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Volume 9, nº 2
USING CHATS IN EFL: A TOOL FOR
Gregorio Blanco Martín
Gregorio Blanco Martín teaches English in Talavera de la Reina
in IES "Gabriel Alonso de Herrera" and is working on his doctoral
thesis about the use of the Internet for learning English in ESO.
The key to successful use
of technology in language teaching lies not in hardware or software
but in humanware -our human capacity as teachers to plan, design,
and implement effective educational activity. Language learning is
an act of creativity, imagination, exploration, expression, construction
and profound social and cultural collaboration. If we use computers
to fully humanize and enhance this act, rather than to try to automate
it, we can help bring out the best that human and machine have to
CONSIDERATIONS ON THE USE OF CHATROOMS AS A
TOOL IN LANGUAGE LEARNING
Internet and IT have meant an important change in the perception that
everyone of us has about language learning. The exploitation of these
new channels, both as tools for the classroom and as a source of written
and oral authentic materials, has spread in the last few years and will
unavoidably continue to do so to the point that they will affect irreversibly
the existing learning theories.
In recent years, quite a few studies have been published with theoretical
approaches on the new media, mostly analysing the virtues of e-mail and
the web as a source of data and interaction. However, not much has been
written on the application of chatrooms in language learning1. The present
article will aim to offer a personal practical vision on the use of chatrooms
in Secundaria and Bachillerato. It will try to go all the way from an
initial hypothesis to the demonstration of the usefulness of chatrooms
in the FL curriculum by showing an experimental study.
Recent studies in Computer-Mediated Communication
(CMC) show that the use of computers promote collaborative learning in
the classroom. Additionally, most studies confirm that learners have more
opportunities to speak and construct meaningful learning in peer interactive
settings than they do in teacher-fronted settings. I was initially motivated
in this experiment by Krashen's Input Hypothesis. Krashen (1985) states
that Second Language Acquisition (SLA) depends mostly on the amount of
comprehensible input one receives. Vygotski (1962), for his part, stresses
the importance of activity, that is, purposeful actions for assisting
students in advancing through their zone of proximal development. He considers
collaborative learning essential for this development. This leads to the
conclusion that tools allowing student interactions will aid to achieve
more activity and more input for our students.
Several studies, like those of Sullivan and Pratt (1996), Kern (1996),
Warschauer (1996) and Chun (1994), have made comparative measures of student
participation in electronic and face-to-face discussion. Results show
that student participation in electronic debate neared one hundred percent
whereas classroom debates brought a meagre fifty percent participation.
One of the most important conclusions in these studies is that electronic
debates break the teacher-centred nature of the discussion, augmenting
the percentage of turns used by students and thus reducing the participation
of the teacher. They also found that the most silent students increased
their participation online. These data suggest that electronic discussion
is a very effective way of promoting collaborative learning in the classroom.
What is a chatroom?
A chatroom is an environment that allows simultaneous real time communication
among people connected to a common interface -generally within a web page.
This system, originally called Internet Relay Chat, permits the insertion
of short text messages by several users at the same time. Every user can
see on his screen the list of people participating in the event and the
messages they are writing.
This produces the effect of real conversation from different workstations.
On occasion, communication can also be achieved through voice transmission.
This means that people located all over the world may participate in a
live conversation with no other limit than the typing speed of the participants.
Initially, specific software was needed to take part in a chatroom event
-programs like mIRC, Netmeeting, Iphone o Netscape Conference. However,
today you only need a general browser to join them.
What can chatrooms offer?
The pedagogical values of this environment are apparent:
o It provides a substantial element of motivation for the students, since:
- They are interacting with real people,
- They are using, and reading, real language themselves.
o The element of tele-collaboration has a positive incidence in the learning
process, as it generates a strong kind of compromise among peers that
brings about the greatest advantage for language acquisition.
