Using Text Chat in ELT

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This is an article I recently wrote for English Australia Journal.

Using text chat in ELT

With the rise of mobile technology and social networks, text chat has become a common means of communicating for many around the world. With the aid of smartphones and tablets, we can text chat with friends whenever and wherever we like. We use it every day and, more importantly, our students do too. By giving our learners language practice in a text-chat environment, we can help them develop an important real world skill. And the benefits of using text chat in our classes do not stop there. Over the last decade computer-assisted language learning (CALL) research has identified a number of ways in which communicative tasks performed using text chat facilitate second-language learning. In this article I will discuss the advantages of using text chat in ELT, recommend a website where learners and teacher can meet to text chat and provide outlines for using text chat activities. For the purposes of this article I have assumed that teachers have access to a classroom computer and a class set of tablet devices, such as iPads, or laptops. However if this proves not to be the case, teachers can consider asking their leaners to bring a device (smartphone or tablet) to class.

The benefits of text-chat language practice

As a text chat conversation proceeds messages are automatically saved, and participants have access to an instant visual record of the on-going conversation. They can scroll backwards at any time to reread previous messages without hindering the flow of the conversation. Therefore not only is the conversation more visually salient, it is also enduring. The need to read and type messages also slows down turn taking leading to what Beauvois (1992, p. 255) called ‘conversation in slow motion’.

There is significant evidence (Lai & Zhao, 2006; Smith, 2004) that the saliency and enduring nature of text chat, and the slower turn taking it affords, facilitates the ‘noticing’ that Schmidt (1990) argued was necessary for second language acquisition. Learners participating in text chat have frequently been found to re-read previous messages, notice inconsistencies in their target language output and self-correct (Lai & Zhao, 2006). Research has also shown increased learner-noticing of feedback in a text chat environment (Lai & Zhao, 2006; Smith, 2004).

Text chat also has benefits in terms of learner output. The slowing down of turntaking gives learners more time to plan what they want to say, leading to more accurate production, greater risk-taking and exclusive use of the target language (Smith, 2004). In addition, the anonymity of text chat means shy students feel more confident, resulting in greater participation (Warschauer, 1996).

A free and safe environment for text chat

 Considering these many benefits, I set out to design a range of text chat tasks to use with my students. As with traditional communicative tasks, it was essential that the tasks were engaging, personalised, relevant and presented learners with a reason to communicate. I also had to find a safe and controlled environment where teachers and students could text chat. Our students use a wide range of text chat programs and apps in their daily communication: Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber, and Skype, to name a few. However, using these in our classes presents two key issues. Firstly, we cannot guarantee that everyone in class, teacher included, uses the same program. Secondly, students have a right to privacy and we should avoid forcing them to share personal contact details.

After some head-scratching and Internet forum discussion, I found a solution to this problem in Todaysmeet.com. TodaysMeet is a free backchannel chat platform designed for classroom use, which allows teachers to create temporary chat rooms which students can then join by typing the room’s Web address (for example, http://www.Todaysmeet.com/pair1) into the Internet browser.

When carrying out text chat tasks, the teacher can put students into pairs (or groups) and create a chat room for each pair – these can be displayed on the whiteboard for later reference. Each student is then given an iPad and sits on a different table from their partner. They type the URL of their pair’s chat room, write their name in the nickname box and join the room. Students do not need an account to do this. The teacher can also join the rooms in order to copy and paste in task instructions, monitor chats, or provide corrective feedback. By opening multiple tabs on the classroom computer the teacher can follow all of the chats.

Using text chat activities

Teachers will find that with a little adaptation many of their favourite communicative activities can be carried out via text chat. Below I provide three text chat tasks that teachers could use with their students. They have been adapted from traditional pairwork activities. I also suggest some ways that chatscripts can be used conveniently to conduct delayed feedback.

Stage 1: Conducting the activity

  • Get to know you (GTKY)

This is a useful activity to familiarise students with using text chat in the classroom and is a good warmer to use before moving onto a second chat task. The teacher begins the activity by eliciting topics that students would ask someone about when they meet for the first. Next, the teacher assigns each student a partner from a different table. Students spend ten minutes asking each other GTKY questions via text chat.

  • Spot the difference

This activity requires students to identify the differences in two spot-the-difference pictures. The teacher divides students into two groups. They give one group Picture A and the other Picture B. Before the text chat, they can prepare by discussing what they see in their picture with a student from their group while the teacher monitors to help with any unknown vocabulary.

The teacher then assigns each student a partner from the other group and explains that there pictures are slightly different and that students will need to identify the differences by describing and asking about the pictures. Useful language can be also elicited onto the board (for example, prepositions; is/are + there). The teacher then hands out the iPads and displays the Web addresses of their TodaysMeet chat rooms. Students perform the task, circling any differences they discover on their picture.

  • Survivor interview

In this activity students perform a text chat role play. Half of the class have been recently rescued from a desert island and the other half are journalists given the job of interviewing them. Before the text chat begins, the survivors get together in small groups (face-to-face) and develop the story of their time on the island. The journalists also work together, coming up with interesting questions to ask the survivor. The teacher monitors, providing assistance as needed. After five minutes’ preparation, students perform the interview on text chat.

Stage 2: Post-task language feedback

On TodaysMeet teachers can choose how long the chat windows remain open for: two hours, a day, a week. This means that you have extended opportunities to provide feedback after the text chat tasks and to drawing on the conversations of the whole class, rather than just those you happen to be listening to at a given time. This could be done in a number of ways. For instance:

  • directly after completing the task, skim through the chatscripts, identify a handful of common errors and show them to the students, eliciting the errors are and how they should be corrected.
  • ask students to read through each other’s chatscripts at a later time and make a note of the possible errors they notice.
  • copy and paste selected erroneous sentences along with a few correct sentences onto a Word document or flipchart on an interactive whiteboard. The students then bet which sentences are correct and which are wrong in a sentence gambling game.

Conclusion

 Text chat is here and here to stay. For that reason alone we should use it with our language learners. When you take into account all of the language learning benefits it provides, the argument for its inclusion in our syllabi is clear.

References

Beauvois, M. (1992). Computer-assisted classroom discussion in the foreign language

classroom: Conversation in slow motion. Foreign Language Annals, 25, 455–464.

Lai, C. & Zhao, Y. (2006). Noticing and text-based chat. Language Learning and

Technology. 10 (3), 102–120

Schmidt, R. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied

linguistics, 11, 129–58.

Smith, B. (2004). Computer-mediated negotiated interaction and lexical acquisition.

Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 26, 365–398. Cambridge University Press.

Warschauer, M. (1996). Comparing face-to-face and electronic discussion in the

second language classroom. CALICO Journal, 13 (2&3), 7–26.

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23 Great Websites for WebQuests

WebQuests are a fun way for learners to develop their reading skills (skimming, scanning, reading for gist and detail) and become more digitally literate. With the explosion of mobile technology, learners are already doing a large percentage of their reading online, whether in their mother tongue or English. Their classroom reading should reflect this.

A WebQuest (a reading exercise based around a single or multiple websites) is one way to bring online reading into our classes. However, finding the right website for students to read is not easy. They must be age-appropriate, valid and, above all else, engaging. In this blog post I will provide links to some websites that I have used successfully in the past and others I would like to use in the future.

But before we turn to the websites, let’s look at the procedure for creating a WebQuest.

  1. The teacher looks through the chosen website, making sure it is age-appropriate, level-appropriate and suits the aims of their lesson.
  2. The teacher writes comprehension questions (graded to their learners’ level – remember:grade the task; not the text) and importantly keeps a note of the answers. These questions could be simple comprehension questions (multiple-choice, gap fill, cloze, true or false) or they could be more open-ended, encouraging reflection and digital literacy.  For example, they could ask students to give their opinion on the layout of the website or to evaluate the validity and reliability of the information in the site.
  3. In class, students carry out the WebQuest on their own or in pairs to encourage communication and pool resources.

Below are 20 websites that I believe offer learners a fun, engaging and safe way to develop reading skills and digital literacy.

Animals and the environment

  1. http://blog.explore.org/ and http://explore.org/live-cams/player/african-animal-lookout-camera
  2. http://zoo.sandiegozoo.org/
  3. http://www.worldwildlife.org/
  4. http://www.mantatrust.org/
  5. http://uk.whales.org/
  6. http://www.rspca.org.uk/home
  7. http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/ng-interactive/2014/nov/10/palm-oil-rainforest-cupboard-interactive
  8. http://www.unwater.org/worldwaterday
  9. https://www.earthhour.org/

Literature

  1. https://www.roalddahl.com/
  2. http://www.rickriordan.co.uk/home
  3. https://www.pottermore.com/
  4. http://www.neilgaiman.com/
  5. http://www.terrypratchettbooks.com/

Travel and tourism

  1. https://www.visitengland.com/
  2. http://www.visitwales.com/
  3. https://www.visitscotland.com/
  4. http://www.ireland.com/

Sport

  1. http://premierskillsenglish.britishcouncil.org/
  2. http://www.wimbledon.com/index.html

Science

  1. http://www.mars-one.com/
  2. http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/

History

  1. http://www.britishmuseum.org/

If anyone has any other recommendations for good sites for WebQuests, I would love to hear them.

Until next time,

The Text Chat Teacher

Using Cuisenaire Rods in ELT:  Colorful blocks of awesomeness

Cuisenaire_staircase

 

For this blog post I am going to move away from my usual theme – the use of tech in ELT – and look at one of my favourite teaching tools: Cuisenaire rods.

In 2008 I did my experimental DELTA lesson on using Cuisenaire rods and I have been hooked ever since. Like all good resources they are adaptable, engaging, surprising and above all fun for students. In this blog I will outline my favourite Cuisenaire rod tasks.

Task 1: describing your family

Language used: comparatives and superlatives

In this activity students use different rods to represent their family members. To begin, I bring all of the students around my table and demonstrate. I introduce each family member one at a time. For example, I pick up the green rod and say it is me. Then I pick up the blue rod and say it is my brother.  I make a comparison, for example, ‘My brother is taller than me,’ or ‘I am sportier than my brother.’ Then I introduce the next member of family and make comparisons.  When all of my family is represented, I move onto superlatives, for example, ‘My mother is the kindest person in my family.’

After the demonstration, I pick up individual rods and ask students if they remember who the rod is and if they can remember anything about them. Then, I give students some Cuisenaire rods and in pairs they take it in turns to talk about their families.

Task 2: describing your home town

Language used: town vocabulary, there is/are/was/were, present simple (mixed tenses for higher levels)

In this activity students build a model of their home town using the Cuisenaire rods. As they build, they describe. As in the first example, I bring students up to my table and demonstrate by building my home town, Gloucester. I do this collaboratively, eliciting language from the students.

In my description of Gloucester, I first place a row of blue rods down the centre of the table, and elicit that this is a river. Then I talk about the River Severn, telling them about the wave that once a year comes up the river. Next, I place a circle of green rods around the town and elicit that these are hills.  Then give them a little information about the annual cheese rolling event held on one of the hills. Like this I build the city and at the same time give them a little history about it.

Once I have built the city, I point to different rods and ask students what the rods represent and what they remember about them. Then, I give students some Cuisenaire rods and in pairs they take it in turns to talk about their home towns.

Task 3: describing a structure

Language: prepositions of place, There is/are, Present simple

In this activity students take it in turns to build and describe a structure made of Cuisenaire rods. Student A builds the structure – hiding it from student B using a book – and then describes it. Student listens and builds an identical structure. At the end, student A shows B the structure to see if they are correct. Again, I demonstrate the activity first.

Here is what the activity might sound like: ‘There is a blue rod on the table. It is horizontal. There is a green rod next to the blue rod. It is on the right. It is vertical. There is a white rod on the blue rod,’ . . . and so on.

Cuisenaire rods and the silent way

Gattegno was one of the first to use Cuisenaire rods in what he called the Silent Way, a form of teaching where the teacher remains silent and hands over responsibility for learning to the learners. The teacher can use Cuisenaire rods create clear and visible situations that encourage students to produce the target language (Bowen and Marks 1994).

Task 4: telling a story using the silent way

Language: narrative tenses

I usually use this activity to teach the past perfect. The text I use comes from Grammar Activities: Intermediate by Forsyth and Lavender. It is a witness account of a crime. In the story a bank manager arrives home to find his wife held prisoner by criminals. One of the criminals marches the manager back to the bank where they force him to open the save. After the criminal steals the money, they lock him in the safe. Students, however, do not see the text until later in the activity.

I start by bringing the students around my table. From this point onwards I do not speak. First I use the rods to build the outline of a house. I point to the rods and elicit house. Then I use rods to represent stairs and elicit stairs. I add two red rods and elicit people. Then I add a third rod, this one has an elastic band wrapped around it. I now elicit tied up person – this is the hardest part but students do manage it. Next, I put another red rod outside the house and move him inside. I elicit husband. Like this I tell the story.

After I have told the students, I start speaking again. I tell students to go back to their tables and tell each other the story. I do not give them any language or grammar information at this point. Once they have taken it in turns to tell the story, I hand them the text, a witness account from the perspective of the bank manager. This is a good ‘noticing the gap’ activity where students can perceive the gap between their own attempts (no past perfect, misuse of present simple) and a correct version. This is important as this negative evidence makes them aware that they are using the target language incorrectly: a key step in second language acquisition.

Teachers can use all sorts of narratives for this activity. However, I recommend choosing simple stories that can be explained effectively using the Cuisenaire rods.

That brings me to the end of the post. Maybe you have other tasks for using the Cuisenaire rods.  If you do, I would love to hear them.

Until next time,

The Text Chat Teacher

BOWEN, Tim and MARKS, Jonathan. (1994) Inside teaching Macmillan Heinemann

FORSYTH, Willian and LAVENDER, Sue (1994). Grammar Activities: Intermediate Macmillan Heinemann

 

 

 

A digital graded reader

If you are an online teacher interested in using grader readers with their learners or bricks-and-mortar teacher looking to promote extensive reading, I have recently self-published a digital graded reader. It is aimed at learners at the top end of pre-intermediate and the lower end of intermediate.

It is a fast-paced, contemporary and (hopefully) funny story about a detective who goes undercover as a trainee English teacher in Brighton, England. It also contains a range of innovative activities that exploit the connectivity of ebooks.

Check it out at: http://www.markjoliver.co.uk/brian-british.html

 

Brian British (Small)