Making the most of your chat box

By Yvert de Sousa

In 2020 we saw the mass migration from face-to-face classroom teaching to online teaching. Although some teachers miss the buzz of being in a face-to-face classroom, it does not necessarily mean online lessons are less interactive, engaging or effective. In fact, those teachers that embrace the digital tools that are at their disposal greatlyappreciate the many advantages online teaching offers. Many teachers comment not only on how online teaching allows you to present and practise language in more ways than you could in an in-person classroom, but on how it also allows you to assess students in a greater number of ways.

Flying with the fastest 

In a face-to-face classroom, a teacher poses a question and, unless they specifically name a student to give an answer, they will usually get one of the more able, more confident students shouting it out. If the student has given the right answer, the teacher may move on, working on the assumption that if one student knows the answer, they all do. This practice, commonly known as ‘flying with the fastest’, tends to be done by novice teachers who may not know better. If they continue to let this happen, they end up having just the same, more able, more confident students answering all the questions; moreover, they run the risk of leaving the lesser able students behind.  

Online alternatives 

The online classroom allows teachers to post questions in the chat box. This has numerous benefits: 

  1. Students who may not have heard or understood the teacher’s question can see it in written form, which may be easier for them to comprehend, and it gives them more time to process the information.

  2. More reticent, shy students who don’t like speaking aloud may be more comfortable typing their answers in the chat box.
  3. The teacher can get answers from all the students at the same time. 

  4. It can be easier for teachers to track how well students are doing, which in turn enables them to identify those that require further support. 

  5. It can allow for differentiated assessment. 

Let us focus on the last two points above and explore how you can achieve this. 

Gauging understanding 

Tracking students’ progress can be done very easily online in two ways. One is to print out a register and when a student posts the correct answer to a question in the chat box, you put a tick next to their name. This way, even if you may not be able to see the students’ faces (ie their cameras are not switched on), you can check they are paying attention as well as track their comprehension and participation levels. 

An alternative way of doing this is saving the chat and reviewing it after the class. This can provide a wealth of information that can be used very effectively for diagnostic purposes. Check your video-conferencing software to see how to save the chat, or copy and paste it into a word-processing document before ending the class.  


As for differentiated assessment, you can use many of the approaches you use in a regular classroom. For example, you can assign students a colour depending on their ability (purple for the most able students, green for the least able and yellow for those somewhere in the middle). You then have questions of differing difficulty (the purple questions are the most difficult, the green the easiest and the yellow are of medium level difficulty). These questions can be posted in the chat box or shared on the screen. As stated earlier, this approach is something you can also easily do in a regular classroom; however, it tends to work even better online as does the use of extension tasks for group activities.  

The reason extension tasks tend to work better online is because when students are doing group work in breakout rooms, they cannot see what is going on in the other groups. When they are given an extension task, they assume all the other groups have been given the same. For the same reason, those students that have not been given an extension task are unaware that there is something other students have done which they haven't. When you do this in a regular classroom, some students feel they are missing out and can lose concentration on the task at hand as they start wondering what the other students have been given.  

Embracing the chat box 

These are just a few ways you can use the chat box for formative assessment. So, if you are one of those teachers who has migrated from the face-to-face classroom to the digital one, make the most of the chat box and embrace the opportunities available to you.

Trinity Teach English Online 

You can find further ideas on the above, and more, in the following Trinity Teach English Online units: 

  • Unit 1.3 Classroom management techniques 
  • Unit 2.1 Developing listening skills 
  • Unit 2.2 Developing speaking skills 
  • Unit 2.3 Developing reading skills 
  • Unit 2.4 Developing writing skills 

To get an idea of what the course is like, try our free sample unit containing examples of videos, interactive tasks, texts, and lesson packs from across the 10 units. 

Take your teaching to the next level with our online teaching course and qualification:

Full course of 10 units plus
CertOT qualification entry - £299.99

Alternatively, you can take just the modules or individual course units.


Article by Yvert de Sousa
Yvert has worked in the world of ELT for over 25 years. His passion for teaching has taken him to the Czech Republic, Portugal and Japan. He is now based in the UK where he does everything from materials writing to consultancy work. He also works as an examiner for Trinity College London.

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