By Sarah Barr

In the spring of 2020, as Covid took hold, I watched my class get smaller and smaller. By the middle of March there were only about 3 people who came to my lessons. They all sat apart trying to follow this new “social distancing”. I remember standing in front of the classroom and saying, “Well, looks like we are some of the bravest people still willing to come to class.” Then one student quite astutely said, “Or we are the stupidest.” That was the last day I taught inside a classroom.

Figuring Out Zoom

As we all hunkered down in our houses, my work offered online learning. I enlisted some friends and family to be my practice online class. All was going well until we entered the breakout rooms. My 11 year old son thought he had to “break out” of this room so spent his entire time trying to escape. A few days later with my real beginner ESL class, things were going well until I created the breakout rooms. I joined virtual room #1 and no one was there. Until I figured out how to automatically send my beginner ESL students to the breakout rooms, I kept turning up in virtual rooms all by myself.

Confined to a Zoom Box

Next on my list of things to solve was how to teach while stuck in a Zoom box. Since people could only see my head and not much more, my usual technique of walking around a room trying to act out explanations was out the window. My miming and hand gestures were now confined to a small box only showing the top third of my body. Once a student asked what “crossed legs” meant? I demonstrated by crossing my fingers, pretending they were legs. This is the new normal – teaching in a square box.


Screenshots Galore

Miscommunications happen to the best of us but throw in beginner ESL students with sometimes limited computer skills and it’s certainly no picnic trying to get everyone to follow instructions. I found the best way to combat this problem was to take screenshots or photos to demonstrate what needed to be done. For example, I showed everyone that you need to click on the white dots/View in the upper right corner to select Gallery View, if you want to see everyone’s faces. In the old days I could have pointed at my smartboard and showed everyone what to do. Now I’m stuck on the other side of the computer screen unable to help like I used to. 


So my usual bag of goodies with hands on materials: flash cards, games and anything involving dice is a distant memory. However, although online learning has been forced upon us, it’s not all bad. I no longer have to battle with my nemesis: the photocopier which always seemed to run out of paper whenever it was my turn to use it.


How has your teaching changed since teaching online?

Bio: Sarah Barr immigrated to Canada in 2015 from Christchurch, New Zealand. She started teaching ESL over 20 years ago and has worked in England, New Zealand and Canada. Currently Sarah works at the North Shore Multicultural Society and volunteers at North Shore Emergency Management giving presentations on how to be prepared for emergencies.


Leveraging Technology to Provide Oral Feedback on Writing Assignments


By Nathan Hall

[This article was first printed in the Fall 2015 issue of TEAL News.]

A recent government survey in the UK on teacher workload found that marking took up the largest amount of an instructor’s time outside of the classroom. An ideal solution to this problem would be to reduce the amount of time it takes to comment on student work while increasing the quality and quantity of that feedback. For myself, the journey to solve this problem started while in my MA TESOL program. One of the instructors audio recorded his comments on our work one week when there were multiple assignments to mark. Surprisingly, I found the feedback much deeper and far more extensive than any of the written comments I had received in the course to that point. At that time, I was teaching a writing course and was getting a large amount of student work to mark, and I wondered if giving recorded oral feedback may be a solution. I set up a small test assignment where students wrote a simple two-paragraph reflection on a subject. They gave me their assignments on paper, which I read over and wrote numbers next to the areas I felt needed some work. I then audio recorded myself giving feedback on their writing by referencing the numbers written on their papers. I gave the assignments back to the students along with links to their audio recordings and sent them off to the computer lab. Arriving at the lab, I was surprised at how the students immediately grabbed a pen and took notes directly on their papers while listening to my comments. Most of the students listened to the comments more than once before rewriting their paragraphs based on the feedback.

