Vol. 7. No. 1 Int June 2003
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

From the Editor

As many practitioners with exposure to the medium will agree, chat (or if you prefer, synchronous online communication) has much to offer language teachers and learners. In the article that follows, Teresa Almeida d'Eça presents her case for chat from the point of view of a teacher with positive experiences and a balanced awareness of the potential of the medium. She mentions both advantages and disadvantages, but it is my feeling that the advantages of chat to language learners will persist whereas the disadvantages will tend to attenuate over time. I've often told teachers in presentations I've given, when they ask what relevance chatting has for them when there are firewalls blocking chats at their institutions, that even if they can't use chat to its full extent with their students today they need to position themselves so that when they can, it will be they who are in control of the process and not other vested interests. I believe that chat will emerge as an accepted component to other forms of interaction online, such as educational games or simulations with online participants from remote locations.

Teresa points out that experience with the medium is crucial to figuring out how to optimize its use with students. Teresa has developed much of her experience with chat as a member of Webheads in Action <http://www.vancestevens.com/papers/evonline2002/webheads.htm>, a community of practice of language learning practitioners who meet regularly online to explore the use and potential of CMC or computer mediated communications tools. Webheads in Action participants frequently document their encounters, and very recently, one of the participants, Fernanda Rodrigues, captured through screen shots and digital recording a session that aptly illustrates the potential of chat, in this case voice-enabled, to motivate students to open up and engage in voluminous communication with their online interlocutors. Cited here with permission of the teacher and students involved, the Web record prepared by Fernanda <http://www.prof2000.pt/users/mfr/wia/chat/chat_june11.html> documents how on June 11, 2003 Anne Fox (the teacher) and Susanne Nyrop (speaking online from a distance) coax one of Anne's students Ole into lengthy conversation over the Internet, which you can hear in Part II of the audio segment: http://www.prof2000.pt/users/mfr/wia/chat/part2a.mp3. The Web record is especially impressive in light of Anne Fox's characterization of her students' being "shy" and "sometimes unwilling to perform" before a native speaker (email from Anne, June 11, 2003, quoted with permission). One of the students present, Lena, did not want to come to the microphone, as can be heard in the recording, but Susanne reported that the following day she returned online and spoke to Ole and Lena for 90 minutes, and that in voice chat Lena divulged her literary talents and "was able to express herself in a natural and pleasant manner." (email from Susanne, June 13, 2003, quoted with permission). Fernanda's record of the event is a uniquely accessible illustration of how the affective filter was overcome leading to authentic and meaningful communication in one instance when online voice chat was utilized in an EFL classroom. Fernanda's work is also a pioneer example of how sound can be recorded from voice-enabled chat sessions using Total Recorder <http://www.highcriteria.com/productfr.htm> and then mounted on a web page (for any of many conceivable purposes).

Vance Stevens, Editor
On the Internet

The Use of Chat in EFL/ESL

by Teresa Almeida d'Eça
Escola E.B. 2,3 de Sto. António – Parede, Portugal

Language learning is a process that involves two basic concepts: language and communication. Most language teachers know how difficult it is to get students to use language in class, even more so in a meaningful way, especially at the oral level. What language teacher has not gone out of his/her way to try and create the most realistic situations to motivate students to use language effectively?

As far as I know, no strategy or tool has yet proven to be 'the' one to bring the cure to all our problems. However, there has been an online tool around for some time now that gives EFL/ESL teachers yet another opportunity to promote the use of written and oral language to communicate in an authentic way. I am referring to synchronous communication tools, more commonly known as chat platforms. There are several good ones available on the World Wide Web, many of them for free (see Stevens, 2002). However, in this article I will focus on just two. Moreover, I will focus on the potential of chat as a language learning tool, on the different ways it can be used, and on its advantages and disadvantages. Finally, I will offer some practical advice.

