Monday, January 3, 2011

Uncharted but breathtaking: Introduction

(this was originally published at:

I first started using chat with my classes because I was convinced that my students would need chat skills in their future, and that chat was the only place they could get them. At the time, if one had gone out looking for chat, one would have found many seedy chat-rooms, a few informal (not very reliable, in terms of language) chat places for esl, and perhaps a few others, if one were to look hard. Even today I think it would be hard for them, with not much in the way of discernment skills, to distinguish a seedy place from a place with good people, in terms of people they should want to associate with and share information with, though I believe Facebook has changed that (see Chat happens: In your Facebook). I think that sometimes the most valuable service a teacher can provide is to share a sense of discernment, in terms of knowing where it is best for them to learn and study language, and what places it is best to avoid. In the chat world, the odds were never very good on the side of good places. Yet, almost all of them knew how to do it; they knew how to grab a nickname, how to type in the send line, how to respond, how to make emoticons, and how to abbreviate simple words such as plz, thx, lol. Some spent considerable time chatting in their own language; some, especially the Arabic speakers, used a language that was part English letters, part numbers (5 and 3 in particular) but in sound, more like Arabic itself. These chatters were quite fluent in their chat languages and were thus very good typists, very quick on the draw in that particular domain. I was surprised, at that time, because these very students labored for hours at a time over simple formal English sentences; they thought nothing of taking an hour to pound out eight simple sentences. What was up? There was a disconnect here.

A further realization shocked me when I gave them a simple exercise, asking them to take sides on the question of "Should a teacher encourage L2 students to learn to chat?", giving them quotes on both sides of the question, and asking them to use the quotes as any high level writing student would use research to support opinions in an essay. To my surprise writers on the "NO" side outnumbered writers on the "YES" side by about 9 to 2, with one essay ambivalent and another never reaching the publication stage, for whatever reason (1). I stopped teaching with chat until I could sort out the meaning of that; however, I recognized immediately that there were several possible reasons they had chosen "NO" besides that they truly disagreed with the statement.

I concluded, however, that there were many reasons that they could see clearly that chat as they knew it was not necessarily good for them. First, as they practiced it, it was in most cases a different language from the one they were trying to learn; far more informal, perhaps not English at all, lacking in capitals, punctuation, or spelling standards. In this form, it was leading them in a direction best described as a "time sink," something that by virtue of the time they put into it, was not helping their English study. Then, by virtue of its very similarity to English, or the degree to which their chat language was similar to English, it actually interfered with their English study; it led them to habits that worked against what they were trying to learn. Several of them recognized the opportunity to chat as simply that: a chance to speak informally in English with a teacher; they were appreciative, participated in the exercise, and went their way. But others never quite became comfortable with it; in spite of comfort with being online and with chatting, it was difficult to cross the line, and just chat with a teacher.

So my first job, clearly, was selling it to the students. Chat is just a medium, I'd tell them; it's a way you will communicate in the future; your business will expect it; your government will use it, and you'll need a formal version along with whatever you now use. It's not easy to read, think, respond, and be appropriate, all in split seconds, thinking and using semi-formal English, where a certain amount of abbreviation is tolerated, but not too much. What to do? Practice, I told them. It's like the communicative classes of the early days, when communicative teaching was revolutionary. All that you could memorize, all the rules you learned, are useless, if you can't use them when the chips are down, when there's live conversation and you have to respond appropriately, and you don't have much time to think before you type, as you would, say, in e-mail.

In fact, however, within about six months, I found that increasingly, they were better at it; fewer of them had no exposure. And while they were often awkward or uncomfortable with a teacher, and suffered the universal "email knife syndrome" (my own coinage: you heard it first here), they were familiar with chat abbreviations, and had surprising ability around the technology itself. In the big picture, the "email knife" and the written medium in general are enormous problems for them, and they need as much exposure to how it looks to others as possible.

In a sense, I feel like a communicative pioneer, because I think most people don't really see teaching with chat in the same way I do, as teaching them to use language in the environment they will most likely be needing it. The primary lesson of the communicative era was that the environment is a crucial part of the language as it's used, and that is what has changed under our feet, leaving us as teachers often unprepared. How much time do we spend in this environment, that we can use these skills well enough to teach them? How well do we even know what these skills are? I decided to answer these questions for myself.

Here I should tip my hat to the webheads, a group of international esl/efl tech-minded professionals, a group of friends who enjoy talking about technology and using it, and who meet weekly to chat, though they also use e-mail bulletin boards and other venues also. I've been glued to the chats, which occur on Sunday mornings my time, and often I can be found struggling to give a child cereal on a Sunday morning while I keep one eye on the screen of a laptop, to find out in chat what webheads have to say about Flickr, for example, or Google Chrome. It's a conversation, much like I'd like to have with my students (who also know more about this stuff than I do), and it slips into informality or a set of chat symbols occasionally, though for the most part it's semi-formal English, with typos corrected regularly in the awareness that the audience is English teachers.

It is easy enough for people to use the most formal English they can muster, though even in the case of webheads chats, they may have the painful feeling that that's not correct enough for the situation, and they're intimidated. One rule you could imagine is that, in spite of the tolerance that webheads and any others may have, one couldn't be harder on the person with bad spelling or bad grammar, than that person already is on himself/herself. That's why, with my classes, my second job is this: to make whoever chats comfortable enough to express themselves, and at the same time draw out of them their skills, their language at the best level they can possibly produce it. I figure that if I can communicate my goals clearly enough to my students, they will understand them; they'll respond; they'll communicate, and they'll learn from the experience. I feel that this has happened, yet I can't say it's been a resounding success. The best I can say is this: that, at the start, there is great resistance, for whatever reason. When it's over, they appreciate it, and at least understand that my intentions were for the best. Perhaps their bemusement comes from the fact that, in their culture, a teacher would never do something like this.


1. See "chat assignment" blog post, below.


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.

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

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

Blog posts

students & chat, 9/20/08
Chat assignment: most students blast chat (6-2008), 9/20/08
chat assignment, cont'd, 9/20/08

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