Building on that success, as small a sample as it was, I decided to explore what research had to say on the subject. At that time, studies focusing on English language classrooms and recorded oral feedback were limited, but by expanding the subject matter, I was able to find a few larger studies. The first study followed 53 ESOL students in New Zealand over 16 weeks. Students were divided into three focus groups based on the type of feedback they would receive on their written work: written and oral, written only, and limited feedback. After completing four writing tasks, the study found that direct oral feedback together with direct written feedback had a greater impact on improving accuracy than written feedback on its own (Bitchener, Young, & Cameron, 2005). The second study involved 14 post-graduate students who were studying in a distance course from a UK university. Each student completed eighteen 1500 word essays; nine of the essays were given written feedback and the other nine received oral feedback via a five-minute video (screencast). Not only did these students mostly prefer the recorded oral feedback to written, but teachers found it saved valuable marking time. To give an equivalent of 35 minutes of written feedback, only five minutes of screencasting was needed (Edwards, Dujardin, & Williams, 2012). The third study, which was the largest, involved 111 individuals in 11 groups of students at a Norwegian University. Instructors used screencasts to give feedback, instructions, and messages to students. They found it improved clarity and allowed students to review the information, while saving the teacher’s time by refining their instructions. Students mentioned that “video comments are regarded as being more precise and nuanced than written feedback” (Mathisen, 2012).

Following my personal success, along with what I had learned from the above studies, I now use screencasting to record short feedback videos for my students. This involves getting the written work in a digital format so it can be viewed on a computer screen, and it also allows me to add short written comments. This requires a few tools that are either free or inexpensive. Here are the basic things you will need:

  • Screencasting software: There are a number of free online and offline tools; it is just a matter of personal taste.
    • QuickTime Player: If you are an Apple Macintosh (Mac) user, you can use QuickTime Player, which comes preinstalled on the computer. Simply locate it in your Applications folder and choose to create a ‘New Screen Recording’ from the ‘File’ menu. You can choose to use the built-in microphone or you can add a USB microphone for greater clarity.
    • Jing ( This is a free software from TechSmith that works on both Mac and Microsoft Windows (Windows) operating systems. It is limited to a 5-minute recording, but is simple to use and quick to learn.
    • CamStudio ( This is a Windows only application that can be installed for free on any USB drive, including thumb drives. This allows users to record screencasts on Windows computers that do not have screencasting software preinstalled. It is free and fairly simple to use.
    • Screencast-O-Matic ( This is an online webtool that allows Mac or Windows users to record screencasts without installing any software on their computers. It does use Java, which some company computers have turned off. Simply go to the website and launch the application from there. You can then download the final video or store it online.
  • Document creation and annotation: There are also many ways of displaying and annotating documents and scanned images. Here is what is readily available on all platforms.
    • Microsoft Word: This is available on both Mac and Windows platforms for a fee. Most schools and students have access to it and are comfortable using it. Both the instructor and student can use the Comment tool to add written feedback and replies. The biggest problem with this is making sure you are still working from the same document. If you have the document on a network folder, you can each open the same document and work from there. If you have to email documents back and forth, this can become a problem.
    • OneDrive ( This is a cloud service hosted by Microsoft that works on any computer with internet access. You need to sign up for a free account, but OneDrive offers plenty of free space with that account. You can share Microsoft Office documents with anyone without the problem of emailing back and forth. You can also create, read, and add comments to documents without having Microsoft Office installed on your computer. Simply use the Word Online option within OneDrive.
    • Google Drive ( ): This is another cloud service, only this one is hosted by Google and works with all computers with internet access. It also requires a free account, but if a student already has a Google account, such as Gmail, this is already available to them without registering again. Documents are hosted online and can be commented on and shared with other users. There are also options for Google account holders to connect to free services such as Kaizena ( that allow for voice commenting.
    • Apache OpenOffice Writer ( This is a free, open source word processor that is available for Windows, Linux, and Mac. It is compatible with Microsoft Office documents and can also be used to add written comments. It has the same problem as Microsoft Word in that users need to email documents back and forth, but for students that have limited income, this is a great free option. There is also a USB drive version available for users to run from a thumb drive. This is great if a student needs to use a public computer and doesn’t have access to a word processor.
  • Video or audio sharing: Once a teacher has created a screencast or audio recording, that file needs to be shared with the student. There are a number of ways to do that.
    • Class website or LMS: If the class already has an online site, the teacher can share the file with the student through that site. This is one of the simplest ways and keeps an ongoing record of the student’s work.
    • Cloud host: Using a host such as Google Drive or OneDrive, a teacher can upload the file and then share the link with the student. This also keeps an ongoing portfolio of the student’s work, but is less integrated than a class site. Only the teacher needs to have an account with the cloud service, since the shared link is accessible from anyone who receives the link.
    • Email: This is not a great option since the size of video files are often quite large and can cause problems with end users. Audio files are not as large and may not be as much of a problem.
    • YouTube ( Teachers can upload and share their videos using this Google-owned site if they have a Google account. You must make sure to set the video as ‘Unlisted’ or the student would need also have a Google account.
    • SendVid ( This is another video hosting site similar to YouTube, but does not require registration. Uploaded files are always private, accessible only by those who have the link. End users can also download the file for offline viewing.