Preparing to integrate chat in language learning

"Chat is a two-way form of computer-mediated communication (CMC), a dialogue in real time as we keyboard or speak our words, an online conversation between two or more people" (Almeida d'Eça, 2002). Integrating chat in EFL/ESL can be powerfully motivating and bring enormous excitement to what is generally a difficult process - learning a language. Using chat means that the target language is learnt by interacting with people from the real world, in real time (often across several time zones) and using language of the real world, whether they are native or non-native speakers.

There are three basic computer-based chat modes: text, audio and video. The most widely used in education so far has been text chat. With time and more widespread access to faster connections, both audio and video-conferencing will most certainly gain ground and become powerful language learning tools. In this article I will focus specifically on text and audio-conferencing to analyze how both these modes can amplify and diversify the language learning process, and help make it more comprehensive, motivating and authentic than ever before.

Before setting out on the chat adventure in the classroom, it is advisable to feel comfortable with the tool you will be using. The best way to learn about such tools is to find a group of teachers with common ideas and objectives with whom you can take a 'hands-on approach'. In this way you will be able to experiment with them, practice using them, explore their potential and reflect on ways of using them in the EFL/ESL classroom. One such group of language learning specialists is Webheads in Action (Stevens, 2002-2003).

Experiencing what we will expose students to and knowing beforehand what they will be going through is essential. It not only gives the teacher or moderator a better and more complete understanding of the students' situation - the difficulties and problems they will encounter, and the negative attitudes and feelings that may arise - but it will also help prepare him/her to deal more promptly and appropriately with technical problems and to handle the human and emotional side of the situation when technical difficulties occur. Technical and moral support can make the difference between persisting on a task or giving it up whether in a face-to-face scenario or at a distance!

Chat platforms: Tapped In and Yahoo Messenger

Tapped In <http://www.tappedin.org/new> and Yahoo Messenger <http://messenger.yahoo.com> are two Web-based chat tools with different scopes and audiences. While Tapped In caters to a more specific and restricted group - people from the world of education - Yahoo Messenger is targeted at the general public. Nevertheless, it can provide a level of privacy similar to that in a cyber office at Tapped In by enabling private conferences to which guests are invited, thus avoiding the danger of undesirable interferences. From a user standpoint, Tapped In is free and easy to log into without need to install software. Yahoo Messenger is easy to download, install, log into and use.

Tapped In

Tapped In (short for Teacher Professional Development Institute) is "the online workplace of an international community of education professionals. K-12 teachers, librarians, administrators, and professional development staff, as well as university faculty, students, and researchers gather here to learn, collaborate, share, and support one another" (Tapped In homepage). A visit to the Event Calendar page will give you a better idea of the eclectic range of daily activities that take place regularly in this multi-user virtual environment (MUVE).

Services provided by Tapped In include a 'real-time' Help Desk service, technical support via email, several monthly 'Tours and Tips' sessions led by very friendly helpdesk staff, and free membership. If you decide to become a member, you have additional privileges, such as:

These are just a few of the 'treats', because there's a lot more to explore!

How can teachers take advantage of Tapped In's potential? They can share experiences and resources, talk about how they carry out their projects, hold real-time meetings to brainstorm or discuss timely issues, attend presentations by experts in different fields, meet new colleagues, guide peers in different areas, or simply get together and socialize - certainly an important part of life whether in the real world or in virtual reality!

And how can students benefit from it? They can be taken to this cyber environment by their teachers to talk 'through their fingertips' with peers from any part of the world, debate current and real-world issues as they happen, carry out exchanges and do project work with other classes, and 'hear' experts on different fields, talk to them, ask them questions and get immediate answers. Students can also be left to work on their own, in groups, while the teacher monitors in the background and later reads the session log to have a clearer overview of what went on. These different activities will contribute to features that are evermore present and important in the learning process of the present and future: autonomy and responsibility, team work, collaboration, awareness of the real world out there and of the multicultural diversity it holds, among other things.

