The Importance of Student Involvement When Learning Online

By Mario Herrera

“Give pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results.” – John Dewey

Correct teaching strategies and structures actively engage students in many ways. They should be hands-on, interactive, and generative by nature, encouraging students to critique, construct, and produce knowledge through meaningful involvement. In the classroom, students teach each other; they develop new knowledge with teachers as co-learners. Because teachers are following the principles of Assessment for Learning (or they should), they are continuously analyzing and synthesizing what their students are doing. Therefore, conducting a more adequate, efficient, and reliable process allows them to decide interventions as they go, and thus also learn. But what if this process is applied online? How can we keep the interaction and generative nature of students alive and well, so they can continue being the engine that allows them to get involved, interact, critique, construct and produce in a meaningful, proactive way? This article explores the options we have.

Now that we are so avidly busy teaching online, what about the learners?

Dependent vs. independent learners

Dependent learners don’t do well online, but because it is not for the teacher to choose, he/she must promote independence as the ongoing learning style. They both need to understand that to be successful in online courses, they need to include a process in which learners will have to act in more independent ways compared to what is common in in-person sessions. Teachers have to design activities with learners working on their own, and students need to learn to be more responsible in independent scenarios. Although teachers can only do so much online, many times, their teaching can have more positive repercussions on students’ learning than if they were teaching them in-person. Teachers need to know how to design activities that will carry their students from just attending a session to carrying on unsupervised activities with the caveat that they should not be challenging to assess.

Keeping learners involved

To engage your students, always remember to segment the presentation of your teaching activities into shorter sequences and regularly check comprehension by asking quick questions that test whether students understood the key point in each of the short segments. Remember to keep the interaction going. Always give examples and use gestures and your tone of voice to present. Go through those examples step-by-step. Also, maximize access to material for all students. Assigning offline tasks is also a great way to engage students who don’t always have mobile devices or internet access, or who can’t sit still in front of a screen for too long. When students bring their schoolwork into the real world, they practice self-directed learning and build valuable skills. Plus, you might be surprised at your students’ creativity!

When planning, always ask yourself if there’s enough call for creativity. The more you set up your students to being creative, the more attentive they will be.

There are two broad categories of activities to keep in mind when wanting to keep our learners involved with online classes:

  1. While the students are sitting in front of their screens participating in a class.
  2. When the session is over but not the lesson per se.  

The best way to present a concept is by showing examples and describing them. Let’s explore the possibilities of involving students when taught online, using a reading activity from Big English, level 3. The analysis that follows the story will be more useful if we first read it.

Big English: Story

1. While the students are sitting in front of their screens participating in a class.

chart: while students are sitting in front of their screens participating

2. When the session is over but not the lesson itself

Parents’ role in involving students appropriately

Parents can be your greatest ally in this “new normal.” Connect with them early and often to send home assignments, share login info for any online platforms students need to use, and find out what kind of resources students have available to them.  It’s better to over-communicate than under-communicate. Like everybody else, parents are overwhelmed, and many feel ill-equipped to support their child’s learning at home. When you make it clear you’re available to support them in any way you can, they’re more likely to become active participants in their child’s learning. Turn it into a win-win situation!


Big English, a six-level English program for primary school learners, delivers comprehensive English language acquisition alongside CLIL and broader life skills, supported by unique online digital teacher and student resources.


Mario Herrera has a degree in education and an MA in EFL. He has taught English for more than 30 years at all levels, from young children to adults. He is the author and co-author of many acclaimed ESL/EFL series that are used in levels ranging from pre-primary to junior high schools, including Big English and Backpack. As an international consultant and teacher trainer, Mario Herrera travels the globe, directing seminars and delivering professional development workshops throughout the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

5 Halloween-Themed Activities for Your Young English Learners

image of pumpkins

It’s almost Halloween and the ghosts and vampires will soon be coming out to play! Did you know that although we often associate Halloween with pumpkin carving and eating candy, the festival has much older origins?

Samhain is an ancient Gaelic festival which celebrates the end of the harvest and the start of winter. This is why people often associate the colors of orange and black with Halloween: orange is the color many leaves turn in autumn and black is the color of the darker winter months.

People used to believe that spirits walked the Earth on the night of Samhain. The tradition of dressing up as ghosts and demons started as a way to hide from the spirits who walked the streets. Similarly, people used to leave treats outside their houses for the spirits and from this came the tradition of trick-or-treating.

It’s always fun to engage with students in Halloween activities to get them into the Halloween spirit while they learn English. Even though many programs are teaching remotely during the Covid crisis, we can still engage in fun Halloween activities. Here are a few ideas to get students playing and learning, even when remote.

1. Who or What Am I?

In this activity students will practice using descriptive words and learning Halloween vocabulary. Search images online that include Halloween imagery (jack-o-lantern, pumpkin, ghost, black cat, bat, vampire, etc.) Email each student one picture ahead of the class. During class, give each student one to two minutes to describe their picture to the class without telling others what it is. The student who first guesses the object correctly gets a point. Play until everyone described their object. After each guess is completed, you can show the picture to everyone on your shared screen. The student with the most points wins the game.

2. Pumpkin Oranges

Pumpkin carving is fun – but it’s also messy and pumpkins can be really heavy! Instead, have students use an orange and a black marker! Get them to draw a scary face on their orange and then write a short text describing it. Here’s an example you can share with your students:

pumpkin orange

My pumpkin orange, Ghoulie, has two big eyes. He’s got a small nose and a big mouth, with lots of teeth. This Halloween, he’s going to sit outside my house. He’s going to scare people but he doesn’t scare me! I think he’s very funny!

3. Let’s Play Halloween Bingo!

This is a great activity to review the Halloween vocabulary. Email students a blank bingo board or have them draw one on a piece of paper. Then have them draw Halloween items, one for each box. You might want to give them some ideas, such as ghost, black cat, pumpkin, bat, etc. Then play bingo, calling out different Halloween-related words. Students listen and mark their boards if they have the item that was called out. The first person with five in a row wins the game.

4. Halloween Theater

This activity will let your students be creative while they are practicing modals. Put students in small groups, and give each group a scary scenario. For example: Frankenstein has stolen your lunch. A big black hairy spider is chasing you. A vampire asked you to go for a walk with him. Have the groups discuss what they would do in each situation. Encourage them to use modal verbs (should, could, would). Then have groups share their ideas with the rest of the class.

5. Tell a Scary Story

Have the class create a scary story. Students take turns adding one sentence to the story. For example, Student 1: One night I was home alone when the lights went out. Student 2, All of a sudden, I heard a big bang coming from the basement. Continue until everyone contributed to the story. For a larger class, you might want to put students in groups to work on their story, write it down, and then present to the whole class. You might also want to give students sentence starters or some vocabulary to get them going.