Are Online Language Classes Equally Effective?

A Case Study of an Online Mandarin Chinese Class

This summer I taught a six-week online class for high school students (18 finished the assessment). Part of their final assessment was done via Google Docs. When I realized I had their assessment data all conveniently set up for me thanks to Uncle Googs, I thought to write a blog post about what we can expect in terms of student learning in an online class!

To give some background, this class was originally planned to be in-person, but in the spring it became obvious that it would need to be online. Unlike the online classes that many teachers taught in the spring, the syllabus and plan for the class was modified for the online aspect ahead of time. This was not emergency distance learning, it was an online class that I had time to plan for.

Details on the Class

The class was held over six weeks, the students were split into two groups that met twice a week. Each class period had 40 minutes of instruction in Chinese and 20 minutes of instruction in English about Chinese culture, history and geography. With their final presentations accounted for, the students received about  430 minutes of Chinese language instruction, or 7 hours and 10 minutes. Chinese was the medium of instruction for the Chinese language portion of the class. I know that phrasing seems a little dumb, but what I am trying to say is that during those 7 hours and 10 minutes, the students were listening to Chinese almost exclusively. I wrote English definitions on the whiteboard. They also had access to definitions through their course materials.

Results of Final Assessment

So how did it all turn out? For one of their final assignments, the students had to self-assess on whether they could recognize 38 Chinese words from the class. On this assessment, the Chinese numbers 1-10 were grouped as one term. There were about 50 unique words in their course materials and I selected the 38 most frequently used for this assessment. In my in-person classes, my usual standard is that we can expect students to acquire (understand) about 5 new words for every hour of instruction. With the online class, we actually got pretty close to that.

Results of Chinese class assessment

In a regular in-person class, I would expect students to recognize about 35 words after 7 hours of instruction. The data from my online assessment showed that on average, students said that they could recognize about 77.8% of the 38 words, or about 29 out of 38 words. All students said that they could identify 我 (I, me) and 爸爸 (dad), and at the opposite end, only 7 students (of 18) said that they could identify 下课 (class is finished). The data do not exactly show how many words the students acquired from the class. I do think it is reasonable to say that most students got most of the words listed. This is well within the range of expecting students to acquire about 5 words per hour of instruction.

I think that we got there with this class. Based on the data from the assessment, the students did acquire roughly the same number of words as we would expect. Of course, some students did better than others, but I am sticking to generalizations about the group as a whole for this blog post.

Conclusions for Heading into the Fall with Online Learning

It is reasonable to expect that students can learn equally well in an online language class. What is surprising to me is that I did not hugely modify the instruction from a typical class. I spoke almost entirely Chinese during the 40 minutes of language class and only used English on the board. I used Powerpoints to add visuals. The students did beginning reading of Chinese characters with Terry Waltz’s cold character reading. This is all SOP for my regular in-person classes.

The major difference was that the students were mostly “muted” in the classroom. I think that this is really the big downside of online classes. One of the things that we have learned in the past five or so months of #Zoomlife is that with meetings of more than a handful of people are an audio nightmare. Students occasionally unmuted themselves for short exchanges with me. This really eliminated the spontaneous conversations that we could have in an in-person class. There was also none of the normal chit-chat before or after class. Despite these limitations, I think that the class delivered what the students need to acquire the language.

One More Thing

The students in this class were, by the nature of the program the class was a part of, all low-income and/or from a background that is underrepresented in higher education. They had training and access to Zoom that was organized by other people involved in the program. They still did just as well as more privileged folks who I have had in regular, in-person classes.

For more on how I teach my classes:

The Secret to Language Learning

Teaching in Spanish in China

Chinese Currency: A Lesson (We did something similar to this in the online class)

Food and Flags (We also did a version of this in the online class)

Can Do Statements

What Are Can-Do Statements?

Can-do statements are a way for students to track their progress. They do more than that of course, but an immediate use for them is to help students recognize what they “can do” in the target language. Language classrooms that are based on comprehensible input often do not use textbooks.  This is because most textbooks actually don’t contain that much L2 that is comprehensible to students. In lesson 6 of a widely-used textbook for college Chinese classes, there is actually more text in English explaining a dialogue than there is actual Chinese-language content for the students to read! So if students are not using a textbook, how can they (or their parents) recognize their progress? The answer is in can-do statements.

An Example

Pictured below is a sample of can do statements made by a group of elementary students. I wrote their answers on a mini white board, but the actual content came from the students. These kids have had about 7 hours of Chinese and they say that they can understand and talk about families, colors, numbers, and likes/dislikes. There is no page in a textbook that we can point to and say “We have come this far,” however these can do statements show that they are acquiring language and they know it.

Photo of white board with can do statement written
Can do statement in my very poor handwriting!

What is pictured is pretty informal, and a mini version of what the American Language on the Teaching of Foreign Languages promotes. A can do statement for a first semester college course might be more like: “I can describe my family members and what they look like.” Can-do statements can be much more than this. They are a great tool to demonstrate to students (and their parents) what progress they have made.

More on Assessment in the language classroom