Limitations of chatrooms
o Most commercial chatrooms offer very low quality linguistic exchange,
with poor vocabulary and too colloquial and abbreviated language, which
greatly hinders the participation of a learner
o The own essence of chatrooms affects the linearity of conversations,
due to the slight delay between writing and refreshing remote screens,
which accounts for some displaced strings of text.
o At a pedagogical level, teacher's control in open chatrooms is very
limited, basically related to the vocabulary used and the subjects dealt
with by students in the same physical location as the teacher
THE PEDAGOGICAL USE OF CHATROOMS
Once we have seen what chatrooms can offer and their limitations, my thesis
lies in the fact that using chats as a pedagogical tool needs a strong
control on the teacher's part in the following aspects:
o The chatroom itself must be private -closed, not open to all users,
o Ideally students participating must be the same age, so that similar
interests can be dealt with,
o Participants should be from different nationalities, preferably habitual
penpals from different countries,
o A debate directed to a specific topic should draw better results than
pure random undirected conversation,
o The debate is favoured when participants have access to previous similar
background information; this will allow students to shape a personal opinion
or position in the subject, and thus facilitate their participation in
Following this hypothesis, the next section will describe the sequence
followed in experimenting the use of chatrooms in three groups of 4th
ESO and a group of 3rd ESO (14 and 15 years old) in March 2001 at IES
Gabriel Alonso de Herrera (Talavera de la Reina).
A PRACTICAL EXPERIMENT
The objective of this experiment has been to establish the relevance
of chatrooms in enhancing fluent written (quasi oral2) production in SL3.
The aim of the activity was to set up an environment in which students
could practise and develop their skills in discussing on a topic in a
semi-controlled situation. Specifically the discussion was about Death
Penalty, dealing with the case of Joaquín José Martínez,
a Spaniard sentenced to death and awaiting execution at the death row
in Florida. A description of the environment and data of the activity
I tested this activity with four classes of ESO (three of them 4th and
one 3rd ESO), in split classes of 11 to 14 students. In three of the groups
the students taking part in this weekly split class at the computer lab
were voluntary, while the fourth one contained a random selection of students.
We had a computer room available with ten workstations plus one for the
teacher. All the PCs were networked and the Internet connection was fast
enough (ADSL) and didn't interfere with this particular activity (which
is not always the case)
This means some students had to share a computer with one classmate but
most had their own PC. Additionally, we had a video projector connected
to the teacher's workstation.
This activity ran through two weekly sessions (50 minutes each). The first
one was used for gathering information -vocabulary and statements about
the subject. The source of materials I used was a web page I created in
a previous activity: Death Penalty Initiative4. This page contains the
a. General facts and figures about death penalty in the USA, like:
"Since 1990, more than 350 people have been executed in the USA.
More than 3300 people are waiting to be executed by US authorities.
Last December, the USA achieved the sad record of 500 executions since
they were resumed in 1977. More than 300 prisoners have been killed in
the last six years, as compared to 11 executed in the first six years
b. The text of the Declaration of Human Rights promulgated by the General
Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1948,
c. Letters from classmates to the Governor of Florida asking to reconsider
the death penalty for Joaquín José Martínez.
d. There is also a link to the site of Amnesty International
For the second session, we used a private chatroom at Epals5, which can
be easily created and controlled by the teacher since only those who know
the password can access this chatroom
Sequencing of the activity:
Session one: As I mentioned above, the first session was devoted to gathering
data about the topic chosen (Death Penalty) by browsing the web page based
at our school's web site "Death Penalty Initiative". They read
the facts and figures about death penalty in the US and went on to have
a look at the Declaration of Human Rights. Most students took down the
rights related to the right to live. Finally they read some of the letters
(there are 20+ included) written by their peers the previous year arguing
about the right to live for the Spaniard Joaquín José Martínez
(at that time waiting at the Death Row)
Some of the quicker ones took some time to browse the Amnesty International
website. They were advised to write down the words related to this topic
that they would later need for a debate and a few ideas that they could
use in the discussion.
Session two: In this session we started by practising the use of the chat
environment. They soon understood the mechanics and we all discovered
that having the video projector show the line of conversation on the wall
screen let everyone see how fast the remote screens were refreshing. After
about ten minutes, students were asked to start entering their opinions
about death penalty
At first, only the quick ones seemed to be making a try, but as soon as
they all saw the first opinions coming up on their screens, everyone wanted
to have a go. At this first stage, most statements were unconnected to
the previous ones, as they all wanted to have their own opinion on the
screen. Then, at the teacher's indication, they all started to follow
the discussion by answering, complementing or adding comments to their
RESULTS AND ASSESSMENT
Once the activity was finished, I passed a questionnaire in order
to get the students' point of view about the experiment. I wanted to know
what their perception was on the suitability and relevance. I also compared
their perception of their feelings to the rest of the activities done
at the computer lab.
