By Melissa Thomson

18 October 2019 - 10:29

Young learners using a tablet computer
'One group created a video explaining how to use the library, and another group recorded themselves coming up the stairs to the classroom. My class loved seeing where the Qatari learners studied English.' Photo ©

Mat Wright

British Council teacher and trainer Melissa Thomson shares her favourite digital tools to connect penpals who are learning English. 

Over the past few years, learners from my primary, teenage and adult classes have met digital penpals in Japan, Algeria, Scotland, Greece, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

I had a penpal as a child

I grew up in Scotland, and every month I wrote to a girl in Australia. She was my cousin's neighbour, who I'd never met in person. She was my age, and also went to dance class. We exchanged postcards, Christmas cards, birthday presents and magazines from our countries.

Planning what I would write, and writing by hand, made me slow down and be creative. It was also really exciting to get something in the post.

At first, I organised a penpal project with my class the old-fashioned way

I contacted a teacher in Taiwan by email and we agreed to exchange letters. Each of my learners wrote a letter to one of the Taiwanese learners, about their hobbies and English classes. They decorated the page with pictures of their city.

If you or your place of work don't have an international network, try joining a reputable teacher's group on Facebook where there are frequent requests for penpals. 

Initially, they were excited about the replies coming from Taiwan, but because of postal service delays they didn't arrive until two months later. The letters took so long to arrive that my learners lost interest. So, I looked for digital options.

Use a digital noticeboard to connect penpals across the world

You can use a simple digital noticeboard like Padlet. Sign up is free as an individual, or you can ask your school to pay for an account with additional safety features. It's easy to use; just press the pink button to post. The colourful wallpaper makes it attractive to young learners.

You can add settings, including moderated posting, password protection and profanity filter. These are all recommended when using Padlet with learners under 18 years old. Make sure to switch comments on, so that when learners post they can receive comments and likes from the other class.

My elementary level class of 15-year-olds set up a Padlet with a teacher and class in Qatar. They posted 30-second videos about their English classes. You'll need written permission from parents or carers, and learners, before you post videos with your class. 

One group created a video explaining how to use the library, and another group recorded themselves coming up the stairs to the classroom. One group explained to the Qatari class when and why they came to class, and what books they used. My class loved seeing where the Qatari learners studied English.

We exchanged recipes for food from our countries. Each learner posted YouTube links, and left each other comments in English.

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Send digital postcards to a classroom in another country

Cambridge Penfriends is a way to send digital postcards to other countries. It's free and easy to use, and ideal for younger learners.

My six-year-old learners in Spain wrote a sentence about their hobby, and drew a picture of a piece of paper. I scanned these digital postcards and uploaded them onto the platform.

They received digital postcards from a class in Algeria who were also learning about hobbies in English. It was interesting for them to learn what they had in common with the Algerian children.

Talk to digital penpals

Skype in the Classroom is an educational community that connects teachers around the world using Skype. It's free to use. 

You need to register and take their one-hour introductory course. You'll also need a stable internet connection, a device with a webcam and a large screen. 

You can set up a speaking game called Mystery Skype, register to ask questions of an expert, or use the common Skype function to call another class.

My adult intermediate learners spoke with a class in Hong Kong who had a similar language level. Before the call, they prepared questions about culture, sightseeing, English language and traditional food.

The Skype call was simple; each class took turns asking and answering questions. Both classes laughed a lot, explaining how to make a Spanish omelette and trying to understand what a Japanese omelette was.

Connect international penpals through an online platform

I joined the eTwinning network of European teachers. It's a safe and regulated way to find a partner school. I had access to guides for teachers new to digital penpalling, and forums to post a message looking for a partner school.

There was also a private blog inside the platform called a 'twinspace', where me and my class posted videos, messages, and photos to our partner classes.

Me and my class of seven-year-old learners also joined an established group called Songs for Europe, with 15 other schools. The teacher in Greece who had organised it asked each school to send a video of themselves singing a song. For Christmas we learned a few lines of We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and for European Language Day we sang a traditional song in Basque with a short introduction in English to explain the song.

I recorded the video using the camera on a tablet, then uploaded it directly to the shared project's twinspace. 

We used the twinspace to write to other classes. Me and my intermediate class of 13-year-old learners partnered with a geography class in Scotland to do a project we called Tourist Information. We wrote posts in English, and the other teacher and class replied to us.

In the posts first we shared YouTube links and photos of our local area. Then, as homework, learners in each country took videos on their mobile phones of the local area. It was a challenge for my class to explain the Basque landscape in English. However, using a foreign language wasn't the challenge for the Scottish school. Instead, it was getting the technical geographical terminology correct.

After a month of posting to each other, my class in Vizcaya, Spain had enough information to research and plan an imaginary trip to the highlands of Scotland. The Scottish class planned a trip to the Vizcaya region.

The learners made a paperslide video about their imaginary trip. Paperslide is a simple digital presentation using only paper, coloured pens and a mobile phone. Shy learners don't need to show their faces either.

All of the experiences above had one thing in common: I saw real communication between learners.

Register for eTwinning.

Teachers, visit our TeachingEnglish website for more lesson plans and activities, and find out how you can become a TeachingEnglish blogger.

This article includes advice for using the internet in classrooms. We also recommend that teachers use the 360safe online self-review tool for a whole-school approach to online safety.

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