As an active member of Webheads in Action, I have taken part in weekly chats with EFL/ESL teachers worldwide for a year and half. On most Sundays there will be colleagues from the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe. Many sessions later, it still feels thrilling to be talking through the keyboard and/or voice-conferencing with friends as far away as Argentina, the U.S.A. (from Alaska to Philadelphia), Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates and Australia, and as close (to me) as Spain, Denmark and Germany. There is no pre-determined topic for our weekly 'live talks', but there is always something to talk about or explore. Our discussions can be personal or social, as well as professional or academic in nature. We might have fun with an interesting and useful site to explore together and comment on, or we may try out new online tools. Whatever the case, our regular synchronous meetings have definitely helped us get familiar with a range of CMC tools and, for some, this has meant introducing them in traditional classrooms or in online courses.

Yahoo Messenger

Yahoo Messenger is another popular chat platform for educational purposes. It allows for text and voice (and even web cam if desired) to be used whether one-on-one or in a conference (a group of people who get together in a single virtual space online). The use of voice represents a very special element in the learning process. Besides its human and empathetic qualities, it adds more realism and life to the interaction. During live presentations with audio-conferencing, participants unfamiliar with its potential appear in awe and leave with the impression that they've experienced something magical. During an audio-conferencing session with students, they generally express their enthusiasm and immediately see the benefits of using the voice feature.

Yahoo Messenger is what I call the '4 in 1 tool': a single application that allows practice, reinforcement and consolidation, with minimal fuss, of the four basic skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking. It is possible to have students working in pairs or in larger groups. As each user can have up to five different conferences running at the same time, the teacher/moderator can have five groups of students working simultaneously and monitor each group by telecommuting from one to the other, as would be done in a traditional classroom.

An additional and invaluable feature is the possibility of configuring Yahoo Messenger to automatically save all text chats and conferences, thus allowing students, teachers and moderators to go back to the log and carry out different activities. While a student can look over parts that s/he did not follow completely, revise a topic for further discussion, or ask for clarifications, the teacher can evaluate the participation of the students, ask for some sort of correction exercise or a (written or oral) report of what happened.

(Tip: To save conference chats, go to Tools and then set Preferences to save everything. Note that they are included as a separate group in the Message Archives.)

Applications of chat to EFL/ESL

Whether at Yahoo Messenger or Tapped In, the setting for language learning is 'cyberspace' - virtual reality. The emphasis is on communication, development of communicative skills and the use of authentic language. This can be accomplished by carrying out an assigned task such as hosting a 'knowledge bowl' between distant schools, writing collaboratively, or creating projects with students at other schools (these are three suggestions included in the Tapped In Guidelines for Use with Students page which can be adapted to foreign or second language learning). Such tasks might entail interviews, brainstorming sessions, or discussions and debates about a topic, event, situation or problem of the 'real' world, with 'real' people, in 'real' time. Questions, answers, comments, suggestions and feedback are immediate, making the activity emulate a face-to-face event. For a comprehensive listing and description of additional activities that can be carried out at different proficiency levels, see Paulsen (1995).

When a language learner is introduced to a text-chat environment to interact with peers and/or teachers worldwide, it is only natural to experience confusion and a sense of chaos navigation¹ due to the multiple threads and topics of conversation that may be going on at a fast pace as text scrolls up the screen. Poor keyboarding skills and a low proficiency level may aggravate this situation. Students may also feel that turn taking does not exist and that they easily lose their opportunity to intervene. All these features will eventually be overcome, but it takes some practice.

When this happens, it is up to the teacher to introduce remedial strategies to encourage students to continue participating. Two of these strategies have proven to be effective: assign a topic for discussion (with or without preparation) and divide the students into small groups (with or without a teacher-moderator). These groups should be mixed ability in order that the more fluent or computer literate peers can help and coach the weaker students, who can be given time to think and keyboard their ideas.

At Yahoo Messenger you can start with text-only chat for a few sessions and then take a step further by giving students practice in pure 'chatting' - talking live to one another through voice. When you decide to mix both, what generally happens is that while people are talking, others will be making comments or asking questions through text. This mixture is enriching and gives everybody the opportunity to contribute. Once again, there is a need for practice.

