Strategies for Classroom Interaction in Remote Face-to-Face Classes

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By Rachel Riggs, Family Literacy Instructor, Frederick Community College

When I moved all of my classes online in the wake of COVID-19, I found that I missed classroom interaction the most. I missed seeing my students get to know each other, share their personalities, and make personal connections to the material. I teach all levels, but specifically felt the impact in the mixed-level beginning ESL class – who really benefit from lots of interaction.

With some trial and error, I arrived at three strategies that I’ve found increase interaction and engagement in my classes: handswers, role play, and realia. The ideas that follow are adaptable to all levels and a wide variety of learning objectives. They got my students engaged and re-invigorated my approach to distance learning. I hope they do the same for you!


Handswers is exactly what it sounds like, answering with your hands (& yes, I made up this word!). This strategy revealed itself as I saw tension between evaluating students’ understanding of the material presented in a virtual face-to-face class and the need to keep people muted. Early in our online sessions, a student texted me to tell me she had a headache because of the noise during our (three hour) class. Not only is background noise headache-inducing but it is enormously distracting. You must make use of and master the mute! But, having your whole class muted doesn’t mean that they can’t respond and stay engaged – especially if you rely on concept/comprehension checking questions (CCQs)

Sure, I could have unmuted students one at a time, but in a class with over ten people, that was too time consuming. I also had tried using the chat box, as a way for students to respond, but with most students on their mobile phones, that option seemed unnecessarily tedious. I figured out that I could use multiple choice CCQs, students’ hands, and Gallery Mode in Zoom to quickly and effectively check comprehension.  

Instead of asking CCQs like, “Does that make sense?” or “Do you guys understand?”, check student comprehension “Handswers”. Here’s how it works: include CCQs in your presentation, but offer multiple choice options for student response; ask students to display their answers by holding up the correct number of fingers. As students lift up their “handswers” to the camera, you will be able to evaluate if they need to develop their understanding further or it’s a good time to move. 

Check out this Padlet for examples of how I use Handswers.

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Tips on Using Handswers

  1. Differentiate: use a timer or countdown to get all students to respond at the same time 
  2. “Gallery Mode” (Zoom): use this display option on your video conferencing platform to modify your view so that you can see all your students 

Role Play 

Using role play is nothing new for the language learning in classroom instruction. It works in videoconference classrooms, too. However, I have noticed (and you probably have, too) that setting up a role play in a remote face-to-face class requires more scaffolding than in a face-to-face classroom. There is something about the energy of physically being with people that tends to spark more creativity in an interactive and imaginative activity like role playing. When you are sitting in your home looking at a computer screen, you may not feel as comfortable pretending to be a store clerk, business owner, or journalist. As facilitators of learning, it is our job to transform computer screens into safe, engaging spaces that activate students’ creativity. It’s no small task, but here are some ways you can enhance role play activities in your video conference classroom. 

Rich context is key! 

When preparing your students for a role-play, instead of simply providing them with written instructions, consider using imagery and storytelling.  Begin the activity by activating background knowledge with a picture. For example, if the role-play topic is ordering at a restaurant, show a picture of a family ordering food from a waiter and ask the students to describe the image.  

Enrich the context further by including a background story. You can write a short paragraph about the picture or show a video of people ordering food at a restaurant. Encourage students to share about their own experiences ordering food. This rich contextualization removes students from their homes and computer screens and transports them to an imaginary situation where they can build confidence with the target language in preparation for authentic language use in the future. Once students have seen a picture, heard a story, and discussed their own experience, they’re ready to see you model the role-play.

Model the role play to set the tone. 

For some people, role plays can feel somewhat silly and even embarrassing. Set the tone by modeling the role play yourself (maybe with your most outgoing student). When I do this, I even change my voice and exaggerate my gestures. For example, I did a role play with my Family Literacy class once in which I was pretending to be a teenager. I rolled my eyes, whined, and threw my head back. My students laughed at me, felt a little more relaxed, and then upped the ante with their own expressive dramatizations. Modeling the role play will help students let their guard down and, once they have, the language lesson transforms into a rich and dynamic learning experience.

Click here to view my Padlet with more tips for conducting role plays online. 

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Some strategies I had relied on in my teaching,  like CCQs and role play, became more difficult and tedious when classes were forced online. Other teaching tools actually became more efficient and useful. The use of real objects (realia) in teaching makes lessons more engaging and improves retention. What better time to use realia than when you and your students are at home surrounded by personal belongings? 

