Socially Distanced YL Teaching

In September 2020, I started teaching Primary and Secondary learners under social distancing measures. If you are currently teaching online lessons, and are wondering what it’s like to go back to face-to-face teaching with COVID safety measures in place, this is a summary of my experience that you may find interesting.

My context

I currently work for a large cultural institution, in Tunisia. From the start of the academic year, strict social distancing and safety measures were put in place in our teaching centre. This includes:

  • Placement of desks at 1.5m distance in all classrooms
  • A limit to the number of students per class (12)
  • Staggered lesson start times and end times
  • All students (including Primary) must wear masks at all times
  • All staff (including teachers) must wear masks at all times
  • All students and staff must carry hand gel, and wash their hands regularly
  • All handouts must be placed on desks before the lesson (and flashcards or shared resources may not be used)
  • Students must bring all their own materials (pencils, notebook, etc)

What is it like to teach in a socially distanced classroom?


I underestimated how hard it is for learners to understand their teacher while they are wearing a mask. So much of what we do in YL ELT involves facial expressions, and children using visual cues from the teacher’s face to understand what is going on! I’ve found Primary and Secondary learners have struggled to understand instructions, and classroom language. It’s also been harder to build rapport.

I included a photo of me, without a mask, on my IWB flipchart, during the first few lessons. I think this helped learners feel they ‘knew’ me a little more.

Modelling and giving instructions

I tried modelling tasks and language while respecting our 1.5m physical distance rule, and while wearing a mask. This was not successful for me! I’ve now started recording a short video of me doing the task (be it speaking or writing), to act as a model. I have found this so much more effective than modelling it in class. A video model, along with giving oral and visual instructions on the board, has really helped my students confidently attempt the task.


It has taken me some time to get used to monitoring from a distance.

One thing that has helped me is to limit any distracting noise while I’m trying to monitor. For example, instead of having learners working at ‘stations’ doing different activities at their own pace, I’ve tried to keep the whole class in lock step. While this is limiting in some ways, I have found this to be the best way for me to monitor effectively.

I also avoid playing background music during speaking activities.

Pair and group work

This has been a challenge. Not only do I need to keep 1.5m distance from any student, but the students themselves are seated at desks which are 1.5m from each other. And the desks/chairs cannot be moved. Students are also wearing masks so they struggle to hear each other, and read each other’s facial expressions.

With Primary children, in the first lesson we practised projecting our voices. I asked a Teaching Assistant to come to the class to explain in the children’s home language that other children may struggle to hear them when they speak, so they need to raise their voices a little. I felt it important to do this as children (I have 6-7 year olds) may not have had this level of awareness.

I also have Secondary students who are Intermediate level. I have found that it is important to elicit and encourage these learners to use ‘discussion language’ to facilitate their pair or group work. For example, I elicited language such as:

‘Shall I go first?’

‘Can you repeat that, please?’

‘I can’t hear you. Can you speak up, please?’

‘Okay, I think we’ve finished’

I found this really helped them to participate more fully in pair work. Of course, we would always encourage learners to use this kind of language in our lessons, but with masks and 1.5m distance, it is even more important to elicit, drill and focus learners on using this language. I have found this to be vital in empowering learners to participate in pair or group work.

Consider giving Secondary learners a small piece of coloured card to bring to every lesson. During group work, tell pupils that only one person should talk within their group at once. This person should hold up their coloured ‘speaking card’, so everyone is aware. This gives lower-level Secondary students a visual clue as to who is talking- important when you can’t see whose lips are moving! It also prevents any low-level whispering/muttering between friends while others are participating in group work. Whispering or muttering forces others to speak more loudly to be heard, and also makes it more difficult for others in the group to hear clearly, and for the teacher to monitor.

TPR and movement

It has been surprisingly easy to keep learners moving regularly and to include elements of Total Physical Response (TPR). I think having chairs and desks ‘fixed’ means that Primary children instinctively know that that is ‘their place’. I simply ask them to stand up push in their chairs and stand at their desk before we do any movement activities or TPR. This ensures they are still at a 1.5m distance from each other.

As the classroom layout allows for a lot less movement than I’d usually plan for with my Primary groups, I have included what I call ‘brain breaks’ throughout the lesson. In a two-hour lesson, we have a break from the lesson content every 15-20 minutes. We stop what we are doing and do one of the following:

  • Sing and dance along to a GoNoodle video (
  • Do some brain gym activities
  • Watch a short video such as a Simon’s Cat episode (some are less than 2 minutes’ long) or a musical story from Pink Fong (some are around 5 minutes)
  • Stand up and play Simon’s Says (marching, clapping, bending down to touch our toes, etc.)

In terms of TPR, I have found children can stand up to mime different vocabulary were are learning, or they can invent mimes to parts of a song or story we have been looking at together.


Teaching Primary and Secondary students with distancing measures has been challenging so far, but it is getting easier. There are workarounds, such as giving Secondary students ‘speaking cards’ and incorporating movement breaks with Primaries. I am sure I’ll discover more ways to teach effectively in the socially distanced classroom over time. Let me know your experience!

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s