The choice of text or voice, or the mixture of both, is up to the teacher and depends on the proficiency level of the students. Whether one or both modes are used, the types of activities can be very similar to those mentioned previously. How they are organized and carried out is up to the teacher, but they will certainly bring added excitement to the learning process.

Synchronous environments such as these offer different possibilities, but the main goal is ultimately the same in the case of a foreign language – communication. Whether through intensive and authentic practice of reading and writing and/or speaking and listening, students can improve their fluency in productive and receptive skills.

Chat and EFL/ESL: Advantages

An additional tool represents added value to the learning process, more so when it is a synchronous communication tool such as chat working in real time and with real people beyond the confines of the classroom, and above all, running on a computer, a device that usually appeals to students and which they relate to quite easily. Whether on an independent or complementary basis, these different levels of interactions open up and broaden personal, academic, and multicultural contacts and horizons. These allow for a better and more comprehensive awareness of the outside world and generate richer language learning experiences and environments.

Chat can promote different types of interactions:

As chat can be used with groups, it encourages collaborative learning and team work and helps develop group skills. While students work together to produce joint projects, they take more control of and responsibility for their learning, with an emphasis on the process and on mutual support and guidance.

Additional advantages to be obtained from synchronous communication are increased computer literacy, the development of communicative skills (carrying on a conversation, interviewing and negotiating meaning), and development of social and socialization skills and proper etiquette (greeting others, introducing oneself, leave taking, stating and reinforcing one's own ideas, interacting politely and appropriately, showing respect and being responsible, making choices, helping, coaching, etc.).

Finally, chat can also help students develop other skills that are essential in the active world, such as personal skills (independence and autonomy), interpersonal skills (asking, listening, interviewing, discussing, debating, suggesting, negotiating, helping) and organizational skills (setting objectives, time and project management).

Chat and EFL/ESL: Disadvantages

Unfortunately, not everything is 'a sea of roses' in the chat scenario. As happens with most things in life, real or virtual, there is the other side of the coin: the disadvantages, which can be rather frustrating at times. I will briefly focus on three types of disadvantages: language, project/session management and technical problems. Some of these issues are addressed in Berge (1995-2001).

Language disadvantages

The abbreviated, oversimplified, telegraph-type language that is coming more and more into use nowadays, especially among the younger generations, is obviously related to the new communication media such as email, instant-messaging, and cellular phones. The tendency - or is it rapidly becoming the norm? - is for 'minimum effort in minimum time': abbreviating everything so as to write the shortest text possible in the shortest time possible.

This argument is very well laid out in a recent article titled "Nu Shortcuts in School R 2 Much 4 Teachers (Lee, 2002). Here, an eighth-grade teacher refers to these simplifications as the students' "online lingua franca: English adapted for the spitfire conversational style of Internet messaging." However, she argues that kids "should know where to draw the line between formal writing and conversational writing."

Though I totally subscribe to her point of view, I also endorse the need for the type of flexibility expressed by a second teacher: "When my children are writing first drafts, I don't care how they spell anything, as long as they are writing. If this lingo gets their thoughts and ideas onto paper quicker ['frees their creativity' in yet another teacher's words], the more power to them." I think the same can be said about chat, because the main aim is for communication, especially in a foreign or second language class where that is often difficult to generate. However, when editing and revising a formal text, we should expect students to switch to standard English.

In a rather extreme example, this composition handed in by a 13 year-old Scottish girl was reported in Ananova <http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_756462.html>, 3 March, 2003: "My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we usd 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :-o kds FTF. ILNY, it's a gr8 plc." (Decoded text: "My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face. I love New York, it's a great place." I think it illustrates very well what we might be letting ourselves in for if we don't take measures with students to counter the tendency to lapse into 'texting' (as it is called in the article) when the situation calls for standard acceptable genre.

