Monday, January 3, 2011

Chat how-to

(the following originally appeared at but was moved here in 2011. It is part of a 2009 TESOL presentation: Uncharted but breathtaking: Chat in writing class which can be accessed here.)

I started using chat with my ESL writing classes because I was convinced that it would be essential for their development as writers in English in their futures. Chat is to writing as conversation is to speech; one cannot claim to be fluent when one can give a perfect speech, yet be unable to carry on a conversation, or unfamiliar with the process.

Fortunately my communicative background taught me to make clear communicative objectives, and then learn to evaluate how well students can use skills to actually communicate. Assume that the medium is entirely new to everyone; hold their hand getting there and let their classmates help them. In fact as time goes by I find very few people who haven't chatted, fewer still who have trouble with the mechanics of it once there. Yet I myself was quite intimidated when I first tried. So, I'd advise anyone who is new to it, as I was, to become familiar with it first before trying it. I'd go to Tapped In, log in as a member, see who was in the reception area, and say hello, tell them what I was doing (1). They were all in favor but also maintained that if I did it regularly I should get my own room, or consider becoming a sponsor of the organization. I agreed with both of these in principle, yet we were always waiting for Blackboard and didn't consider TI to be a permanent thing. I'd click on "Comfy Conference Room," a chat venue, and go sit there; meanwhile I'd explain to the class how to do what I'd just done.

Some were interested in becoming members, thus receiving a transcript and an occasional e-mail; most just logged in as guests, joined me and said hello. Their assignment was to bring me URLs and drop them in the chat window. First I would start with any URL from their hometown; this gave us something to talk about ("oh, you're from Tianjin?" - often I'd forgotten this even though they had told me on the first day). I had them bring me YouTubes. But most importantly I had them deliver the URL's of the papers they had posted on their weblogs- essays, summary responses, research paper, abstract; they would become familiar with the term "post URL," be able to grab one they had created, and then turn around and paste it into the chat window, often using keyboard paste (control + apple + v) which I had at first never heard of, being from the mac side. It took me a while myself to learn how to find my way around the keyboard, and do what I wanted, but eventually I was able to not only bring things to the chat window myself, but explain to them exactly how to do it. Very few had trouble with it, but I gave them two days to do it, so that if they failed to do it on the first day, they could go home and discuss it in their own language with their friends. We'd work together on the project; often the class would have other things to write simultaneously, so that only a few people would still be trying to finish the chat assignment, while others had moved on to another project.

In any case, the transcript would show who had finished it and how well; I could go back and read, pick out exactly what had happened. And I noticed another thing; for some, basic politeness was not part of the situation. So I began to require it. Say hello and goodbye; answer when you are asked a question; identify the URL's you throw on the table. For example, say, "here is my research paper: http://..." This created a culture where anyone who chose to keep the chat window open and experience the conversation could keep up with it very well and even enjoy it. I of course knew what I was looking for, and wasn't surprised by what I saw. But to many, it was quite a lively spectacle.

My chat classes, their opportunity to finish this assignment, would be the last half of two different classes In a row, say Thursday and Friday afternoons; if they finished, often, they could go home, or move on to another class. I had one problem that students would come and talk to me when I was engaged in conversation with other students; they either wouldn't realize what chatting was, or just think that it didn't matter, that despite the fact that I was chatting, I could be interrupted. I actually wanted to make my office hours chat hours, but I always felt that office hours were extra and for people who needed extra help, whereas this was a class assignment that everyone had to do. So I kept it during class hours and encouraged everyone to chat on office hours anyway, especially at the end of the term, and when they were late in handing in their papers for other reasons.

There were times when I felt that I had come into their neighborhood and was for example hanging around on a street corner with them - my biggest problem really was what I interpreted as their disrespect for each other, or sometimes, just for the situation itself. But probably they were much more used to the chat environment than I was, and the disrespect was more a sign of informality than of true disrespect.

They quickly learned which emoticons and symbols were not universal; to me it's an interesting sidelight that some are more readily and universally interpreted than others; therefore some just wouldn't work. I didn't discourage them though. It's like short versions in conversation (gonna, gotta): if it works, and everyone understands it, it is inherently ok. Sometimes we would talk about what they meant by something. For example, there is a clear tongue sticking out: P. But does that have the same meaning in every culture? I doubt it.

Most have said that it helped them. It forced them to operate in a writing environment; it increased their reading speed in particular, and it helped their typing. There were some for whom semi-formal English chat was such a novel idea that they wanted to hang around and keep talking with it; they clearly saw it as an opportunity to improve reading-writing, to learn, and to speak to a native speaker. Others were busier, focused on finishing and moving on, and not especially surprised or even put out by the assignments at all. Still a third group couldn't believe it, and would stare at the chat window virtually unable to respond in time. I realized that for them reading was a painfully slow process, and people from this group would have trouble finding the best time to jump in, if that was a consideration. As time went by there were fewer of these, anyway.

Reading and responding quickly is crucial; following different threads is also challenging (see Chat behavior). If one shuns punctuation and uses other short forms, can one be understood? That is an ongoing question. One must keep fingertips ready to try again if one fails on the first time. They would frequently ask to find out if they had finished the assignment, but I wasn't always sure, and it was difficult for me to scroll up and count what they had dropped, at the same time I was speaking actively with other students. They therefore had to become more responsible for what they themselves had done; and, I had surprising success. Virtually all of them completed all assignments, every time (2).


1. Tapped in (see below) was set up by grants to encourage academic use of new technology. It has the advantage of being there for the purpose you are using it for, and also being by nature invested in the success of what you are doing. I am eternally grateful to TI for their help with my classes and would recommend them to anyone. There are of course many alternatives (see Choice of venue).

2. To retrieve transcripts, go to "Me" and "Places" in Tapped In. As a member, you can have transcripts for any conversation you've been a part of. Why are they so hard to find? Just chance; it won't stay that way.

Leverett, T. (2008, April). brb: Using chat in an esl/efl writing class. From Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2008, New York City.

___ (2008, April). Digital fluency as goal and objective. From Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2008, New York City.

___ (2007, Mar.). Fluency first: Fluency as a construct. From Student weblogging for fluency, skills and integration, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2007, Seattle WA.

___ (2007, May). Dialects in a changing language. Global Study Magazine 4, 3. London. pp. 56-57. Available online at:

Tapped In
1. Presentation home
2. Introduction

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