, verb tense, or meaning of what they hear. Such quizzes can be self-graded and credited for completion (complete/incomplete) or for a numerical grade. 

Faculty Insight

French professor Iris Smorodinsky: Using VoiceThread, students recorded a comment on a question, their reading of the presentation they were going to make in class via Zoom, or their reading of a poem after listening to my own reading of the poem. Towards the end of the semester, I started recording comments, mostly about the pronunciation and sent students their individualized comments in a recording that I had made on my iPhone.

Communicative practice

Communicative practice and task-based activities are a core part of language learning. In a face-to-face class, students can be paired or can team up on the fly and work using a textbook activity or printed instructions. In a remote setting, this is possible as well, but it may require a little more planning.

Instructors need to think about how they will group students, how they will monitor their group work, and which material students will use during the group activity.

In Zoom, instructors can create breakout rooms of the same size. These “rooms” can be assigned randomly, “manually,” or even pre-assigned before the Zoom meeting. (Random assignments are the fastest and easiest for the instructor.) While students are working in breakout rooms, instructors can visit the room—but instructors cannot monitor more than one room at a time. Moving between rooms is not as seamless as in physical space; it is good practice to try to visit each room briefly during the activity, but multiple visits can feel disruptive to the students’ work.

While in a physical classroom it is easy to intervene in group activities that are not working as expected, the ways to communicate with students in Zoom breakout rooms are limited. Prepare specific instructions and check that students understand the task before launching the breakout room. Consider asking students for a specific outcome that they can share in writing or orally with the class at the conclusion of the activity.

Fostering writing skills

In-class writing

Physical classrooms may offer whiteboard or blackboard space in addition to the students’ own notebooks and worksheets distributed during class. In a remote setting, tools include Zoom’s virtual whiteboard and shared online documents such as Google docs.

Zoom’s virtual whiteboard can be used for handwriting as well as typing and drawing. Handwriting or drawing with a mouse is imprecise but using a tablet with a stylus or an external tablet connected to a computer allows for more precision, which can be useful to teach handwriting in languages that do not use the Roman alphabet. 

While it cannot be used for handwriting, Google Docs provide a great way to write during class. Some professors use a doc as a whiteboard replacement, either through Zoom screen sharing or by sharing the doc itself with students. But docs can also be used for real-time student writing activities. We recommend preparing a doc with specific prompts and areas for student writing. Students can write at the same time as the instructor monitors the output and provides instant feedback.

Docs can also be used during group activities in a Zoom breakout room. With specific instructions for students, the doc can be shared with each group to complete a mixed task involving oral communication and writing. Instructors can review each group’s output in real time (in small classes) or after class.

Faculty Insight

French professor Alissa Webel uses Google docs in an advanced language course: In an advanced, conversation-based course, ask one student to be the main note-taker in a Google doc shared with all students so others can add their notes as well, which the professor can then correct. If a student does not have a good Zoom connection, she can refer to the doc after class. It also helps students for whom it is not easy to take notes without the professor writing on the board. In a variation, professor Géraldine Simonnet asks each student to take notes in their own Google doc, which serves as a running notebook: this allows her to check students’ understanding and to follow up on misunderstandings and gaps in targeted ways.

In her hybrid Persian course, Farima Mostowfi uses her iPad as an electronic whiteboard during the Zoom meeting. Both the professor and students can write on the shared whiteboard.

French professor Iris Smorodinsky also uses a shared doc during class: Presenting and practicing grammatical structures in a google doc: I would write ahead of time students’ names for some sentences or exercises. Everybody was typing at the same time. It is as if all students were writing at the blackboard at the same time, so this was one of the activities that were actually more efficient than in-person classes.

The Italian program posted this example on its website: One of the tools we have been using to keep students engaged is a Google doc that we keep open during class where the instructor and the students write notes on the material covered and they use to complete individual and group activities. Of course students can access their class notes anytime after class to review. We found this way to share “class notes” so helpful and practical that we will keep using it when we resume face-to-face classes.

