How TEFL teachers can equip students with the English language skills they need in chat rooms and on social media.
At the 2014 IATEFL conference, IH London’s Fiona Johnston delivered a session that looked at that the impact communicating via social platforms and chat room apps has had on the English language and how teachers can equip ESL students with the skills they need to engage, in English, on these platforms.
In her talk, Fiona assumed that we all know that students need to learn how to handle various versions of English to chat with their friends, give presentations in class, watch TV, read books and generally get by in English speaking environments. And, to fulfil these needs, teachers focus on developing speaking, listening and reading skills.
However, she is concerned that there is a tendency to treat writing as an add-on for specific course related tasks, exams and tests. This then suggests that English writing skills for chatrooms and social media sit even further down the teaching agenda.
She asserts that if students need English for practical, everyday use, the ever expanding array of chat and social platforms can’t be ignored.
We’re chatting, but are we speaking or writing?
This premise - the need to provide students with the means to communicate effectively on digital platforms - is borne out in research Fiona conducted with her own students. She found that students enjoyed using English in this way as it allowed for a relaxed, natural approach to English use, unhindered by pronunciation.
As Fiona’s students imply, online communities and digital platforms allow conversations without speaking. Which brought her to ask if this isn’t speaking, is it writing? The lines are blurred, so perhaps it is best thought of as written speech, a little like scripting your own dialogue in real time.
Fluency vs. accuracy
The question of whether to prioritise fluency or accuracy in the English language classroom then reared its head. Fiona found that students want fluency on these platforms in the same way they want fluency for speaking English. In this context, accuracy is less important than speed and fluency. She concluded that, although digital 'chatting' is essentially writing, the skills required need to borrow and adapt techniques from speaking practise.
In her talk Fiona presented some of the methods and techniques she has been using with students: Silent discussion, silent shrinking dialogue and silent timed discussion.
The aim of these exercises is to help students convey their thoughts and ideas with an acceptable level of fluency, quickly and with confidence. And the exercises themselves generate a buzz of positive energy and enthusiasm in the classroom.
Technology has always changed what we say and how we say it, from the invention of Guttenberg Press and the birth of the novel to cinema and television.This simply continues with social media and on digital platforms.
The addition of new words, repurposing of existing words and the proliferation of acronyms grows and changes every day. Some of this is led by the character limitations of host platforms like Twitter, but mostly by the need to respond quickly.
The language that then develops on these platforms soon finds a place in common communications beyond digital devices, in everyday speech and even in business communications.
The desire from students to be better equipped to engage here is clear and the value is there to be seen. It’s up to ESL teachers to find the best ways of readying their students to go confidently into this brave new digital world.
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