How to engage students in the socially- distanced classroom?

This week’s blog has been written by Elsa O’Brien, a Spain-based teacher who teaches young learners and adults at the British Council Madrid and at the University of Comillas.

Over the last year, we’ve all seen our lives change unimaginably. For most of us, the way we work now is also totally unprecedented. EFL teachers have had to adapt their lessons. Shifting from wholly-communicative, super-interactive ones to ones in which, both teachers and students are wearing masks, desks are placed at a safe distance from each other and students are not allowed to leave their chairs or share materials. This is in the best of cases, of course, as many countries still only allow online teaching.

The flip side is that these times are as challenging as they are exciting. A whole year of online teaching has kept teachers on their toes, but a whole range of new teaching possibilities have also been presented to us. Every major institution has put together free materials and training sessions to make the transition smooth.


Communicative teaching has changed, that’s for sure. But can we still motivate our students with engaging interactive activities? I would dare say the greatest challenge at this point is choosing from the myriads of free low-prep resources that are available.

I recommend trying out a few and picking your own top-ten resources that can be adapted and recycled throughout the year. You might be surprised at how much you can enjoy challenging your teaching style with new resources and strategies and how quickly your students will get used to them.

The socially-distanced classroom

In online lessons, we very quickly become aware of what activities we can carry on doing as usual and which ones we need to adapt. However, going back into a classroom can be doubly challenging, as we are back in the old setting but with a whole new set of rules.

As frustrating as finding out in the middle of a lesson that something you’d planned cannot be done might be, we must not despair.  The whole new set teaching skills acquired during online teaching are totally transferable to the physically-distanced classroom.

Teacher-friendly online resources

These are some top games and interactive activities that can be used both online and offline, with any age group, when technology and Internet connectivity in the classroom allow:

  • TV-like quizzes with Wordwall: easy-to-make quizzes to review vocabulary. Students can play as a team, taking turns, or individually. This website offers a number of resources but my favourite are the gameshow and the regular quizzes. The uncertainty generated by the random wheel makes it an ideal tool for picking out topics. What’s in it for the teacher? Seeing how students go crazy about choosing a speaking topic!
  • Bamboozle offers the same kind of easy and ready-to-use quizzes. The advantage of this website is that it automatically splits the class into two groups. Competing for points adds to the fun of the game.
  • Hangman Words allows teachers to create hangman games in less than one minute. You might be wondering, what’s the use when I can just play a regular hangman on my board? You got me here. You’ll have to ask your students why it is they love anything that comes on a screen. The main real advantage of online hangman games is that you can share them with other teachers and with your learners for home practice. This can be especially useful during online-teaching periods.
  • Peer-correction of written activities can be one of the most challenging areas to adapt to the physically-distanced classroom. Padlet is a great tool for this purpose. Among its many uses, Padlet proposes virtual boards where students can share their written work in real-time. A great activity during process-writing lessons is for students to share a first draft of their introduction to, let’s say, an essay. Students can do this anonymously, using their phones while each of the paragraphs will be visible to everyone on their phones and on the main interactive whiteboard. A next step would be peer-correction and the creation of a final model as a class. 
  • I guess this wouldn’t be a proper online teaching post if I didn’t take a moment to mention Kahoot and Quizlet. Although these have rapidly become old classics, we shouldn’t forget their utility when it comes to reviewing vocabulary. Why not take it a step further and get students to make their own quizzes using the unit’s materials? They love being in command and the process of creating their own activities is an invaluable way of receiving feedback from their teacher and consolidating knowledge.

Movement activities

As much as all learners love quizzes and competitions played on a screen, younger ones  also need chances to move around and get it out of their systems. If you’re wondering whether movement brain breaks are still possible in the distanced classroom, check out my top 3 favourite movement games for primary students:

Strike a pose: play music and get students to move to it. When the music stops they have to come up with a pose. It could be an animal, an emotion, a letter… There’s room for language feeding while you’re trying to guess what their pose is. You can use it as a way of reviewing class vocabulary if, instead, you shout what the pose must be out of the words recently learned.

Jump the rope: students draw an imaginary rope in the middle of their desks. Then you tell them what each of the sides mean (i.e: left=yes/true; right=no/false). You run a series of questions by them and they have to jump left or right of the rope to answer. This can be adapted to any topic and it’s literally zero-prep for the teacher.

Baboozle Simon says: it’s basically the old Simon says but you won’t have to come up with the orders and, once again, the digital version only adds to the excitement.

The online classroom

All the resources shared can be easily used during online lessons as well. What is more, teachers must not forget a few of the resources that we discovered during lockdown and can only be used online. Most video-call apps offer the same basic functionalities that can be a true ally to the online teacher. Online activities can be used with any age group although you’ll probably find that younger students will have a slower tech-learning curve than adults and teens. 

Breakout rooms: they allow for much richer and varied interaction between students. Exploit them as much as you can! Bear in mind that students won’t be able to switch partners once they are back in the physically- distanced classroom.

The chat: is a great tool for competitions. It can be used as a way for students to share their answers as quickly as possible once you ask or show a question on the screen.

Polls: are a great conversation opener if you launch a poll and share the results with the students. They can also be used to quickly check general understanding of a concept and to gage whether further feedback is needed. You can set up a poll in two minutes and some apps like Zoom will allow you to save them for future lessons.

The interactive whiteboard: students might not be allowed to touch the board and markers in the classroom anymore. However, they can do so in the online classroom if you hand over the board’s control to them. This way they can enjoy leading games like pictionary and hangman. This means online lessons can be student-led too.

The students’ home!: during lockdown, I found this was one of the greatest resources with students from all age-groups. Scavenger hunt is a great game to play with early years and lower primary students. You can link this game to literacy by asking them to look for objects that start with a certain sound or letter. Show and tell can be done with students of all ages. This comes especially handy after Christmas holidays when students can show and talk about their favourite present. It can be adapted to most topics (favourite books, item of clothing, talk about your pet, etc.).

Although the current teaching situation is far from ideal, most of us will agree that, despite being challenging, we have managed to make do with what we have. It’s been a great opportunity for innovation and teacher sharing and collaboration. Please share your comments and ideas below!

Author Bio

Elsa started off her career in market research but slowly, and almost unwittingly, drifted into the world of business English teaching. In 2016 she decided to become a full-time teacher. She has worked in Ireland, France and Spain and is currently pursuing a master’s in English Applied linguistics. She enjoys teaching as much as she enjoys learning through research, reading and teacher sharing. She also has a side project singing in Backdrop Music. Follow them on Instagram and check them out on YouTube too.

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