Writing outside of the class session

Instructors can use Canvas assignments to create writing assignments for students to submit as a file (doc or PDF) or as a Google doc. The assignment description can include specific components of the assignment, specific expectations, a rubric for grading, and a link to an example. Canvas allows instructors to use various annotation tools to highlight within and comment on the student’s work (using SpeedGrader) in addition to providing general comments and a grade.

To foster writing by hand outside of class, instructors ask students to turn their handwritten notes into a multi-page PDF using scanning apps such as Adobe Scan on a phone or tablet. The resulting file can be submitted as a Canvas assignment or can be printed by the instructor for manual corrections and grading. Some students prefer to handwrite on their tablet using a stylus; this results in an even more readable PDF. Some instructors use other tools such as Diigo to annotate student writing.

Faculty Insight

Nancy Overman, who teaches English language, gave this example: I bookmark a webpage or pdf in Diigo. Then I can annotate the document—either before I show it to students, or while we’re going through it together, or both. Usually, I do some of each. There are four highlighting colors. I use yellow for vocab I want to talk about, green for pronunciation that I want to talk about, blue for expressions and phrases that students should learn as a whole, and pink where I want to add a comments box for text features that I want to point out or reading questions that I want to ask. With any of those colors, you can add a pop-up comments box, so I use this to type notes (before or during class).

Developing cultural competency

Although it is not part of the four core language competencies, a knowledge of the culture, the history, and the geography of the areas where the target language is used makes learning a new language more concrete, provides context and meaning, and adds different types of engagement to the learning experience. The arts, particularly music and film, can be leveraged to develop both linguistic and cultural competence.

Faculty Insight

Turkish professor Sylvia Önder says: A student in Turkish class initiated a “NetFlix Watch Party” and we have had some optional viewings of Turkish dramas with Turkish voice and Turkish or English subtitles. That has been fun and motivational—we can make comments as we watch in the “chat” area—I can make cultural comments, vocabulary notes, and we can all make silly comments about the show.  We also, at the students’ request, watched a Turkish feature film this way.

The Italian program has some great examples of cultural activities in times of remote learning. In Fulvia Musti’s class, for example, students recorded videos in which they explained how to prepare an Italian dish. Louise Hipwell’s class invited an Italian soccer aficionado to learn about the beautiful game. Laura Benedetti writes: After moving to a virtual learning environment, we not only continued our exploration of Italian culture from the origins to the present, but we also embarked on a common creative project. We were struck by the fact that there were ten people in the class—the same number as the storytellers in the Decameron, which takes place during the plague of 1348. We therefore decided to recreate a small and virtual version of Boccaccio’s work, which we named the Hoyasaxon. Each of us became queen or king for a day, chose a fictional identity, and told a story that best illustrates an issue relevant to our lives. It was a wonderful way to strengthen our community at a time when we were forced to stay apart. “If you ask me” one of the students wrote, “I think Boccaccio would be proud.”

Assessing students

Assessing writing

As in “Fostering Writing Skills” above, assessing student writing relies on clearly structured assignments closely connected with the skills students are developing in the course. 

  • A detailed assignment description can be posted in Canvas or in a Google doc.
  • Expectations and assessment criteria can be included in the assignment description but also in the rubric, which allows for more structured and specific feedback and grading.
  • After students submit, general and specific feedback can be provided in Canvas SpeedGrader. Other options include Google docs or Diigo.
  • Within SpeedGrader, instructors can use a rubric to give specific feedback on each assessment criterion, such as organization, vocabulary, and grammar. Individual grades on each criterion can be automatically added up to provide the assignment grade.
  • In Canvas, students have the option to download the annotated submission and to respond to the instructor’s general comment.
  • There is an option to resubmit the assignment if a second version is required.

Both Microsoft Word and Google docs have spell checking and grammar checking tools that some consider helpful in the context of assessing a student’s own writing skills. Other instructors prefer handwritten assignments, in which students rely more exclusively on their own skills (eg. no spell check). Using apps like Adobe Scan or Apple Notes on a phone, students can easily scan their handwritten work as a PDF file and submit it in Canvas or send it to the instructor.

Some writing assignments need to be limited in time and/or proctored.

Assessing grammatical and lexical competency and accuracy

Most major tests and exams are designed to assess students’ grammar and vocabulary skills in addition to their listening and speaking skills. Instructors again have a variety of options for testing vocabulary and grammar.

