By Sonja Burrows

View this content via video presentation below.

Video Presentation

In this article:
Zoom Etiquette | Norms of Communication | Icebreakers | Breakout Rooms | Listening | Video | Oral Presentations

There is a strong likelihood that many students and faculty not only at your institution but also across the United States and around the world have, by now, experienced some version of classroom instruction using videoconferencing tools such as Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams or others. In fact, the World Economic Forum recently reported that in March of 2020, global downloads of Zoom, Houseparty and Skype increased more than 100 percent with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic across the world.

Regardless of whether or not you have yet used Zoom to conduct a class, you may find it useful to consider this video conferencing tool as a means to implement synchronous instruction across distance as a substitute for traditional live classroom teaching. In this article, I outline several techniques and examples to consider that are specific to the language-teaching context which may help you to prepare for your language instruction at your home institution and beyond.

In the pivot from a traditional face-to-face classroom environment to the online learning environment you create in Zoom, it is important to spend some intentional time at the outset of a new class reviewing some common tips of Zoom etiquette, so as to ensure that your Zoom classroom interactions are as smooth and comfortable as they can be during your synchronous sessions. The following list are recommendations I would suggest you consider implementing in your Zoom classes:

Zoom Etiquette

Tip #1: Microphones

Ask participants in the Zoom class to mute their mics when they are not speaking so as to cut down on unnecessary background noise which may prevent participants from hearing the speaker. Make sure that students know to “un-mute” themselves when they wish to speak or when it’s time to participate. Sometimes, the act of “un-muting” one’s mic can be a signal to the teacher that students have something to say — so be mindful, as the teacher, that when students un-mute themselves, they may be signaling to you their wish to participate, and they may need you to call on them to speak.

Tip #2: Lighting

Take some time to ensure that you, as the teacher, are physically in a space with plenty of lighting. If possible, try to sit in a position where you have light in front of you but not shining directly on your face. Sitting in front of and facing toward a window is ideal, as long as the sun isn’t shining directly on you. Make sure that you are not not “back-lit” or sitting with light behind you, otherwise your face will be in the shadows and your students will not be able to make out your facial expressions. Students should also take the same care to position themselves with appropriate lighting, in the same way that you have done as the teacher. Spend some time at the beginning of your first class talking with students about lighting and helping them to understand the importance of clear and easy viewing of their faces during class.

Tip #3: Cameras

Discuss with your class your expectations about camera use during language classes in Zoom. If you expect that students will always turn their cameras on to show themselves during classes, make sure they are aware of this expectation. At the same time, please also be aware — and make sure students are also aware — that when bandwidth is an issue or there are connection problems, sometimes turning off one’s camera can improve connectivity. Additionally, some students may have privacy concerns regarding camera use during Zoom sessions, so please be sure to address your expectations openly so that together you and your students can come up with a solution that respects everyone’s concerns and priorities. Regardless of your decision around camera use, take the time to make your expectations clear to students at the outset.

Tip #4: Group Discussions

When it comes to “class discussions” in Zoom, again take some time to discuss your expectations and make them clear to students. When it’s time to talk about things as a group in Zoom, are you expecting students to “un-mute” themselves and speak without being overtly called on by you? Or, do you want students to wait for you to call on them? Note that with larger groups in Zoom, it can be challenging for students to feel comfortable jumping in spontaneously without being called on, because it can be harder to see everyone on the screen and the visual cues we rely on in-person are often harder to read on the screen. 

Tip #5: Typing in-language

In order to create an immersive language-learning environment in Zoom, you may wish to ask students to type in-language when they use the “Chat” feature in Zoom. Typing in-language works best when the teacher and students set their computer keyboards to type in the language being taught. Often, the keystrokes we may be accustomed to using in order to type with accents or other special characters do not work well (or at all) in Zoom chat. It is therefore much easier to set your entire keyboard ahead of time to type in the language you are teaching, rather than keeping your keyboard language set to English and attempting occasional keystrokes for special accents or characters. Take some time to figure out and test what works best for you, and to discuss your expectations around keyboard language use with students. Make sure students have adequate support to set their keyboards to a new language if needed.

