bitstrip tyson

So I’ve been talking about social media in ELT, ( and there’s more of that coming up at next month’s TOSCON conference).  As it’s tbt, I’d like to talk about one of my first forays into using social media in the classroom thanks to an excellent blog post/lesson plan by my colleague Tyson Seburn.

First a little background

I used this lesson in an Academic Writing class I was teaching at Overland.  The class went for 2.5 hours, 4 days a week.

The bulk of the time was spent on  controlled activities (essay analysis, essay writing, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary exercises).  One day a week, however, I  introduced activities that were more communicative and interactive.

There was a certain amount of resistance to these activities:  most students came from countries with very formal education systems and thus believed that the only way to learn was through rigid study.  Furthermore, they found the communicative  method somewhat condescending (at times a valid complaint).

I persevered with these activities for two reasons.  First,  the students were getting very little speaking practice; in fact,  high level speaking classes are very rare in the public system.  Second, whatever the students believed, I could see that many learned better when they were engaged with the material, or when they could see a connection between their classroom skills and real-world applications.

Still you can’t really tell an adult that you know what’s good for him or her, especially when this adult is used to running a large hospital or a small government ministry, so these were stealth operations, attempts to infiltrate the world of TOEFL essays and reduced clauses.  They could be among the most thankless of the classes, but they could also be the most rewarding.

What the exercise was 

Well, click on the link: Tyson explains it a lot better than I can.  In essence, it’s a series of MSN (well it is tbt!)  conversations.  Tyson has also provided a recording of them.  His main message is that, even when people are talking naturally, it’s not always easy to understand them, especially if you read sentences as individual words.  He shows how critical thinking is necessary even in a basic conversation.

Why it worked

Students liked it because

  • they sensed the authenticity of the language
  • there was a certain (relative) youth and edginess to the conversations
  • they quickly realized that the exercise was not as simple or easy as it seemed

I liked it because

  • students were happy
  • students were engaged in the decoding
  • it is a very milkable exercise.  We used it to talk about register.  From this, we shifted to an exercise in paraphrasing.  It would be a logical leap to move on from that to indirect discourse and noun clause structure.  A media savvy class might enjoy a discussion of the influence of medium on language.  There’s a whole other series of applications for the audio material.

Why the tech element is important

Instant messaging creates a kind of intermediary space between speech and writing.  It would be almost impossible to acquire authentic samples of unselfconscious writing from the same group of people.  Recorded speech, on the other hand, would have been too chaotic and too hard to divide into measurable chunks.


This lesson plan helped me achieve many of the goals of the interactive section of the course, and it all hinged on the authenticity of the language.  Students bought into the activity, even though it was less “academic” than most of the material they were exposed to, because they found the language appealing.  They were thus able to experience natural Canadian English.  What’s more, the fact that they were engaged with the conversation improved their performance on the technical tasks that followed.  Perhaps most important to me, though, was how it worked on the psychosocial level.  The fact that the conversations were unscripted and the task flowed logically from the material meant that the element of artificiality was gone.  It felt real to students, and they felt like real members of the conversation.  That sounds so simple, but think about how few ESL activities genuinely achieve it.  Sometimes the simplest things take the greatest skill.