The belongings in our home typically fall into two categories: our belongings are either useful or meaningful. For example, a vacuum is something that people use regularly whereas a family photo has personal significance. Thus, by capitalizing on students’ ability to access their own belongings during a lesson, we can connect new language with items that they either use regularly or care about deeply. In both cases, these connections not only make the target language more salient but their continued exposure to the vacuum or family photo will cause them to regularly recall the concepts they learned in class. Therefore, utilizing realia in distance learning might be more effective and engaging than in a face to face classroom. 

Whether they are simple household items or meaningful ones, we can leverage students’ access to these realia using a wide variety of activities. Imagine how powerful it would be if every time your student walked to their kitchen or living room, they remembered something from your lesson! Here are some ideas for incorporating realia into your online lessons: 

Speaking Practice: Show & Tell 

Have students describe a special family photo, cultural relic, or favorite kitchen tool in order to practice their speaking skills. For example, in my beginner class I incorporated realia into a lesson on family members and using present continuous by having students retrieve family photos from around their house and describe who is in the photo and what they are doing. This activity could be done during class time or students can record video journals in which they present and describe their special object(s) as part of a project or homework assignment. 

Vocabulary Game 

Check students vocabulary knowledge by displaying a word on the screen and having them race to retrieve that object. For higher levels, you could ask them to grab an object and use it to make a sentence with the target vocabulary. For example, for the word “confident” a student might retrieve their favorite shirt and say, “This shirt makes me feel confident.” 

 Click here to view my Padlet with activity ideas for how to use realia. 

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Let’s Share!

Do you have more ideas for how to increase classroom interaction in distance learning? Share them on Twitter using #DLSinteract (Distance Learning Student Interaction). 

Tag me, @RachelTESOL and @WorldEdUS in your responses! 


13 Comments. Leave new

  • Wow! How incredibly creative! I found your “handswers” particularly imaginative. The thoughtfulness with which you approach your students and your desire to see them succeed are evident. Thanks for sharing with us!

  • Rebecca Boggs
    August 7, 2020 2:44 pm

    Great ideas, they sound fun! Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Rebecca! I had a lot of fun doing these with my students and I hope it has been helpful to other teachers.

  • Michelle Paul
    August 8, 2020 9:43 am

    Excellent and practical information. Although I teach nurses many of these ideas easily apply to my setting. I plan on sharing this link with my colleagues in my registered nursing program this week. Thank you!

    • Thank you, Michelle! I hope your nursing instructors find these ideas to be useful and kudos to you for seeking out new ways to engage your students!

  • Angela Sutsakhan
    August 19, 2020 10:11 am

    Thanks for these ideas! Very creative and helpful! I have used “handswers” before, but now have a creative way to express this.

    • Victoria Neff
      August 20, 2020 12:14 pm

      Great to hear Angela!

    • That’s great, Angela! I’ve heard from a lot of teachers that they have been using “Handswers”. Once I came up with the name, I had a lot of fun adding the play on words to my instructions. Rather than “we’re playing Handswers!” I would display just the word “Handswers” and try to elicit the two words from students and have them guess what they were going to do. A fun little language game before the activity! 🙂

  • I love it when research-based methods feel intuitive because it makes it easy to incorporate those methods into our instructional practices. The importance of developing a response protocol is described on the Colorin Colorado website.

    Handswers remind me of the works of well-known researchers in the field of education. For example, non-linguistic representations were introduced as an instructional strategy by Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (2001). Similarly, Total Physical Response (TPR) is a Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) strategy developed by Echevarria, Vogt, and Short, (2008).

    Thank you for showing how these strategies are useful in a virtual format. Here are some additional resources and references that may be helpful.

    Non-linguistic representations

    TPR- Hand Signals Examples:

    Colorin Colorado website:

    Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP model.

    Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Ascd.

    Marzano, R. J. (2009). Setting the record straight on “high-yield” strategies. Phi Delta Kappan, 91(1), 30-37.

    • Victoria Neff
      August 20, 2020 12:15 pm

      Thanks for sharing these awesome resources Jennifer!

    • Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful research, Jennifer!

    • Hi Jennifer, thanks for including these resources. I was also going to mention that “handswers” ignores the work/labor/communication methods deaf and signing communities have done to communicate. You can have literally just sign yes or no via ASL and use it as a teaching moment about other communities (if you don’t have anyone connected in your class).


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