As English teachers, speaking and listening are two of the principle skills we encourage in our classrooms. In present circumstances, the safe space we provide for those activities may be crucial in helping students come to terms with what has happened to them during the pandemic and re-adapt to life in school.
Many students will be returning to school after a prolonged period of restrictions and special measures imposed because of Coronavirus. While many of those measures might persist in some parts of the world, some students will be returning to the large classrooms and crowded school corridors that used to be the norm. It isn’t normal anymore.
The pandemic has changed life for everybody to some degree. As teachers, we used to push through crowds of teenagers in school corridors and set up activities to get students moving in class without much thought about the health implications of being surrounded by so many people. Now those very same activities might fill us and our students with anxieties we never had to consider pre-pandemic. Let’s not imagine we can simply pretend the last eighteen months didn’t happen.
So what are the educational and psychological impacts of the COVID pandemic on students learning English as a second or foreign language and what can we do to help them?
Let's start with the educational impacts which might be more apparent and more straightforward to deal with. The most obvious thing is that our students could be missing significant chunks of knowledge that would have been covered under the normal curriculum. Some students will have missed months of normal schooling. There are likely to be some big gaps in learning even if there have been some catch-up lessons.
I would suggest that in the first term back at school we need to infuse our lessons with a lot of revision activities to remind our students what they had learned before the covid situation erupted. These could take the form of games or quizzes at the start and finish of lessons. Then, as we begin to identify where individual students have gaps and weaknesses, we can organise group work in ways that enable our students to organically share their knowledge and support each other.
As for the likely mental health impacts on students, I am guided by advice from the Mental Health Foundation. They note that students might be suffering from varying degrees of trauma and attachment disorders. Trauma can arise from all the changes in the student’s environment and particularly loss through bereavement. Students may also have endured long periods of separation from family members and school friends. This can have a big impact on their behaviour and ability to relate to each other and to you as the teacher. We need to be more astute than ever in noting any significant changes in their behaviour. The Mental Health foundation issued some general guidelines and practical steps to help students readjust to school life. In the following paragraphs, I have adapted those guidelines to make them more specific to teachers of English as a foreign language.
The first step is to acknowledge the situation that we and the students have been through. While it probably isn’t wise to dwell too long on the topic, we can and should say something about the reality of Coronavirus. There are a variety of leaflets at most levels of language available from the government and health authorities which are excellent realia for reading comprehension and discussion starters. For older students, these could also be used as an impetus for debate and drama work.
Secondly, the Mental Health Foundation stress the importance of allowing students to talk about their own experiences of COVID or life under the restrictions imposed in their part of the world. The English lesson is a good neutral space for encouraging students to speak. As well as covering new vocabulary we are giving them an opportunity to vent their feelings and frustrations about what has happened to them in recent months. It is also an opportunity for us to listen carefully and pick up on any serious mental health or home issues that haven’t been previously exposed.
Next, we need to accentuate the positive. Why not arrange the students in groups and get them to draw, write, or speak about the positive things that have changed due to COVID. We might start with things like ‘fewer cars on the road,’ ‘people spending more time in the countryside,’ and ask them to make lists of anything that might have changed for the better. This could form the basis for essays, compositions or longer-term project work.
Within our classes, we can provide a framework for rebuilding social connections that might have been strained or forgotten during lockdowns and other restrictions. Let’s experiment with group work so that our students get used to working in close proximity with each other again. They might need time to reconnect and work productively and relearn collaboration skills. Groups will need to be closely monitored and changed, if necessary, not only to maximise the English being learned and used but also to boost social skills and minimise unnecessary anxieties.
As an extension of group work, a whole class project would be a great way to boost confidence and rebuild a sense of class identity. How about a class magazine or video blog on a COVID related theme; perhaps positively slanted to talk about life ‘after’ the pandemic? Alternatively, you could initiate some drama work leading to a sketch or a full-scale play in English on a similar theme. For younger students, you could try writing and performing a simple song, either from scratch or re-writing the lyrics to a tune the students are familiar with.
Many students and teachers will have become familiar with online work using applications such as Zoom or Teams. Now we are back in class let’s discuss the pros and cons of these new learning models. What did the students like or dislike about it? Which aspects would they like to continue using? We may also have become aware that some students have done better than usual with online working. They might have found the lack of distraction from other students to be an advantage. How can we encourage them to learn and grow from that experience now that we are back in busy classrooms?
Finally, we need to look after ourselves and be positive role models for mental health. Our students are more likely to take these issues seriously if they can see that we do too. We may have developed some breathing or relaxation techniques, why not share them with the class? We might have taken up yoga or cookery, let’s talk about our experiences openly and ask if our students have done anything similar. We might have been ill or lost loved ones; while we shouldn’t dwell too much on these things, why should we expect our students to be honest about their experiences of COVID and lockdown if we can’t be?
Behind the scenes, we need to take care of ourselves and seek information and support when necessary. After all, that is what we would advise our students to do.
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Written by Larry Walder