Keeping order, excitement, and engagement in any class is a tricky matter, but this is amplified all the more when you get inside a virtual classroom. Gone are the bodily cues, the dramatic actions requiring plenty of space, and the engagement that comes of in-life interaction.
TPR (Total Physical Response) is a great way to keep especially the younger kids focused and under control, but there’s only so much you can achieve with repetitive actions over the course of thirty or more minutes. To keep students really under your teaching spell, you will most probably need to employ a number of tactics, games and incentives that get those growing minds whirring and (when appropriate) the competitive spirit in action.
Here are a few tried and tested reward systems used in my own classes:
If your company’s platform allows screen-sharing, then a virtual reward system is (in my experience) far better than a physical in-hand one, and will allow you a range of options in terms of coming up with something engaging and creative (and usually you won’t need to spend a penny/cent, which is especially good if you’re just starting out and just want to test the waters in terms of what works for you and your students). Below are some options you can use, or take inspiration from to create something more applicable to your own classes.
Beginner: Ice-cream or Burger Rewards on Powerpoint or Word
You can download a copy of this PowerPoint example here.
These simple but effective reward systems are great for leveling up or down, depending on your student’s grade. For the younger, less advanced students you can allocate them an ice-cream cone and ask them to pick a flavor based on color - “would you like the pink, brown, yellow or green ice-cream?” For slightly higher levels, get them engaged in the specific flavors and if possible then open a discussion on what other foods they like and enjoy, and what places they go to eat these foods.
The burger reward system works well for this age group too; asking them what parts of the burger they can see that they know, and getting into a discussion about where they can find their favorite burger.
I find that this level of students are really motivated and interested in food (especially the naughty kind!) and eliciting the full sentence ‘I have 2/3/4 ice-creams/I have a big/small burger’’ is a great way to expand vocabulary and show them how well they’ve done in the lesson. I have a physical set of toy burgers and ice-creams (from Amazon and Poundland) that are used to demonstrate that we are now, in fact, eating our rewards for putting in all that effort - this goes down very well with the younger students, and is the perfect way to end a lesson on a high.
You can download a copy of this PowerPoint example here.
You can create virtual reward systems like this either in Powerpoint or in Word. If in the latter, you will need to reformat the pieces of the activity from ‘In Line with Text’ to any other format. To do this, you can go to Layout, select the Wrap Text button and change, or right-click the image you want to move around the page freely, and edit under the same heading in that drop-down list.
Intermediate and Advanced: Online Games and Activities:
Online games and activities can work well here; they’re a little more interactive, and the flashiness can sometimes offset some of the teenage reluctance to engage. ABCya! is a great site where you can do activities like Create a Car, or even build a personalized crossword if you want something a little more vocabulary enhancing for the lesson. The activities are leveled, so you can use for younger kids too, but something more simple that doesn’t need any explanation at all is usually best for those students.
For the students who know it all, and are way too advanced to merely regurgitate vocabulary and build cars/faces, etc, then something working on idioms will usually get them thinking. You will need a little more time with Hold the Phone but it employs most teenagers’ love of messaging apps with deciphering (probably) unknown idioms. The activity will ask them to think about the words used, match with the emojis provided, and then guess the meaning, which will hopefully get them engaged and learning new phrases and expressions in the process.
For many companies, however, a teacher will not have the option to screen-share and a little ingenuity is required to use the limited space around the body and head to bring your game or activity to life for the students. Much like the virtual reward systems, the physical activities start off simple for the younger, less advanced students and become more complex as the levels progress.
Beginners: Keeping it Simple: Star Stickers or Drawings
Are you a perfectionist who likes to make things elaborate and specific and complicated? If so I relate and found this a real disadvantage when coming to design physical reward systems. With only a small space around your upper body to play with when working with this system, a really complex set of rewards can be daunting and overwhelming - especially for younger students.
Enter the humble whiteboard and wipeable marker. Divide your board into two, label each side with the names and proceed to pen stars when a correct answer is given. The simplicity helps to minimize time spent negotiating the reward system, and you’re left with enough time to actually teach (which should, of course, be the main objective).
If you want to keep it simple but take it up a notch, employ a printer, laminator, a whiteboard and some blu-tac for a more advanced version. If you’d like to make it more competitive, print and laminate a simple ladder game and move your stars up towards an end-point for each correct answer. Prepare to watch your placid students become uber-competitive however; even the younger kids can become surprisingly involved!
Intermediate: Melissa & Doug stickers
For the slightly more advanced (and usually more mature) students, the simple star system might not engage enough. For these cases, I opt for the wonderful Melissa and Doug sticker books which are almost as simplistic but are better suited to eliciting vocabulary and discussion than the stars mentioned above. A personal favorite, the Make-a-Meal sticker book is a fantastic resource to teach food vocabulary, begin a discussion on favorite meals, and (when each student is given their own plate to build during the lesson), a great way to get the competitive juices flowing.
Some others which go down well are the Dress-Up packs for younger female students; building a princess outfit and presenting/describing their finished doll is a really lovely, vocabulary-enhancing way to end a lesson. The Crazy Characters Face Page Pack is preferable for boys (unless your boys happen to like princesses); building a pirate face, naming the parts and pretending to be the characters (or describing what they’re like if they’re a little more developed) is perfect for something more fun, and engaging to keep those active minds focused on the lesson at hand.
Of course, if you’re teaching multiple lessons then the stickers can become worn. A laminator is an excellent purchase for any online teacher, and they needn’t be expensive. I got mine for £5 on Facebook Marketplace; keep an eye out there and on Gumtree to get a vastly reduced one, and save yourself a tonne of money on replacing tired-out sticker books in the process.
Advanced: Monetary Rewards
Reward systems for advanced students are a little more complicated; once they reach a certain age, some kids lose interest in external reward systems, and well-timed and appropriate praise for their language skills should, in theory, be enough. In reality, however, some of these children have just been released from school, or it’s way past their bed-time and they need something to keep them amped up for the lesson.
I find that for this level, (fake) monetary rewards can do the job well with the right kinds of students. If in the UK, Poundland and Amazon do a really good notes and coins set, elsewhere (such as the US) your local dollar store or Target may well stock something similar. At this age group/level, reserve the rewards for when a really great answer is given; false praise can lead to the student not taking the reward system seriously, and deciding it’s too immature to engage in. Explain that at the end of the lesson, the richest person wins the lesson - for your really advanced students, this can lead to a discussion about making money, entrepreneurship, and the kinds of jobs/careers they want to have when they’re older.
Do you have a system of your own? We'd love to hear about it in the comments.