• Anita Demitroff

Going on-line with 3- to 9-year-olds (is here to stay)

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

Going on-line with young learners of English during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a surprisingly fruitful experience for this teacher. She thinks it offers possibilities for the future and that it is more than simply a stop-gap. In particular, she feels that on-line classes can boost the competences and creativity of all three- to ten-year-olds.

On-line and hands-on?

I write this with an eye to the future and not just as a memoir of a certain, crucial moment. Teaching on-line during confinement made me aware of the possibilities technology can offer. For example, one of my bones of contention with the curriculum is that it is paper-based and not hands-on enough. There is little competency building in Science and Art due to limited time and resources and, sadly, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, I fear hygiene requirements will mean everything is hands-off.

Eager for contact

Spain went into complete confinement over the course of 2020; we were to move on-line. It happened from one day to the next. The provision included asynchronous content, such as videos and worksheets in Google Classroom, and real-time classes through Zoom. As a teacher, I went through the sharpest learning curve I have ever experienced in my 30+ years in the classroom. And in the midst of crisis and heartache, there were moments of sheer joy as we entered the homes of confined children eager for contact.

Resilience and confidence flourished

On-line, in our houses, though, we could do simple experiments, attempt physical challenges like tossing a soft toy in the air and clapping; we could play musical instruments, even if they were kitchen pots and wooden spoons; we could create art with recycled material; we could even learn how to do household chores like cooking or hanging and folding freshly washed clothes.

We had no worksheets: we consolidated our paper-based tasks by folding, tearing and cutting scrap paper. Drawing played a key role. When our classmates were unable to pick something up straightaway, we encouraged them to keep trying and then applauded them when they got it right. Resilience and confidence flourished, although feedback needed to be constant.

My pedagogic instincts said less would be more

This back-to-basics approach informed most of my work, out of choice, rather than out of necessity. My colleagues working with older students might click on videos or PowerPoint presentations and delve into escape rooms. With the under-tens, my pedagogic instincts said less would be more. There was already a barrier with the screen; we didn’t want to be further out of reach with a double tab. Songs were performed with our voices or our own musical accompaniment and movement. Stories were read aloud, not played as videos, so that the challenge was to find alternative presentation techniques: more exaggerated voices or strategic positioning of one’s super-expressive face under or above the book. We relied on our sense of sight and hearing, although there was touch too, through the objects within reach.

Creativity flourished on both sides of the screen. Children quickly became aware of how they could play with perspective. Guessing games involved putting objects right in front of the camera ... We spoke about our favourite objects and hobbies as if our lives depended on it.

And there lay the paradox.

The screen served as a boundary, but spatial confines were being overcome with movement and imagination. The typical "walking-walking", "hop-hop-hop" rhyme used as a warmer in the young learner classroom was extended into a climbing up and sliding down the rainbow and even climbing up a mountain and then running and swimming to avoid a bear behind us. We fell out of view and then popped back in. And all of this before we started to explore the vast expanse of space in our living-rooms.

What’s more, slipping out of view to get something meant personalisation was easier. For example, on Mother’s Day, we left the camera to find a picture of our mothers and of us as babies.

The role of parents and carers is crucial

Shy children did suffer at the shock of such direct contact; however, when parents or carers gave them support, they came round and even acquired a sense of achievement for staying on-line.

The other advantage of the hands-on approach was that learners had something to hide behind: an instrument or the materials for an experiment. Thus, they felt less exposed on screen.

What also became crystal clear was that the role of parents and carers was crucial, as it didn’t take long for children to work out that on the other side of a screen, the teacher’s authority was limited. In the very young learner classrooms, parents or carers had to learn how to be present but not intrusive; although there was always a sense of community when we baked or did an experiment. Physical challenges were popular with everyone. One involved bending your arm back with a coin resting on your elbow and then extending your forearm out to catch the coin mid-air. This was oddly addictive.

Texture was essential

Real-time, on-line classes were exhausting. If my classes were normally lively, they tended to implode on-line. I had to be careful not to overtax physical energy on both sides and texture was essential to any class: quiet moments and thoughtful periods were needed to balance out more boisterous ones. Moreover, learner training was crucial, especially if a child was accustomed to a more traditional set-up.

There were boundaries and dialogue with families was a must. Happily, parents and carers could get a glimpse into our classrooms and see what we were getting up to in a more playful environment and were shocked by the intensity of the sessions and the amount of participation that took place.

A magical new world

In light of all this, hopefully more schools will plan at-home sessions online so that we can explore the magical new world they offer.

Perhaps these sessions could tie in with after school activities or special weekend sessions, or boost active grandparenting programmes so that the human capital of learners’ older relatives can be shared. Certainly, before the pandemic, I never would have thought this teacher (old enough to be a granny herself) would be espousing technology!


By Ana Demitroff

Ana has been in the classroom longer than she cares to admit, but she still gets a kick from the experience and continues to learn from her colleagues and students at the You First Language Centre.