Norms of Communication

After establishing some guidelines and expectations with your students around Zoom etiquette as described in the list above, make sure you also spend some time co-creating and clearly establishing norms of communication within your Zoom classes. Remember that for many people, studying a language in Zoom will be an entirely new experience and they may at first need some coaching to feel comfortable communicating in this environment. Establishing norms of communication in Zoom is critical so that students know how to participate in ways that are understood, communicative, and effective within your classes.

What do we mean by norms of communication? In the face-to-face classroom environment, these would include things like raising your hand to speak, speaking up without being called on, applauding at appropriate moments, (not) talking to other students during class or while the teacher is talking, etc. These norms, as you can imagine, do not translate exactly to the Zoom environment so it’s important to take a moment to identify for students what the new norms are in Zoom. The following list of possible interactions are worth considering for communication norms in your Zoom classes:

Use of “reactions”

What is a “reaction” in Zoom? Each Zoom user in a session has the option to click on a “reaction” button in the bottom of their Zoom toolbar when you activate this option in your Zoom web portal settings. The “reaction” button currently includes several images that, when clicked, appear on the video screen of the participant who clicked the reaction. 


As described above, the act of muting or unmuting one’s microphone in Zoom can be used as a communicative act. Sometimes, the act of un-muting can signal to the teacher that a student wants to speak. In other cases, the teacher may wish to have students as a group un-mute for a specific action, such as applauding after a presentation or performance. Take some time to establish, and even practice, these expectations with students.

Chat use

Do you want students to use the chat feature during your classes? When they type in chat, do you want their messages to be seen by the whole group, or do you want them to be able to type chat messages to individual students if they so choose? There is no right answer here, and teachers may have varying expectations about chat use during classes. Take some time to think about whether chat will be something you want students to use, and adjust your Zoom settings accordingly. If you want students to use chat only at certain moments, make sure they know this expectation clearly and from the first day so that there isn’t any confusion.

Virtual background

Do you want students to set virtual backgrounds as a communicative device in your class? Are virtual backgrounds a fun context-building cue? Can they be used for humor or to invoke a certain mood? Do you find virtual backgrounds to be distracting? Are you comfortable if students change their virtual backgrounds during your class? Take some time to explore your own answers to these questions, and then discuss your expectations with students at the outset of your class. Bear in mind that for some students, activating a virtual background may be an important way of creating privacy within their home environment.

Language-Learning Activities

Now that you have established some common ground with your students around Zoom etiquette and norms of communication in the Zoom classroom, it’s time to get some language-learning activities underway! What follows is a list of simple example activities that can be used and modified to fit in your unique language-learning context.

Zoom Icebreakers

At the start of your very first class, when students are just getting to know each other, you can use several different techniques to organize Zoom-based icebreakers which can serve the dual purpose of helping people to get to know one another while also familiarizing students with some key Zoom features. You can choose from and modify any or all of the following suggestions to best fit your own learning context in Zoom, or simply read through this list to help spark your own ideas of how to use these features to design icebreaker activities in your lessons.


Try using chat by asking students to type one word in-language in the chat area which describes how they feel at that exact moment (this might work best for advanced language learners) or one word which they already know or like in the language under study (this might work well for novice language learners). Of course you could easily modify this prompt as needed in order to scaffold the task for different language proficiency levels. The idea is to get students typing in the chat area as a way of introducing themselves and of getting comfortable using this feature in Zoom.


Try using the whiteboard by sharing your screen, selecting the whiteboard option, and then asking students to tell the group out loud one short word which describes how they feel. As each student says his or her word, the teacher writes the word on the whiteboard for all to see, until you have written down everyone’s word. Tip: make sure to ask students to provide short words, because it can be hard to write them down quickly and legibly on the whiteboard! Note that the whiteboard works best if you have a digital touch screen and pen — or at least a mouse instead of a touchpad.