Once you have decided on the tools that work best for your situation, you will need to give it a test run. Choose something small to work on such as a short paragraph or something the students have already done and received feedback on. This takes away some of the stress of getting through a large document while still getting used to the process. Open the document in your preferred document viewer and annotation tool. If the work was handwritten, you may need to scan the document first using a photocopier or flatbed scanner. Read through the document and look for areas you would like to comment on, but don’t make any large comments on the document itself. Personally, I try to find the key things I would like my students to work on such as a spelling or grammar item, a formatting problem, or a genre issue. I then add a short identifying comment such as, “informal language,” or, “sentence structure” in the area or areas that need work. I then turn on the screencasting software and talk the student through the comments, trying to connect to things we have done in class that will help them make the connection. For example, if we have been working on complex sentence structures and the student is still struggling with it in their writing, I would talk through the reasons why their sentence doesn’t work as a complex sentence, and direct them to the work we have done in class on that subject. If I feel they need more examples of what I am talking about, I may create another document that I can pull up while in the middle of my screencast to show them while talking them through it. Essentially, this becomes another instructional moment that is more directed at each student without having to meet with that student one-on-one. Once my video is done, I simply upload it to the site I am using with the class and share the link with the student.

While the time to do this might take you longer than expected at first, the process becomes more streamlined over time. As mentioned earlier, give this a short run the first couple of times before attempting to use it on a longer writing assignment. Make sure you get feedback from the students on how they feel the system works for them. It may be that some students are not as comfortable with this way of getting feedback and you may need to make adjustments for them. In one of my classes, one student liked the oral feedback, but had limited access to the internet. She did have a personal MP3 player which she took with her on the long bus rides to and from classes. As a result, I would copy my comments directly to her music player when she was in class, and I gave her a printed copy of my comments so she could look at things on her commute. This didn’t take any extra work for me and fit the student better than using video comments. Other things to consider are privacy issues with cloud based storage, especially in places where laws tightly restrict it. Sharing the video or audio files directly with students may be necessary in those cases. You can also use sites that don’t require registration, but make sure no personal data is in the document itself.

While this method did take a bit of learning on my part, the savings of time over the long term has been incredibly valuable. It has been encouraging to receive positive comments from students regarding their access to me. I’ve also had to be more precise in my instruction as I place students directly in the centre of their own learning. It’s hasn’t always been easy, but it has definitely been worth it.


Bitchener, J., Young, S., and Cameron, D. (2005). The effect of different types of corrective feedback on ESL student writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 14. 191-205.

Edwards, K., Dujardin, A., and Williams, N. (2012). Screencast feedback for essays on a distance learning MA in Professional Communication: An action research project. Journal of Academic Writing, 2(1). 95-126.