The first obvious conclusion is the positive acceptance by students in
comparison with the other types of activities at the computer lab. Almost
one out of three students chose this activity as the one that made them
feel more comfortable.
Image 9 gives an overall view of the
perception of learning by the students themselves. Most of them believe
that they learnt a lot, and they highlight the impact on motivation by
giving this parameter the maximum mark (5). The general interest -compared
to other activities is also very high, whereas the incidence of technical
setbacks is seen as very low -most students rating it 0 (null) or 1 (very
On my part, I will also note the interest shown by most students in this
activity, many of them still asking to repeat the experience.
On the negative side, I will mention the fact that typing in a keyboard
makes for further mistakes, especially in an environment of quick, unreflecting
writing -they all want to be immediate in their contribution to the debate.
That means a compromise between accuracy and fluency, being the latter
the main objective of this activity. On top of this, chats do not provide
for perfect synchronicity, which allows for a certain handicap in the
achievement of a neat line of conversation.
Taking into account the initial aims of the experiment, the obvious
conclusion is that chatrooms offer an adequate means to foster inter-peer
communication in a real and meaningful environment, revealing itself as
a valid pedagogical tool for teachers in EFL. The stress must be set on
fluency and the teacher must remain in control of both the participants
and the topics dealt with. A previous preparation of the topic within
the class environment has shown to be an effective way of initiating significant
online discussion. It has also been observed that computer-assisted discussion
allows for more planning time than oral face-to-face discussion, thus
permitting more complex language (collocations, common phrases) and a
more balanced participation among students, with far less domination by
either the teacher or more advanced students (cf. Salaberry 2000).
Beauvois, H.M. 1992. "Computer-Assisted classroom discussion
in the foreign language classroom: Conversation in slow motion",
Foreign Language Annals, 25.
Berge, Z., & Collins, M. 1995. Computer-Mediated Communication and
the online classroom (Vols. 1-3). Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Gaer, S. 1997. "Structured chatting on-line with ESL students",
in Boswood, T. (ed.) New Ways of Using Computers in Language Learning.
Warschauer, M. 1996. "Motivational aspects of using computers for
writing and communication", in Warschauer, M. (Ed.), Telecollaboration
in foreign language learning: Proceedings of the Hawai'I symposium.
Warschauer, M. 1997. "Computer-mediated collaborative learning: Theory
and practice", in Modern Language Journal, 81 (3).
Biesenbach-Lucas, S. et al. 2000. Use of cohesive features in ESL Students'
e-mail and word-processed texts: a comparative study. Computer Assisted
Language Learning, 13/3.
Chun, D. 1994. Using computer networking to facilitate the acquisition
of interactive competence. System, 22/1: 17-31.
Krashen, S. 1985. The input hypothesis. New York: Longman.
Kern, R. 1996. Computer-mediated communication: Using e-mail exchanges
to explore personal histories in two cultures. In M. Warschauer (Ed.),
Telecollaboration in foreign language learning. Honolulu, HI: University
of Hawai'i Second Language Teaching and Curriculum Center.
Kitade, K. 2000. L2 Learners' discourse and SLA theories in CMC: Collaborative
interaction in Internet Chat. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 13/2.
Pratt, E. & Sullivan, N. 1994. Comparison of ESL writers in networked
and regular classrooms. Paper presented at the 28th Annual TESOL Convention,
Salaberry, R. 2000. L2 Morphosyntactic Development in Text-Based Computer-Mediated
Communication. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 13/1.
Sullivan, N., & Pratt, E. 1996. A comparative study of two ESL writing
environments: A computer-assisted classroom and a traditional oral classroom.
Vygotsky, L. S. 1962. Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Warschauer, M. 1996. Comparing face-to-face and electronic communication
in the second language classroom. CALICO Journal, 13/2: 7-26.
1 See References.
2 CMC has assumed features associated with formal writing as well as spoken
3 Further studies elaborate on the features of CMC associated to verbal
vs. formal written interaction (cf. Kitade, 2000; Biesenbach-Lucas et