Try using reactions for a quick check-in on how people are feeling at the start of your class. Do this by asking the class how they are doing and instructing them to click on “reactions” in their toolbar and then to choose a visual which best describes how they feel. Note that there are additional “reactions” options available in the participant panel that the class may wish to use. This is a great activity for beginners who may not yet feel comfortable using the target language out loud or may lack the vocabulary to produce answers to the question.


Try using polls for icebreaker activities by creating one or several polls ahead of time which ask students a simple yes-no or multiple-choice question, or which ask them an informal conversational query you might normally use at the start of your face-to-face class as a warmup. Create your polls ahead of time in your Zoom web portal settings, so that the polls are ready to launch whenever you want during your lessons. Your poll questions could be as simple as “What is your favorite morning beverage?” (answers: tea, coffee, something else) or “How are you feeling today?” (answers: good, bad, so-so) or “What is the weather like today where you live?” (answers: mostly sunny, mostly rainy, other) etc. When you launch the poll during your Zoom class, it pops up on students’ screens and they click their answer. When everyone has clicked on their answer, you can share the results with the class and ask follow-up questions to stimulate further conversation if you choose.

Using Breakout Rooms to Organize Pair/Group Work

In a face-to-face language-learning classroom, one of our favorite techniques as language teachers is to enable students to work in smaller groups of 2-3 students. We might begin an activity with a brief presentation or modeling of new language to the whole group, then break students up into smaller groups so as to practice the new language together. There are many reasons for this approach, the primary one being that students who are acquiring a new language — especially beginners, but this happens for learners of all levels — may feel inhibited when asked to practice new language structures in front of the whole class. It is a known technique among language teachers, therefore, to organize students into smaller pairs or groups to practice new language production, because this creates what feels to learners like a less risky and a “safer” mechanism for producing new language.

How do you create these safer, smaller groups in Zoom? Try using breakout rooms to divide students up into groups of 2 or 3 to practice the new language you have presented, or to complete a task you have shared. Let’s say you are introducing a new grammatical structure to your class, and you have provided them with a whole-group presentation — perhaps a written dialogue which you read aloud together with another student — which models this new structure. 

Next, you tell students that they will be practicing this structure in a dialogue with a few other students. You then divide the students into groups and send them into individual breakout rooms to practice. You do this by clicking on “breakout rooms” in your Zoom toolbar, typing how many students you would like in each group, and setting a time limit for the breakout room (5 minutes or whatever you think they need). You then start the breakout rooms, and students find themselves in what feels like a new Zoom session with only the members of their smaller group. 

When students have a minute left in their breakout room, Zoom provides them with a warning and a silent countdown to the end of the breakout session, after which they are automatically rejoined with the whole Zoom class.

During the breakout room session, you as the teacher can join-in on different students’ breakout rooms, much like you might circle around the face-to-face classroom and listen in on pair or group work.

Setting Up

As in the face-to-face classroom, it is essential that you make the small group task crystal clear to students before sending them off into Zoom breakout rooms to complete pair or group work. First, ensure students have a chance to ask you any questions about the task at-hand. Second, make sure they fully understand precisely what you expect them to do when they are in their breakout room. If there is a prompt they are to discuss, make sure they know what it is. If there is a dialogue to read, make sure they have it with them before you send them to the breakout room. Also, make sure they understand how much time they have, and what you will expect them to do when they return to the large group (Will you expect them to share what they discussed? Will you ask them to perform a dialogue they created? Will they be expected to show or share something with the whole class? Regardless of the answer, make sure they know ahead of time).

In the face-to-face language classroom, almost every teacher has experienced a scenario in which we carefully set students up as clearly as possible to complete pair or group work, and then send them on their way to complete it, only to have someone raise their hand after the pairwork has begun and ask, “Excuse me, what are we supposed to be doing again?” No matter how carefully or clearly we set up students to complete a task independently, this question inevitably is asked. In the language classroom, this happens for various legitimate reasons, not the least of which is that students may lack the language skills to fully understand the nuances of a task and may need clarification.  