Canvas Quizzes allow instructors to develop sets of questions of various types: multiple choice, multiple answers, fill in the blank, and several others. The quiz option is best suited for questions where there is one specific answer, which can be implemented as a multiple choice question or as a fill-in-the-blank question.

Most question types can be automatically graded by Canvas. Quiz attempts can be limited to a specific amount of time and a specific number of attempts. For high-stakes tests that require proctoring, instructors can require students to be present in Zoom while taking the test, or use a powerful yet complex tool like Proctorio to record the student and control what she can do while taking the test. We recommend fully addressing your concerns and expectations about academic integrity with your students and consulting with CNDLS before deciding on the most appropriate solution.

Lower-tech options for vocabulary and grammar testing include posting a Word document for students to complete and send back (or submit in Canvas), using a PDF, or using a Google doc.

Instructors who require handwriting can ask students to use a scanning app to turn their sheets into a PDF or let students who have a tablet hand-write on their tablet and save their answers as a PDF.

Faculty Insight

Sylvia Önder, who teaches Turkish, writes: I did figure out how to replicate my in-class Intensive Beginning Turkish quiz with dictation.  At first I tried Canvas Quiz, but it did not turn out to be the same as what I was used to doing in the classroom. Then I figured out a new strategy: I made a “Google Doc” for the quiz, with the usual 5 dictations, 5 translations, and extra credit translations (I had forgotten those, but the students were quick to remind me!).  With the Zoom class going, I shared the link to the Google Doc in chat, had the students download it, did the dictation, and then had them “turn in” their document to Canvas on an Assignment link. Then, as was usual practice in the classroom, those who finished quickly got a handout to work on until the others finished the quiz. When I correct the quiz, I use pretty colors for my font. I have not yet figured out a good replacement for stickers…

Assessing listening comprehension

Assessing listening comprehension can be part of a synchronous test done in Zoom or it can be done asynchronously using tools like a Canvas quiz.

  • In Zoom, both instructor speech and recorded audio or video can be used in real time. To play a recording through Zoom, use the Share screen feature and check the “Share computer sound box” before clicking Share. With this setting, students will hear the audio as if it played on their own device. Also ask students to have good headsets or speakers so they can hear the audio clearly.
  • Many instructors use the Canvas quiz feature to check students’ aural comprehension. Audio (or video) can be embedded within the question and one or multiple comprehension questions (true/false, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, etc.) can be asked about the audio. Instructors can also embed media from Sharestream or Panopto within a quiz question.

Faculty Insight

The Japanese program used embedded audio recordings in Canvas quizzes, with a series of multiple choice questions about each recording, on the Spring 2020 final exam. Unfortunately there is no easy way to control the number of times that students listen to the audio. A couple of workarounds: 

  • Set a time limit on the quiz so students cannot listen to the recording many times. 
  • Panopto keeps track of the number of times students play a recording. Instructors can check this information in the Panopto area of the course.

Assessing oral production

Most foreign language courses include one or multiple oral production assessments: one-on-one oral exams, oral presentations, or oral group activities or skits. In a remote setting, it is possible to conduct individual oral assessments as well as oral group assessments.

  1. Live oral exam: The instructor meets with the students in Zoom at an appointed time. Students answer oral prompts or respond to written questions shared on screen. The instructor can use her Zoom personal meeting ID or a dedicated meeting. To accommodate students scheduled in succession, enable the waiting room feature so students do not join the meeting during the previous student’s exam.
  2. Live oral presentation: Students can present live in Zoom during class, optionally sharing a document or slides. To make the presentation more engaging, all students can be tasked to ask questions or leave feedback via the Zoom chat or in a shared Google doc. The presentation can be recorded by the instructor. The instructor can give immediate feedback during class or later via Canvas.
  3. Recorded oral presentation: The student (or students) can deliver and record the oral presentation in Zoom outside of class. They can then share the recording in Google Drive or Box with the instructor.
  4. French professor Alissa Webel has students present in VoiceThread: The professor can leave remarks on pronunciation, the other students can watch at home, prepare questions, and then do a live Q&A session in Zoom. I did this in intensive intermediate French and in French for Politics and it worked well. Students generally prefer this type of work.

