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The Challenges of Teaching Behind a Mask (and Some Possible Solutions)

The Challenges of Teaching Behind a Mask (and Some Possible Solutions) | ITTT | TEFL Blog

The pandemic has caused many changes in our daily lives. While I’m lucky to still have the opportunity to teach ESL in person, doing so with face masks has proved to be slightly more challenging.

Face masks. A year ago, the thought of society operating with face masks seemed like some sort of ominous movie plot. Apocalyptic almost. Yet now they are on the same level as our phone or wallet, something we can’t leave the house without. Depending on where in the world you live, you may have never worn a mask until this pandemic. Unless you were in a medical setting, wearing a mask while going about your daily tasks would have probably attracted stares and raised some eyebrows.

However, this was not the case in Japan. Masks have always been a sort of trademark of Japan and some other Asian countries. In Japan, masks were mainly worn as a form of courtesy by someone with a cold and as a preventative measure during flu season. As an English teacher in a public elementary and junior high school, I was asked to wear a mask during the thick of flu season, as were the other staff and students.

Thus, masks were not a new phenomenon for Japanese society, and it wasn’t uncommon for students to wear them in the classroom. This made the shift to everyday mask-wearing relatively easy. Since both my students and I had worn masks in the classroom before, I didn’t expect much to change. However, teaching behind a mask presented some new challenges.

Challenge #1 - Delayed Comprehension

The first difference I encountered with masked teaching was a delayed and diminished comprehension ability, on both the students’ side and my own. Lip reading makes up a large part of comprehension when learning a new language.

It’s often inadvertent and subtle, and we don’t recognize that we are taking visual cues from someone’s mouth when speaking with them until we lose that ability. This is one reason why speaking on the phone can be challenging when learning a new language; we no longer have mouths to look at and lips to read.

Not only did my students struggle to understand me behind a mask, but I also had trouble understanding their English. Another factor adding to this is that masks often make people sound muffled. In my experience, the best way to minimize this comprehension issue is by having everyone wear a face shield or clear mask.

Although ideal, this isn’t always realistic. The other more obvious solution is to speak slowly, clearly, and loudly. Be sure to enunciate each word and project your voice, even if it feels unnatural. Set the tone for speaking so you can be easily understood, and your students will follow your lead. Don’t hesitate to have them continuously repeat themselves, and encourage them to speak up when they are too quiet.

Challenge #2 - Mis-Pronunciation

The next obstacle that I have encountered through masked teaching is pronunciation issues. Before masks, I was able to notice when students were mispronouncing words by watching their mouths.

When the shape of their mouths didn’t match the shape it should be making for a certain sound, I knew to pull them aside to make sure their pronunciation was correct. This was especially useful in larger classes where there was not even time to individually check each student’s pronunciation. It was easy to pick out trends in pronunciation mistakes among my students and know what to focus the class on.

With masks, I lost this ability. Additionally, teaching new sounds and pronouncing vocabulary became more difficult. Without being able to see my mouth, my students struggled to produce the right sounds. As with the comprehension issue, wearing a clear mask or face shield can help minimize this.

Other effective solutions for me have been to draw mouth diagrams on the board and use a puppet. If you have a puppet with a mouth and tongue (or make your own!), you can show the student’s what the mouth should look like for certain sounds. You can also check a student's understanding by having them shape the puppet’s mouth to match certain sounds.

On top of this, continuous drilling and phonics practice can be very beneficial for pronunciation.

Challenge #3 - Lack of Emotional Cues

One more issue I have observed from teaching ESL with face masks is the decreased ability to recognize and understand emotional cues.

Emotions are expressed not just through words but also by body language, especially facial expressions. It becomes significantly more difficult to detect facial expressions when half of your face is covered, especially in a foreign language and culture.

After noticing this, I have done my best to verbalize and explain the emotional weight and innuendos that words, tone, and phrases carry. I have also tried to be expressive through other forms of body language to aid in their understanding.

These challenges may seem small and inconsequential, but if gone unrecognized may lead to incorrect pronunciation, a lack of proper understanding and subsequent disinterest or discouragement in ESL learning.

Are you ready to teach English as a foreign language?

By being conscientious of the challenges that come with teaching English behind a mask, you can help diminish frustration on both the teaching and learning end, and create a more positive English learning environment.

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