(referenced to Contemporary Topics, 4th edition, Pearson

A key to creating and maintaining engaging online classes is to structure in “social learning” as often as possible.  Set a speaking-listening-interaction task, establish the rules and procedures (such as “Use English only”, “Try to give long turns – 2 or more sentences”, “Fill in the table with key words”), and provide ample time for students to work in break out groups.

Here’s an example from a unit in Contemporary Topics on product design.  

One idea of “social learning” is that students have a chance to activate and share their ideas before there is any new input. This is an important part of “pushed output”, but it is also just an inviting way to get students involved in the class. 


Speaking Task  1            Connect to the Topic  

10 minutes/breakout group

Activate your Ideas.

Work with a partner.  Ask these questions. Write your partners’ answers. 


, Speaking tasks for online classes, Lateral Communications

Interaction Tip:

Ask clarification questions:  What do you mean?  / I’m not familiar with that – what is it? 

Interaction Tip:

Ask expansion questions: Can you tell me more?  / I’d like to know more about that. What else can you tell me? 

Notes:• Questions proceed from personal to abstract.  They are phrased to act as prompts for open-ended personal conversation about the unit topic. The last item prompts students to ask their own question. • Interaction Tips remind students to probe each other for more information, not just answer the questions briefly and fill in the table. • Rotate a set of 8-10 core Interaction Tips so that students are reminded of the tips periodically.  


A related key idea about “social learning” is we try to gauge students’ interest and curiosity before we start to “test comprehension.”  Too often, we “test” too soon.  Students’ affective responses —  what they find interesting or unusual and what they are confused about —  gets overlooked and teachers proceed quickly to analyzing and checking comprehension.   

Here’s an example activity from Contemporary Topics, done after students have listened to/watched the lecture the first time —  and before they are asked to answer comprehension questions. 

Speaking Task 2  Check your understanding

10 minutes/break out group

Respond  to the ideas in the lecture.    

Work with a partner.  Ask these questions.  Write notes for the answers. 

, Speaking tasks for online classes, Lateral Communications


• The instructional concept here  is “layering understanding” vs. “testing understanding”.  For an online class, we need to add some opportunity for students to discuss the meaning before we expect them to understand everything and before we begin checking comprehension.  This inserted activity will help make the online class more interactive and less “receptive”. It also will prevent demotivation — Students can get tired of the content if they are asked too many comprehension questions.  


These are just two examples of core speaking activities that you can use with content-based classes, based on lectures in Contemporary Topics, or similar types of input.  If you can identify just two or three “core speaking activities” that work well with any content, I recommend that you use the same activities repeatedly.  You will save time in not having to explain new formats, and the students can “dive right in” and start interacting in their break out groups.  

By incorporating speaking tasks like these in online interactive classes, students can make a shift to more active learning.  They begin to take responsibility for making the class a learning experience, one that depends on their contributions.  As students begin to feel that they are contributing to the class, and that the teacher and their fellow students appreciate their activity, they begin to shift toward “social learning” and away from passive learning and minimal participation.  



©2020 Michael Rost

About The Author

, Speaking tasks for online classes, Lateral Communications
Michael Rost, principal author of Pearson English Interactive, has been active in the areas of language teaching, learning technology and language acquisition research for over 25 years. His interest in bilingualism and language education began in the Peace Corps in West Africa and was fuelled during his 10 years as an educator in Japan and extensive touring as a lecturer in East Asia and Latin America. Formerly on the faculty of the TESOL programs at Temple University and the University of California, Berkeley, Michael now works as an independent researcher, author, and speaker based in San Francisco.