One way to make sure students fully understand the task in the Zoom breakout room scenario is to provide them with a document they can take with them into the breakout room which explains what they are doing. You can share this document with students using the file transfer feature in chat. The file transfer feature allows you to upload a document, image, or file to chat, where your students can then download the same file and keep it on their own computer. You can use this feature to help set up students for breakout room activities by creating a simple document or file which contains, for example, the prompt you expect them to use in their breakout room discussion. You could upload this document to chat, ask students to click on it and then use it when they start their breakout room discussion.

An alternative to the “file transfer” option is creating an editable Google doc which students can use during breakout sessions. You can paste the link to this doc in chat so that students can open the doc before the breakout session begins. If desired you can generate a Google doc link that, when clicked by students, automatically creates a copy so that each breakout room group would have their own doc to work on. Instructions for how to set this up can be found here.

Sharing Out

Now that you have successfully set up students to complete pair work in Zoom breakout rooms, sent them on their way, and ensured they carried out the task in their breakout rooms, it’s time to think about what happens next. When the breakout room session ends, and students rejoin the whole group, you might consider having students “share out” the results of their breakout room task with the whole class. There are many different ways you might organize this step, but one way might be to have one member of each group or pair share his or her screen and show the class a document where the group took notes or answered a question. You may have also asked them to create a visual during their breakout room session, and this could be a moment when that is shared with the whole class. To share his or her screen, your student would click on “Share screen” in his or her Zoom toolbar so that everyone in the session can view the item on the student’s screen.

Listening Activities in Zoom

Many language teachers make use of “background music” at various strategic moments in their face-to-face language lessons. Perhaps the music is played to help set a certain “mood” during discussions, or for humor, or to serve as a non-verbal cue for students to change what they are doing or the task they are completing. Likewise, many face-to-face language classrooms make use of listening activities — whether you are using pop music with printed lyrics to study, or recorded dialogues, or something else — to orchestrate listening practice. All of these uses can be replicated in Zoom language classes.

To organize listening activities of pre-recorded sound files in Zoom, make sure you turn on share computer sounds in your screenshare settings before your class begins. This enables students in your Zoom session to hear the sounds that your computer is playing, whether they are music, or recorded dialogue, or the sounds from a video, or any other sound file you wish to have students hear during class. 

To turn on this key setting, before your class begins in your Zoom app click the down arrow next to “Share” (a big blue button) and check the box next to “Share Computer Sounds”. If for any reason this fails to work properly when you are teaching your Zoom class, you can always turn this feature on during your class by clicking on “Share Screen” in your Zoom toolbar and then selecting “Advanced” and choosing “Music or Computer Sounds Only” to share computer sounds.

Note: sometimes you may not want to share your computer sounds during a Zoom class. For example, if you have an email program on your computer which makes an audible sound when new emails are received (a beep or ding or anything else), those auto-alert sounds will also automatically be shared with your students during your class, which may be distracting!

Showing Videos in Zoom

Many language teachers in the face-to-face classroom show short in-language videos of varying sorts as part of classroom instruction. This can be accomplished in Zoom as well, though you should be aware that showing videos across Zoom takes considerably more bandwidth and may slow down your connection during class. Therefore, it’s good to have a back-up plan up your sleeve in case your connection will not enable a smooth viewing of video during your Zoom class.

For longer videos, such as full-length films or similar, teachers should request that students view prior to the Zoom class session instead of during class. In this case, teachers need to fill out an online form to make requests of the library to acquire streaming versions of films and videos. Note that you will need to enter your Middlebury credentials in order to fill out this form.

To show a short video during your Zoom language class, first you must be sure that your video is cued up and ready to show on your own computer. This might mean that you have a link opened with the video paused and ready to play, or that you have a video file on your computer open and ready to go. It is important to have your video ready ahead of time so as to avoid forcing students to wait and watch while you hunt around for your video on your desktop or search YouTube for the video you intend to show.

