By Elena Mutonono and Veronika Palovska

17 November 2016 - 10:30

'Technology needn't be an obstacle to learning; in fact, it can be a powerful tool to help your students improve their communications skills.' Photo ©

Mat Wright

The winners of the latest Teaching English blog award, Elena Mutonono and Veronika Palovska, share some practical ideas for using two popular chat apps with your adult learners.

Chat apps as a new tool for learning and collaboration

Pay attention to the way your students interact with each other, and you will notice they spend much of their time texting, using a variety of free apps, such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Snapchat, Facebook, Slack, and others.

But this technology needn't be an obstacle to learning; in fact, it can be a powerful tool to help your students improve their communications skills, and take greater control of their own learning.

In this article, we will look at two chat apps in particular, and how you can use them to increase learner autonomy and collaboration.

Using Telegram to improve pronunciation

Telegram is an app you can easily download to your computer and smart phone. It allows you to communicate via text and voice messages.

Voice messaging is a relatively new feature, but helps your students improve their speaking and pronunciation skills by recording their answers in the chats.

You can communicate with some students individually, or create group chats, and encourage students to listen to each other and give feedback on the assignments.

To set it up, follow the guidelines or (better yet) ask your students for help.

Telegram is a great app for online accent-training programmes, because it's user-friendly, and students can easily record their assignments just by clicking the mic button and speaking into the microphone on their phone.

Telegram is particularly useful outside the online classroom to encourage additional practice and skills development. Chats help students become autonomous learners as they begin noticing their own mistakes and self-correct sooner.

Here’s a homework task you can set your learners for pronunciation practice:

  1. Practise reading a text of 150 words out loud several times until you can read it in under one minute. Record your reading and send it to the teacher via voice chat.
  2. Listen to your teacher's (or peer's) feedback and complete any extra assignments (e.g., repeat words/phrases that need further practice).
  3. Read and record any extra drills the teacher adds for further practice of specific sounds.
  4. Listen to more feedback and send a final version of your recording.

Using Telegram to improve speaking and presentations

While students may have some time to practise speaking in the classroom, when it comes to presentations or short monologues, there’s not always enough time to listen to everyone.

But your students can do this practice via voice chats, saving you time, but also encouraging learner autonomy. Here are some rules to keep in mind:

  1. Encourage your students to repeat their speech/presentation many times, so their final piece is exactly as long as you want it to be (e.g., 30 or 60 seconds).
  2. Keep your feedback simple (don’t correct every mistake, just the target language).
  3. Encourage students to listen to feedback and then re-do the task considering your suggestions.

Example activity using Telegram

Talking about nature and the environment (Level: upper-intermediate)

Get your students to describe an ecological problem in their country. They should say: what the problem is; why it happens; how it can be solved; if it will be solved in the near future or not, and why.

Before they start, they could look at some useful vocabulary in context, and refer to a list of related words and definitions. They should now:

  1. choose 15 words or phrases and consider how they might use them
  2. double-check their pronunciation using a dictionary
  3. practise speaking using these words (three to five times) until the presentation is one minute long
  4. record on Telegram and send off for feedback.

As you create opportunities for your students to be heard and discover their own voice, they will become more and more motivated, and take greater control of their own learning as they make more demands on themselves.

Using Slack to improve writing

Slack is a free messaging app you can use on desktop and mobile. We find this app especially useful for project-based and writing assignments, but the possibilities are endless.

The power of Slack comes from the ability to have public, as well as private, conversations. This feature makes it a perfect tool to use with a group of students, where everyone can see the public part of your project and take part in the discussion. At the same time, you can easily communicate with your students privately.

Slack is ideal for collaborating on writing tasks and project work, whether it’s just you and one student, or a group of students. It offers a great way for learners to brainstorm topics and share ideas, or parts of their essays, and get peer feedback. This can be done through private channels, where students work in small groups or in pairs, while you monitor their discussions. Slack also makes it easy to share links and resources, collaborate on a group essay, help each other proofread and edit each other's work, and comment on, analyse, and review articles, such as blog posts.

To start using Slack, go to Slack homepage, enter your email address, and create a new team. (For better usability, download the Slack app for desktop and mobile.)

Using Slack to improve grammar and vocabulary

Another way to use chats is to take traditional exercises, like those you may find in a grammar workbook, and transform them into short homework assignments your students complete using a chat app.

This way, your students get to practise in a more interesting and natural way than filling in exercises in a textbook. Here are a few example activities.

  • Let your students transform a sentence, e.g., from one grammatical tense to another; from a passive voice to an active voice; from the first person to the third; and so on.
  • Ask them to change the form of a word, e.g., from a noun to an adjective, or to come up with a word that fits into the sentence.
  • Ask questions and encourage students to answer or discuss the topic.
  • Make them use a phrasal verb or an idiom in a sentence, or to write a short story using specific words (similar to the speaking assignment discussed earlier).

Giving feedback using chat apps

The rule of thumb for providing feedback using chat apps is not to correct your students when you are having an informal conversation. In other words, ignore mistakes unless they are directly connected with the task.

For example, if you ask a student to use an idiom in a sentence and their sentence doesn’t make sense, tell them so. But if it's part of a collaborative or group activity, do it via a private message and in a respectful way. Appreciate their effort, and explain why their example doesn’t work. Encourage them to try again.

Similarly, if your student shares a personal story and makes a grammar mistake, don’t correct them at this point. This tends to lower a student’s motivation and later engagement with other projects.

Keep track of the mistakes your students make, and talk about them outside your informal discussion. You could prepare a lesson about the mistake, create a worksheet or a homework assignment. Don’t bring it up when your students are sharing their personal stories, having fun, and enjoying the freedom and the safe atmosphere of chat applications.

To connect with your students on a human level and in a friendly way, write in a conversational tone, use emojis and emoticons if you feel it's appropriate, and avoid 'teacher talk'.

Establishing boundaries when using chat apps

We teachers aren’t good at taking time off from our work. How often do you find yourself preparing lesson plans in the middle of the night, or thinking about your students while watching a film with your family?

Chats apps can add to your problems if you're not careful, especially if you're teaching online via your mobile phone – it can feel like the conversation never stops.

Setting healthy boundaries around your work is crucial. Before you start using chat apps, establish rules and stick to them. Let your students know when your office hours are. This is the time when they can catch you 'live' and when they can expect feedback and replies from you. Turn off notifications for the times when you aren’t available.

You can include your office hours in the bio section of your app account, so that the students can always see it.

Teachers, check out Elena and Veronika's more detailed lesson plans and activity worksheets using chat apps, and read their winning blog post on how to use blogs to help your students achieve fluency.

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

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