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PD Corner

Flipping the English Language Classroom: Making It Work

by Christina Cavage |

Thinking about the last two decades in English language teaching (ELT) and learning, one can’t help but reflect on both the challenges and opportunities that technology has brought to our classrooms. It’s hard to believe that nearly 20 years ago, I had already adopted a blended learning approach in my teaching. During that time, I defined blended learning as a method of combining the “brick” of the traditional, physical classroom and the “click” that educational technology afforded us. 

Throughout my tenure, I’ve tried many different tools and techniques for blended learning, from publisher-built learning management systems (LMSs), to using published YouTube videos in my LMS, to creating my own short videos on YouTube. But when I discovered the flipped classroom, I became a passionate advocate for this method in ELT. Though it’s still not a regular practice in our field, it proves effective and motivating. Let me show you how.

What Is Flipped Learning?

FLIP is an acronym that was coined by Aaron Sams, Jon Bergmann, and other educators (Flipped Learning Network, 2014). There are four pillars of flipped learning: flexible environments, learning culture, intentional content, and professional educators. 

These four pillars are the foundation of an effective flipped classroom and the keys to your success. Let’s explore each of them in detail. 

Flexible Environment

As ELT educators, we know all too well the need to be flexible. We understand that our plans must leave room for “on the spot” instruction, as well as the outside factors in students’ lives that may require us to be flexible with assignments. We know that some learning activities are more successful in small groups, while others may fail in that setting. So, flexibility is not new to us. However, what may be new is the idea of extending the boundaries of our lessons to include student learning both inside and outside of the classroom. 

The concept of flexible environments in the flipped model refers to not only the physical learning arrangements (e.g., small groups, pair work) but also the instructor’s choice of what content will be taught in the classroom and what content should be taught outside of the classroom. This is especially critical in an ELT classroom.

For example, imagine using an LMS and sending your learners a short microlearning video on a simple grammatical structure. After students watch this first part of your lesson independently, they would participate in various tasks that assess their remembering and understanding of the new content. These could be as simple as traditional comprehension questions or (if your platform allows) gamified types of activities such as drag-and-drop, timed selections, or memory games. Flexibility in how and where students engage in your lessons embodies this first pillar. 

Learning Culture

Attention to the learning culture represents the second pillar of FLIP. Adopting this model often requires a paradigm shift in our understanding of teaching and learning. The focus moves away from the teacher delivering instruction and onto student learning, with the teacher as a facilitator. Though this student-centered approach may not sound new to many of us in ELT, there are some critical features of this pillar that are specific to flipped learning.

Choosing the Out-of-Class Content

Teachers need to be aware of what concepts, objectives, or material they want to flip. After targeting the lesson content, teachers must decide how to deliver that content online in a way that engages students as active learners. This way, students will be better prepared to apply what they have learned when they return to the classroom environment. I have found the more I have my students “do,” they more active they are. 

Choosing the In-Class Activities

For students to take an active role in the learning process, the in-class task needs to be feasible within the constraints of your classroom, yet measure the skill taught outside the classroom. Creating in-class activities that measure students’ understanding of the concept, but are also reasonable for the class time and achievable based on the learning that takes place outside of the classroom is a critical component of developing a positive flipped learning culture. 

Making the Connections Clear

Students need to see that the instruction that is done outside of the classroom is meaningful and linked to what will be expected of them in the classroom. So often, I see teachers giving online tasks to students that have no connection to what happens later in the classroom. Adopting educational technology itself is not enough: Like all tasks in language instruction, flipped learning activities need to have meaning for our students, and the students need to be able to see the connections. 

Intentional Content

The pillar of intentional content is all about choosing the best content to be delivered in the classroom and the best content to be delivered outside of the classroom. In a typical ELT course today, we often teach new language structures or functions in the classroom and assign homework in which students have to apply, evaluate, or create with the new language. However, flipping is all about taking the learning, the new content, outside of the classroom. 

Consider Bloom’s taxonomy for a minute. This is a common pedagogical tool that describes different levels of cognition, from simple to complex. Teachers often work on the lower levels (remembering and understanding) inside the classroom and leave the higher levels (applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating) for outside of class. In a flipped classroom, we would do just the opposite. You may be thinking, “Don’t students need instructors to explain new structures and concepts?” Absolutely. However, many digital tools allow us to do this quite easily.

This image is licensed under Creative Commons.