When it’s time to watch the video with the class, you will share your screen and play the video so that students can watch the video from your computer. Click “Share Screen” in the Zoom toolbar, and play your video. Make sure you have checked the box that says “share computer sounds” before you share your screen, otherwise students will not be able to hear the audio that goes along with the video. To increase the quality of the video for students, we also recommend that you select “Optimize Screen Share for Video Clip” in the popup window. When the video is done, make sure to click “Stop share” so that students can return to the regular Zoom interface and stop seeing your computer screen.

As with the in-person language classroom, it’s important not to over-use videos in the Zoom language classroom. Short, strategic use of videos is essential — not only to benefit language-learning but also so as not to overload the bandwidth requirements of your Zoom session.

If your bandwidth does not permit the video to be successfully shown during your Zoom class, make sure you have a backup plan. The plan could be as simple as sharing the video link in chat and asking students to watch the video on their own computers rather than through your screen share. 

Using Captioning for “Type-What-You-Hear” Activities

To organize activities in Zoom that provide students with both listening and writing practice, try using captioning. The captioning setting in Zoom can be enabled in the Zoom web portal settings, and allows Zoom participants (when assigned) to type captions while someone is speaking which then appear on the screen as captions.

As the Zoom host, you can assign a student to type captions at any point during your class, which provides that student with a chance to type in-language while also giving that student the challenge of listening and writing at the same time. This activity could easily be scaffolded for varying levels of language proficiency so as not to overwhelm the novice-level learner or appropriately challenge the higher-level learner. Students can also practice this “type what you hear” activity in breakout rooms or in smaller groups as assigned by the teacher.

Using Zoom for Oral Presentations

Oftentimes in language classrooms, oral presentations are assigned to students as larger summative tasks to assess language use and proficiency. Whether you choose to assign these to be delivered live or recorded ahead of time and shared, Zoom can be a helpful tool to deliver oral presentations in language classes.

Pre-recorded Presentations

You may choose to have students video record their presentations at home ahead of time, and share them with the group after they are recorded. While it’s possible for students to use Zoom to record presentations that will be shared later, we strongly suggest using Panopto for that task, which is Middlebury’s video recording and storage platform. Find out more about using Panopto to record videos.

Live Presentations

It is also possible to use Zoom for students to deliver live oral presentations to the class. If you choose this approach, you would conduct the Zoom class in the same way you normally would by starting a meeting and having all students join. When it is time for a student to deliver his or her oral presentation, that student would simply un-mute his or her microphone and deliver the presentation live. If slides are to be shared as part of the presentation, that student would click on “share screen” in his or her Zoom toolbar so that you and the other students can see the slides while the student is talking. You may choose to record the live presentation, but it is advisable that you notify everyone in the class beforehand that you will be recording presentations, since some students may prefer not to be recorded.

Using Zoom to Conduct Oral Exams

When it’s time to conduct oral exams in your language class, Zoom can easily serve as your platform for hosting exams. You can organize your oral exams in the same manner you would organize them in the face-to-face classroom environment, whether that means asking students to schedule one-on-one meetings with you in Zoom, or whether you have groups of 2 or 3 students meet with you in Zoom, or other groupings of students as you design. 

When students meet with you for exams, you can conduct the exams in the same manner you would in the face-to-face classroom setting, with the added bonus of the option of recording the exam on Zoom in case you wish to review it later for more careful assessment of language produced by students. If you choose to record oral exams in Zoom, make sure you notify students of this ahead of time and consider how or whether it will affect their performance in the exam.

This has been a long article packed with much information on teaching language in Zoom, and we hope some of these tips will prove helpful as you prepare to teach. There is no need to master all (or even any) of these techniques now, and experimentation is the name of the game in terms of deciding which features you choose to use in your learning environment. Above all else, if you can, practice using Zoom several times (not alone, but with a group of patient and humble people). Practice the tools and techniques you would like to try, so that they become familiar to you. If you are unable to practice using Zoom or to familiarize yourself, there is nothing wrong with running your first class or two with students as “practice classes” for everyone; remember, using Zoom in this way will likely take some adjustment not only by you, but also by your students — they may appreciate a chance to practice being language students in Zoom just as much as you appreciate a chance to practice being their teacher.


Back to Writing