Faculty Insight

Joe Cunningham, German: When assessing speaking, the tool you select will depend on the mode of communication (i.e., monologue or dialogue). For monologic tasks, VoiceThread works well as students can record a presentation and engage an audience with questions in an asynchronous format. For dialogic tasks, Zoom is a good choice since it supports synchronous audiovisual interaction that can be recorded and shared with the class and/or instructor.

Creating a welcoming environment and fostering community

Students’ physical and geographical separation affects their well-being as well as their learning. Instructors can use the live class to check in with students. Increasingly these check-ins and updates can be done in the target language, practicing expressions referring to daily life, health, and well-being. Instructors can also give students time to do check-in in smaller groups using Zoom breakout rooms.

In these times it may also be appropriate to diverge from the set curriculum and check on the news from the countries or regions students are studying. Pulling up a news site in the target language, checking headlines and asking students to explore stories can be a great way to learn about the target culture, to learn new vocabulary, and even to launch a discussion.

To allow students to stay connected with the class and with each other, instructors can encourage (or ask) students to form small groups with the students they are used to working with to keep each other up-to-date, answer questions, and learn together. Instructors may also ask the students to have regular (e.g. weekly) meetings around specific activities or assignments that they can perform or complete together. For example, a French instructor asks students to meet once a week to complete an oral group assignment, which is recorded in Zoom and shared with the instructor for review.

Faculty Insight

Portuguese professor Michael Ferreira pairs Georgetown students with Brazilian students each term to engage in weekly oral exchanges via Zoom. In Spring 2020, the exchanges began as classes moved to a remote format: Our Teletandem activities began the week after spring break, so it coincided with Georgetown going remote. 30 students met with their counterparts in São Paulo, Brazil for eight one-hour sessions between spring break and the end of the exam period. The sessions were divided into two 30-minute periods, one for each language: Portuguese and English. … The students reported that they were thrilled to talk to native speakers and that, after an initial period of awkwardness, the conversations would flow freely. It was a great experience overall. The only difference was that I met online with students individually to coach them through any obstacles they had encountered during interactions. Many of them said they had worked with their partner in Brazil on their final 10-minute presentation for the course and that this gave them a moment away, an outlet from what has been going on. The one unavoidable concern that came to mind was more screen time…

Spanish Professor Ximena Suarez often begins class with a brief meditation for students to calm down and focus. Based on the values of Georgetown University, of love and respect. Each student from different religious backgrounds can stop for a minute before a class which helps them to think in their minds and focus on that moment, to be a better person, and a lovely young human being. This has been an excellent way of starting all my Spanish classes. I teach this in Spanish, and students love it and focus better in the class.  During the pandemic it was more important than in face to face classes. A tool, and strategy that really gets into the core of students’ values and helps the class to go on especially in this online setting. I used it before and during the online classes. ¡Un exito! It really was a success and students like it and most of them do it in different ways. 

Italian professor Donatella Melucci writes: In general, a silver lining of this experience with remote teaching is that it helped us connect with our students on a different level. As we entered each other’s homes, some students introduced us to their families who expressed appreciation for what we are doing and we all were able to bring our pets to class.

Tools for students to use on their own

Asynchronous learning can be promoted for students to complete coursework on their own time. This work can be self-paced, guided and/or self-guided formats. Many textbooks come with materials that are not core to the course but allow students to get additional practice or to learn more specifics about the language and the culture. 

Bibliography & Resources

Online Language Learning

ADFL. (March 2014).  Suggested Best Practices and Resources for the Implementation of Hybrid and Online Language Courses. Modern Language Association. 

Carrier, M., Damerow, R. M., & Bailey, K. M. (Eds.). (2017). Digital language learning and teaching: Research, theory, and practice. New York: Routledge.

Lee, L. (2016). Autonomous learning through task-based instruction in fully online language courses. Language Learning & Technology, 20(2), 81–97.

General Online

UMass Teaching and Learning Online Handbook

Bates, A.W. (2019. Chapter 4 Methods of Teaching Online Learning (4.4 Online collaborative learning). “Teaching in a Digital Age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning.