Using Text Chat in ELT



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 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, 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.


 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.


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.


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. and



Travel and tourism








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



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:


Brian British (Small)

Ideas for using iPads and other tablet devices in ELT classes

ipad pic

Nowadays many language schools have a set of tablet devices, with iPads being one of the most popular choices. They are cheaper than laptops, more convenient than desktops and more tactile than both. They offer students real world practice, access to a plethora of authentic material and an engaging and often collaborative way of practicing the target language.

However despite these benefits, teachers often feel reluctant to use tablets in their classes. Common reasons include a lack of confidence with ICT, no training and no resource books providing ideas as to how to use tablets with students. This is compounded by the fact that iPads, in particular, do not allow classic ELT ICT programs, such as Network English, or run adobe flash rendering many online activities unusable.

In my previous role as ICT coordinator in a teaching centre in Sri Lanka I was tasked with promoting the use of iPads in class. I developed a range of activities and then gave a series of insets demonstrating their use as well as promoting discussion of their pedagogical advantages.

In this blog article I will provide a brief summary of five language practice activities for use with tablets.


  1. Back to back video description

Resource: YouTube or Vimeo

Language practised: present simple and continuous.

Skills: listening and speaking

First the teacher selects a short video clip which has no speaking. Then, they divide the students into pairs and give each pair a tablet.

In pairs one student watches the clip and describes what is happening to his or her partner who cannot see the tablet screen. The person not watching writes down key words. After 45 seconds, they switch. Students continue like this until the end of the clip. After the clip, students watch it together and compare with their notes.

Here are links to a number of useful video clips:

Head over Heels –

Lifted alien animation –

Pigeons –

Bugs Bunny the conductor –

      2. Jigsaw video viewing

Resource: YouTube or Vimeo

Language practised: Present simple, present continuous question forms

Skills: listening and speaking

First the teacher selects two short video clips where the characters do not speak (see above for links). Then, they divide the students into two groups and assign each student a partner from the same group. Next the teacher hands out the tablet devices and has one group watches the first clip and the other watch the second clip.

As students watch, they pause the clip and write comprehension questions (and answers). They should write between 5 and 10 questions for the whole clip. Once they have finished, the teacher puts a pair from one group with a pair from the other. Students give the questions they have written to the other pair. Next, students watch the other group’s video clip and answer their comprehension questions. Finally, they check with the other group that they have answered correctly.


  1. Jigsaw reading

Resource: BBC or British Council’s Learn English Website

Language practice: mixed tenses

Skills: listening, note taking and speaking

First the teacher selects two or three (depending on number of groups) similarly themed articles (graded or authentic depending on level). Then, they divide the students into two or three groups and assign each student a partner from the same group. Next the teacher hands out the tablet devices and has each group read a different article.

As they read, students should think about these questions: Who? What? Why? How? When? Where? The teacher monitors checking students have understood the gist of the article. Next, the teacher tells the students that in a moment they will orally summarise their article to students from another group. They must do this without looking at the article. However, they can write down as many names as they like and ten key words.

Once they have written down their words, the teacher puts them with partners from the other groups. Now they take it in turns to orally summarise their articles, asking each other questions as they see fit.

After the activity, the teacher can discuss the articles and elicit any new vocabulary they have learned.

Here are links to some useful resources: (scroll down for transcript) (click on transcript)


  1. Web quests

Resources: various websites

Language skills: mixed tenses

Skills: Reading

Before the activity the teacher selects an engaging (and if teaching young learners, age appropriate and child friendly) website relating to a topic they are teaching. When choosing the website they should consider whether the level of the language in the website is suitable for their learners. Next 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.

Examples of websites I have used are the San Diego Zoo website for teaching animals, Rick Riordan’s website when I was using a class DVD of Percy Jackson, lightning thief and the couch-surfing website when my elementary students read an article about couch surfing in the 3rd edition of English file.

In class the teacher puts students into pairs and hands out their webquest question sheet (alternatively, they could use survey monkey to have the questions online) and give each pair a tablet. Working together with their partner, students answer the webquest questions.

For higher levels teachers could have students write webquest questions for another pair to answer.

Here are some example questions from a web quest for the Roald Dahl website:

  1. Which two characters is Roald Dahl sitting with on the “About Roald Dahl” page?


  1. In what story is Aunt Sponge a character?


  1. What does BFG stand for? B_____ F______ G______


  1. What is Mr Fox wearing?


  1. When was Roald Dahl born?


  1. Movie review

Resources: and

Language practised: movie vocabulary, mixed tenses

Skills: Reading and writing

Over the years I have found students rarely know the information they need to write a movie review, for example character names, actors, actresses, directors and writers.

This activity is a good pre-task for movie review writing. First, the teacher puts the students into pairs and gives each pair a tablet device. In pairs students think about a movie they have seen and would like to review (they plan the review together but will write it individually).

Next, students watch the trailer of the movie to help them remember key elements of the movie. After watching, students find their movie on IMDB (internet movie database) by typing the film name in the search box. They now make notes regarding directors, actors, time of release and so on. At this stage it is important that teachers make sure students do not copy large chunks of text from the movie summary box.

After the note-taking stage, the teachers take back the tablets and the students plan and then write their movie reviews.


I regularly use all five of these activities in my classes. They are easy to set up, engaging and collaborative. I have used them with students of all ages and found they go down very well in class. I hope you and your students experience similar success.


TodaysMeet: a free text chat environment for students and teachers




Before setting up a text chat activity with your students, you should ask yourself two questions. First, do you, or your students, feel comfortable adding one another to personal social networks? And, second, do you use the same programs or applications? For example, some students might use Yahoo messenger, while others use WhatsApp.

If the answer to either of these questions is no, TodaysMeet might be the best option for you. TodaysMeet is a backchannel chat platform for teachers and learners. It allows you to create temporary chat rooms which your students can join by clicking on a link.

How to set up activities on TodaysMeet

First, create an account. You only need to do this once. Now you can create rooms. Each pair or group must have their own room for the activity.

When you create a room, you will be asked to pick a name for it. You might like to name it after the students in the pair or the activity you are doing.

Next, select how long you would like to keep it open for. Two hours should be sufficient. Don’t forget to click on the option anyone can join found below the room name. Now you are ready to  click on open your room.

To join their room, students open an internet browser, such as Google Chrome or Safari, and type the web address  followed by the name of the chat room you have created for them (for example, They do not need an account to join the room.

Once students have joined their room, they write their names in the nickname box. They can now begin text chatting. As the creator of the room, you can observe everything that is written, enter instructions, post links, provide feedback and answer any questions students may direct at you.

Your log-in page shows you all the rooms currently being used. By opening multiple tabs on your browser you can view all of the ongoing text chats simultaneously.  In room tools you also have the option to print off the chatscripts.