Bridging the communication gap in the classroom with social distancing

Social distancing in the classroom

Sara Davila is a Learning and Language Acquisition Expert. She is a teacher, materials writer, researcher, and teacher trainer who has worked in a variety of contexts in the education field. In this series of articles, Sara talks about Lost Learning – that is, the classroom and teaching time students have lost during the pandemic – and the opportunities we have now. In today’s blog Sara focuses on getting back to school and bridging the communication gap with social distancing in mind. 

All the Learning Objectives (LOs) used in the activities below are taken from the Global Scale of English (GSE). Discover more with the GSE Teacher Toolkit.

In many parts of the world the back to school season is fast approaching. With it comes a variety of COVID-19-related social-distancing changes designed to help keep our educators and learners safe in a face-to face learning environment.

As we prepare to teach our students in such unusual conditions, more than a few obstacles will emerge. Educators will be forced to think carefully about how to make sure their classroom communication is both effective and safe. 

I want to share two ways to keep the conversation going. They maintain social distancing and use a variety of tools that are easily accessible for learners. 

Opportunity 1: Social Distancing Communicative Card Activities 

Card activities can be used to develop or reinforce the following productive skills:

Young Learner LOs




Can write simple facts about themselves (e.g. name, age), given prompts or a model.  Writing 22 A1 (22-29)
Can write a few basic sentences introducing themselves and giving basic personal information, given prompts or a model.  Writing 26 A1 (22-29)
Can ask simple questions relating to someone’s personal information, given prompts or a model.  Speaking 32 A2 (30-35)
Can talk about habits or daily routines in a simple way, given prompts or a model.  Speaking 32 A2 (30-35)

Adult | Academic | Professional LOs

Can answer simple questions about their daily activities or routines, given a model.  Speaking 28 A1 (22-29)
Can ask others if they can do everyday activities using simple language, given a model.  Speaking 32 A2 (30-35)
Can write short, basic descriptions of everyday activities, given a model.  Writing 33 A2 (30-35)
Can write short descriptive texts (4-6 sentences) on familiar personal topics (e.g. family, possessions), given a model.  Writing 34 A2 (30-35)

Things to keep in mind

A well structured language classroom will almost certainly have a lot of various types of card activities. 

We use cards to help frame conversations and dialogues, as well as to provide question prompts and talking points. We can also use them as a way to practice and drill vocabulary and grammar points. 

Of course, asking students to use and swap materials is not a great practice for social distancing or maintaining a healthy classroom environment. Consider the following options for card activities. Whey will allow your learners to keep their distance, while building communication.  

  • Print all cards on one or two single sheets of paper. Place them face up on a table or desk properly spaced between learners. Only you will touch these pages.
  • Have learners make copies on paper, for personal use. They only need to copy the language, or make bullet points, but they can draw pictures or exactly copy the information as necessary.
  • To share, hold up, but don’t exchange the papers, and complete the activity as usual.
  • Bonus, if you have one student in the classroom, they can work with a peer who is attending class online via computer, or through a video call, eliminating all risk of paper exchanges. 

Quick Tip: Use notebook paper, plain white paper, or newsprint to recycle the materials. When you are finished with the activity, students can keep track of the cards by keeping them in an envelope, or the paper can be recycled, eliminating any possible risk of passing on pesky germs. 

Another Quick Tip: Most traditional individual class desks are roughly half a square meter. Placing two desks in-between students is a quick way to get the right amount of distance. 

Opportunity 2: Board Games in the time of Social Distancing 

Board game activities can be used to develop or reinforce the following productive skills:

Young Learner LOs




Can copy some short familiar words presented in standard printed form.  Writing 10 <A1 (10-21)
Can use cardinal numbers up to ten.  Speaking 10 <A1 (10-21)
Can repeat phrases and short sentences, if spoken slowly and clearly.  Speaking 16 <A1 (10-21)
Can give a simple evaluation, using a fixed expression (e.g. ‘Yes/No’, ‘Good/Bad’).  Speaking 17 <A1 (10-21)

Adult | Academic | Professional LOs

Can relay (in Language B) very basic information (e.g. numbers and prices) from short, simple, illustrated texts (in Language A).  Speaking 10 <A1 (10-21)
Can use a few simple words to describe objects (e.g. colour, number), if supported by pictures.  Speaking 18 <A1 (10-21)
Can write a few basic sentences introducing themselves (e.g. name, age, where they are from), given prompts or a model.  Writing 24 A1 (22-29)
Can write short, simple descriptions of people’s physical appearance using basic connectors, given prompts or a model.  Writing 36 A2+ (36-42)

Things to keep in mind

Students love games and games offer the teacher opportunities to drill language for improved internalization, without being boring. However, it’s clearly a bad idea to use any material that requires students to huddle closely together, pass around cards, exchange pieces, or other activities that break social distancing best practice. 

Consider the following options for board game activities. They will let your students have fun, while keeping them properly distanced at the same time. 

  • Take a picture or make a photocopy of the board game. If the game uses cards, follow the tips in the Opportunity 1 section. 
  • Place the board game on the floor in the middle of a group of learner desks and move the pieces for the students. 
  • Have students use paper copies at their desk.
  • Use coins instead of dice, or have learners make their own custom paper dice that they can use again or recycle 
  • Bonus, if students share boards through a classroom learning system, you can project the boards from different teams on the monitor so peers from different groups can compete against each other. 

Quick Tip: Students can use pieces of paper for board markers, or personal paper clips, erasers, etc. Materials they already have, and don’t need to share or receive from the teacher.

Activities in action

You’ll notice the objectives in both these activities are at a fairly low level. That is fantastic, as it means we can build in a lot of various complicated grammar and vocabulary learning, but reduce the complexity of the speaking skills required. In turn, this helps your students make progress faster and use new language more quickly and efficiently. 

For example, I could practice the following grammar with my young learners using the card game approach: 

Can use ‘all of’, ‘none of’, and ‘most of’ to describe subsets and proportions of groups of people and things.  Determiner |  Quantifiers 44 B1 (43-50)

That’s pretty complex grammar for young learners. However, it’s easy to practice in a card game.  You’ll simply need cards with pictures of groups of things: 

One student holds up the card, and the student who is standing six feet away, or looking at the card online, creates a sentence using all of, none of, or most of, with the picture on the card. 

For example “Most of the people are wearing hats.”

That demonstrates use of complex grammar combined with easy production skills.

Looking forward to new classroom opportunities

Preparing to return to the classroom will be an interesting experience for all of us. I for one, am very much looking forward to the opportunities we will have to be creative in supporting our learners as we manage our changing world. 

For more support check out our Back to School resources page.

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