So, what content should be moved outside of the classroom? One way to answer that is to reflect on this question: What content would it benefit our multilingual learners of English (MLEs) to hear again and again? In class, we often only have time to explain things once or twice. MLEs have a higher need to relisten to explanations and other materials. When we move that explanation outside of the classroom, students can access the repetition so many of them need. In other words, MLEs can self-direct their learning and engage with material until they feel comfortable with the content. 

Professional Educators

The last pillar, professional educators, is about the role we all play in our classrooms. We curate content and critically think through how to scaffold our lessons on a daily basis. Mastery of this skill may come after years in the classroom and is likely developed through professional learning opportunities. Understanding your learners’ needs, and how to design learning experiences that best support their learning, is the daily work of a professional educator.

Why Flipping Your ELT Classroom Works

Flipping is blended learning at its best. There are several advantages to adopting a flipped ELT classroom. First, as we’ve seen, it allows teachers to move those lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy outside of the classroom (understanding and remembering) while upper levels (analyzing, applying, evaluating, and creating) are explicitly worked on in the classroom. What this means is that the type of learning that needs less scaffolding and language support for MLEs is done outside of class, and the types of learning that often require greater support are done in class with the presence of a professional. 

Second, it is quite appealing to learners today—the digital native population. Digital natives, those born after 1980, have grown up in the information age. They are comfortable (and often fluent!) using digital tools. Learning through this medium is an integral part of who they are. 

In addition, FLIP offers ELT educators the flexibility to move content outside the classroom. Think about those types of language structures that may just require rote memorization. Giving students the opportunity to learn these points independently, online, allows our physical classrooms to remain social, cooperative language environments. In other words, in-class time can be spent having students do and apply the content rather than just study and memorize it. However, to be successful, we need to have a clear understanding of what the flipped classroom is all about. 

How It Works: Sample Lesson

So, what does this model look like in a real lesson? Imagine your goal is to teach the past tense. The outcome of the lesson may be for learners to be able to write about a past event. How can this lesson be transformed by flipping the classroom?

Outside the Classroom

      • Step 1: The teacher creates a 2–3-minute instructional video on the past tense forms. This can be as simple as a voiced slideshow (e.g., PowerPoint or Google Slides).
      • Step 2: Embed the video in an LMS (e.g., Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, or Google Classroom) and assign students to watch. 
      • Step 3: Create a simple online activity for them to complete after the video that shows their simple application of the skill. 

Inside the Classroom

      • Step 4: The next class meeting, arrange students into groups and assess their understanding of the video. Gamify this activity by having them compete in groups to change sentences from the present to the past tense. 
      • Step 5: Provide a model writing sample. Have groups read it and identify the past endings. (Depending on the students, it may also be necessary to identify overall organization and time order words). 
      • Step 6: Ask students to create a written timeline of a past event of their choice. Have them begin drafting. 

In future class meetings, you will most likely want your students to finalize their drafts through revision and editing. However, what we can see by this simple example is that content that is about remembering and understanding new grammatical structures—those low levels on Bloom’s—is ideal to move outside the classroom. Then, by designing a fun, engaging in-class activity to assess their understanding, we can easily move students to the next level of comprehension.

What if students don’t do their homework assignments? Well, in all these years, I have found that it may happen once or twice. But once they are left out of the next step and can’t effectively participate in class, it usually doesn’t happen again. Students want to engage; they want to compete. 

In the end, flipping the classroom works well in ELT. Using this model allows learners to engage with content at their own pace and via their own learning style, and allows for our classrooms to be places where we can support analyzing, evaluating, and creating. 



Flipped Learning Network. (2014). What is flipped learning? The four pillars of F-L-I-P. 


About the author

Christina Cavage

Christina Cavage has served as an ESL director, coordinator and professor. She received her master’s in TESOL from West Virginia University and completed a one-year fellowship at Princeton University, where she researched blended learning and English language learners. She has trained numerous teachers all over the world in inclusive teaching and digital technologies to enhance and extend learning. She has authored over a dozen ELT textbooks, on topics including university success, oral communication, transition level, advanced level, intermediate level and A2. As an active member of TESOL International Association, Ms. Cavage has presented at conferences including TESOL, ACTFL, National Education Computing Conference (NECC), and the League for Innovation. In addition to serving as a specialist with the U.S. Department of State, she is currently the Director of Language Programs at Immerse, a VR language learning company. 

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