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EAL Students and Instructors find the silver lining in virtual learning

By Pauline Nasri

After the switch to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some English as an Additional Language (EAL) students and instructors at Ryerson say they’re eager to be back in-person since it will help improve their English language learning.

Learning a new language online has proven to bring challenges because instructors have had to compensate for the limited opportunities for in-person engagement that typically played an important role for EAL students.

When Farah Aldabbagh, a second-year chemical engineering student, arrived in Canada from Dubai in 2019, she had to take various English language proficiency tests in addition to an online EAL course at Ryerson to meet her course requirements. 

Aldabbagh said she thinks online learning did not help improve her English since she wasn’t interacting with her peers and professors. Aldabbagh added that having to communicate through a screen made her nervous. 

She said although she prefers to speak her native language Arabic with her family, the online learning experience wasn’t entirely unenjoyable as she still felt supported by her professors.

Barriers to accessing support systems

EAL students say that another challenge of studying from home is that many of them speak and listen to a language other than English at home, making it hard to seek support systems. This is especially prominent in cases where the student’s family members are English language learners as well. This can create a gap in communication, leaving some students feeling behind when speaking a new language that’s not practiced at home.  

According to a study in the Journal of Intercultural Communication, immersing oneself in the dialect, similar to those who participate in homestay experiences where a student lives with a family to learn a language, can improve the student’s linguistic self-confidence and reduce their anxiety. 

We want to motivate [students] and provide them with that practice, that will lead to fluency and confidence

Chris Brierley, coordinator of Ryerson’s Writing and Language Support program, said with isolation and fewer interactions and opportunities for connections, students lack confidence in their speaking abilities. 

According to a 2016 Statistics Canada study, 72.5 per cent of immigrants in Canada reported having a native language other than English. Ryerson alone has 4,200 international students from over 140 countries as of 2019. 

“In-person interactions would be much better than online because getting to speak English every day, our language and communication skills would be improved,” said Aldabbagh.

Ryerson’s Writing and Language Support offers numerous services to help students improve their English language skills such as academic writing, English conversation groups and more, which have also been provided virtually for students.

Brierley said the number of one-on-one speaking appointments has dropped in the past 18 months since students do not feel the need to use their spoken English, which is due to the lack of accountability in online classrooms.

He also added that what he thinks is missing from a student’s learning experience is getting to be next to other classmates in class and striking up a conversation, which gives them a sense of confidence when speaking the language.

Writing and Language Support extended its business hours to give students in different time zones the opportunity to seek help and interact. Additionally, before jumping into the appointment, the staff will have a short conversation with the student to check in on their mental health.

“We want to motivate [students] and provide them with that practice, that will lead to fluency and confidence,” said Brierley.

Students facing screen anxiety

Similar to the experience of post-secondary instructors, those teaching at the high school level are also finding challenges when it comes to teaching EAL students virtually.  

Effie Vernuccio, a secondary school teacher with the Toronto District School Board who has been teaching English language learners for 24 years, said teachers have also had to adapt and learn new skills since the halt of in-person classes.

“Teachers had to quickly pivot…from handing out worksheets or doing other things on the computer, to transcribing everything into an online format,” said Vernuccio.

Vernuccio said high school teachers had to be compassionate and adjust to students’ needs since the pandemic also impacted their wellbeing and home situations which could in turn affect their learning. 

She added that one of her students who usually spoke very well in class struggled with having to speak through a computer screen, resulting in communication that wasn’t with his usual ease and clarity.  

Vernuccio described the computer as a “double-edged sword” since it granted students access to various resources that could help them in their education, but it also ruined engagement and interaction between students and instructors. 

Opportunities to excel outside the virtual learning space

Some of the ways she said EAL students can improve in their English is by joining clubs, reading English books dedicated to their language level and, most importantly, meeting up with people outside the classroom who they can talk to about learning a new language.

A study by the Law and Society Faculty Publications at Wilfrid Laurier University showed that English language learners were affected by isolation while living in challenging circumstances and adapting to online learning at the same time. 

Despite the various barriers of learning a new language in a virtual setting, instructors and students said they found virtual learning also has its perks. 

John Barnes, an English as a second language (ESL) instructor at Ryerson, who also teaches courses in linguistics and cultural anthropology, said creating a sense of community and togetherness is still achievable through virtual learning and can make students feel more confident in the value of their participation. 

Despite the virtual learning environment, Barnes used various methods to ensure a sense of community is provided in classrooms, including organizing small groups, facilitating asynchronous/synchronous discussions and group work. 

In search of new teaching methods, he also completed a number of the professional development programs, such as Teaching Adult Learners Online, that Ryerson provides for all instructors. Barnes said he found these courses to be very helpful and he received positive student feedback on his teaching methods.

He said EAL instructors who find online teaching challenging should continue to have faith in the possibilities that can still contribute to a positive and meaningful experience with English language learners. “Believe in yourself and believe in your students,” said Barnes. 

Brierley said he is amazed by the hard work of EAL students who can balance learning an additional language while pursuing higher education. 

“I have nothing but admiration for students who are multilingual and pursuing higher education in an additional language,” said Brierley. “Know that you’re in a non-judgmental place, this is what we at [Writing and Language Support] are here to do. You’re not alone.”

1 Comment

  1. Jim

    It sounds to me like the instructors may need more training on how to engage learners online. There are a myriad of tools and approaches that can enhance the online experience and create highly participatory sessions. I challenge you to dig deeper and discover more of what is available and how to integrate them.

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