Mathisen, P. (2012). Video feedback in higher education – A contribution to improving the quality of written feedback. Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy, 7(2). 97-116.

Biographical Information

From the Fall 2015 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Nathan Hall has worked for Douglas College as an EAP and TESOL instructor and is an advocate for the proper use of educational technology in the language classroom. He is also an avid blogger and Twitter user in the areas of language teaching and educational technology. You can find out more at


This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Hall, N. (2015, Fall). Leveraging technology to provide oral feedback on writing assignments. TEAL News. Retrieved from



BC TEAL Lower Mainland Regional Conference Highlights


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For a BC TEAL member and supporter like me who has often benefited from the PD events organized by the association, the decision to attend this year’s BC TEAL Lower Mainland Regional Conference was an easy one. The theme, “Rethinking Communication: Trends, Tools and Strategies”, also held great promise, since as language professionals we need to keep pace with the ways language itself changes and evolves and stay informed about the realities of our learners and their communicative needs. The Conference took place on Saturday, November 18th, at Columbia College. My choice of presentations to attend was clearly guided by my interest in the impact of technology on the ways we communicate and teach. It was a great learning experience, and I would like to share some of the highlights here.

My morning started on a high note, with Nathan Hall’s “Unscripted: Releasing the Potential of Authentic Listening in ELT”, delivered with his usual contagious enthusiasm. Nathan is a teacher trainer and EAP instructor for Douglas College and a Community Coordinator for Tutela, to mention just a few of the many roles he fulfills. As expected, I left with a list of technology tools and practical suggestions to put to good use in my class. The issue of using authentic listening input with language learners has always been controversial, even though both teachers and linguists will agree that comprehending “natural, real-time language use…is the target of virtually all language learners”(Michael Rost, 2011). When opting for purpose-written materials that are graded and scripted, however, teachers need to remember that these usually simplify syntactic structures and vocabulary, and sometimes use a reduced speech rate(Field, 2008). Authentic material can be used though, even with lower level learners, if the right task is used. Nathan introduced nine types of listening tasks(Vandergrift & Goh, 2012) that teachers can choose from when using authentic material: Restoration, Sorting(use information in a text to sequence, categorize, or rank items such as jumbled up texts and pictures), Comparison, Matching(listen to a number of short texts and match each one with the most appropriate theme given), Jigsaw Task, Narrative Completion, Embellishment, Evaluation, and Reconstruction. As promised, tech tools were also introduced and reviewed. VLC for example, is a free and reliable multimedia player that you might want to install on your computer. If you are tired of ads when watching videos, you have the choice of Are you a MAC user who wants to record a screencast video? All you have to do is open Quick Time. I encourage you to explore all of them here

The keynote speech, “Language and Social Media: Opportunities for the EAL Classroom” was delivered by Dr. Maite Taboada, Professor of Linguistics at Simon Fraser University. Her research areas are discourse analysis and computational linguistics. The speech started with the question, “Is the internet ruining the English language?”, followed by a resounding NO. We were reminded that language is creative and ever-evolving and, also, that understanding and being able to function in different registers is part of language learning and use. For a register approach in the classroom, which is a well established teaching approach, Dr. Taboada recommended a few resources, her favourite one being, “Discourse in English Language Education”, by John Flowerdew. It was explained that the online registers have developed to reflect the realities of a new form of communication brought about by the online medium, and they often display characteristics from both oral and written language. Interestingly enough, some of the language features they display and which people often point to as proof of “ruined language” are nothing new. Take alternative spelling, for example. To our surprise, we learned that OMG was first used by Winston Churchill, in 1917. LOL. In terms of opportunities to include social media in our EAL classrooms, Dr. Taboada believes there are quite a few: social media can be presented as a tool to communicate or can be used to introduce language activities, such as lower-stakes writing, with an emphasis on intelligibility over accuracy. Students can be asked to rewrite the same content in different media (write a blog post, a tweet, a Facebook status update), for example. They could also practice writing or speaking in different registers by writing a wiki entry or producing a podcast. Another very interesting point was made about the fact that social media users seem to interact differently across various social platforms, and people often wonder why we are “so nice on Facebook, so nasty on Twitter, and so ‘braggy’ on Instagram”. An analysis of the interactions taking place on these social media platforms using mainly the concept of register as defined by Systemic Functional Linguistics seems to provide a valid explanation. The last part of the speech was an introduction to Dr. Taboada’s research. We learned how sentiment analysis, which is automatic classification of texts based on subjective content, can help determine if online reviews and comments are positive or negative. One of the goals is to build a tool that can identify constructive comments and filter out toxic ones, especially hate speech. You can watch the recorded keynote speech here:


Anything that has to do with collocations is of great interest to me, so, attending “Using Online Tools to Improve EAL Students’ Written Communication”, delivered by Deogratias Nizonkiza, instructor at Douglas College, was a must. How many times have we heard our students say, “do a mistake” instead of “make a mistake”? Teaching collocations explicitly could be the answer to this type of problem. If I were to choose just one of the definitions shared by Deo, I would probably go with the one from the Oxford Collocations Dictionary for Students of English, “the way words combine in a language to produce natural-sounding speech and writing”. Their importance is widely accepted in EAL contexts, and students trained to focus on collocations instead of individual words have a higher chance to fluently produce native-like utterances that are grammatically correct (Nation & Chung 2009). A number of typical language exercises can be used to raise awareness and help students practice collocation use, such as matching(verbs & nouns), underlining the verb(do/give/make me a favour), or inserting the collocation to complete the sentence. It is also useful to teach students the most common collocation types, such as adjective+noun, verb+noun, verb+adverb, etc. However, if we want the students to develop routines in their work with collocations, especially in the case of students with intermediate or advanced knowledge of English, we should probably teach them how to use corpora and online tools. Here are the tools Deo recommended: COCA; Word and phrase; Ozdic; Lextutor. Some of these tools, but not all, are rather sophisticated and can only be used by students with advanced knowledge of English. Ozdic, however, was rather enjoyed by my LINC 6 students. In the second part of the presentation, Deo shared the research he conducted at McGill University to investigate to what extent ESL students perceived corpora and online tools as useful for improving their academic vocabulary and for editing texts. The results were positive, which will hopefully encourage more teachers to give the deserved attention to collocations.

The decision to attend the conference came with the full reward of learning new things, having a chance to reflect on my own practices, and, not in the least, connecting with other passionate professionals and being energized by it. I am sure others felt the same; one lucky teacher even went home with the big prize, an iPad!


wbBjVGk1Augusta Avram

EAL Educator

ATESL conference and joint BC TEAL / ATESL Educational Technology Summit (ETS) – October 20-21, 2017


Bookmark this page! We will be posting videos from the keynote speakers of the joint ATESL / BCTEAL Educational Technology Summit.

Due to network issues, live streaming for this session will not be available. We will be recording the session and uploading it as soon as we can. Sorry for any inconvenience this may cause.

Friday, October 20th, 7:15-8:15am PDT / 8:15-9:15am MDT – Dr. Bonny Norton, “Identity, Investment, and English Language Learning in an Unequal Digital World.”

Due to restrictions, we are unable to provide live streaming or recording of this session.

Friday, October 20th, 12:15-1:15pm PDT / 1:15-2:15pm MDT – Dr. Darren Lund, “Becoming a Better Advocate for All Learners: Infusing Social Justice in our Practice.”

Saturday, October 21st, 7:15-8:15am PDT / 8:15-9:15am MDT – Dr. Greg Kessler, “Preparing Teachers for the Future: Designing Instruction with Automated and Intelligent Tools.”