So, it is imperative that today's Generation Text² students be made aware of the differences in style between formal and informal text, spoken and written language, note taking and writing a composition, as well as of the amount of time taken to write an instant or email message, an essay or a formal term paper, which should imply a plan and careful reflection.

Project/session management

At the session and project management level, there are two basic features that need attention: time management and number of participants. As chat is a synchronous form of communication, different and diffused time zones can make it very difficult, even impossible, for everybody in a distance community to get together at the same time. In general, there is a need to pre-program sessions and adapt them to the class hours or leisure time of everyone involved. On the other hand, there are chat platforms that set a low limit to the number of people that can meet at one time. Though there are few such constraints with the platforms dealt with here, it is a point to bear in mind when exploring others

Technical problems

On the technical side, there are many ways that problems can occur while chatting. For example, limitations concerning connection speed can become apparent. For the '2 in 1' mode (text and voice), Yahoo Messenger seems to work well at slower connection speeds, even when in a conference with several participants. However, problems may arise with the '3 in 1' mode (comprising text, audio and video), specifically when trying to work with sound and image at the same time. Video can interfere with voice and even cause the system to crash. Thus, it is advisable to have a faster, broadband connection if you want to include video-conferencing.

On the other hand, there are incompatibilities between operating systems, Windows versus Mac for example, that cause technical problems and inconveniences of different sorts. Voice is not yet available to Mac users in Yahoo Messenger, and the use of video is not as simple and straightforward as for Windows users.

Practical advice

Before introducing a new tool in class, it is wise to feel comfortable with it, to explore and experiment with it extensively in advance. Many teaching practitioners gain such experience on their home computers in their spare time. If this is your case, then before using CMC with students, check if your school or university has the necessary hardware for the chat mode you will be using. Install any necessary software in advance and make sure it will work through the school's firewall (and if not, you'll have to explain to network and curriculum administrator's the value in what you are trying to do). And be sure to test your connection speed against the number of participants you expect to have in your chats, to be sure in advance that you are able to do the kind of work intended.

When using chat for educational purposes, great care should be taken in the choice of platform, particularly when grade school students are involved. Public chat channels accessible to anyone, such as those that youngsters use for socializing, without a safe and secure possibility of arranging private conferences, are out of the question due to the dangers that openness and exposure can pose.

The amount of guidance and autonomy given to students during their first virtual communication sessions is closely related to the teacher's knowledge of the class or groups involved, the students' age, language level and computer literacy. Gradual introduction in one mode, then in the other, with small groups at first, then larger ones, is a wiser decision in order to avoid daunting or discouraging students. Start small and build on their experience!

Set a definite task to be accomplished or a topic to be discussed in each session, even with older students. Monitor them while they are on line. Go from group to group. Then monitor their work more carefully offline: read the log or saved version of each session for a better understanding, overview, and assessment of the work done. In order to enhance the performance level of the participants, consider developing rubrics that give students extra points for number and types of comments.


Chat is a form of synchronous communication that can be used in the EFL/ESL classroom to extend the learning process well beyond the traditional four walls, because it is a powerful and effective communication tool that fosters a fascinating, authentic and enriching learning experience.

There is considerable time involved in experimenting with and exploring these online synchronous tools in order to implement them as add-ons to the traditional face-to-face classroom or in a distance courses. And there are pros and cons, unexpected technical 'glitches', even with broadband connections, and obstacles of different sorts to overcome. However, these aspects should not be used as deterrents against gradually introducing these synchronous communication tools into the language learning process. As chat becomes more and more ubiquitous and better understood, these factors plus improved bandwidth, better interfaces, and heightened security will converge to make it a medium of choice for truly communicative and constructivist language teachers.


¹ Chaos navigation is an expression coined by Webheads in Action participant Susanne Nyrop.
² Generation Text is an expression borrowed from Trisha Fogarty, a sixth-grade teacher cited in Lee (2002), to refer to today's teenagers.


Almeida d'Eça, T. (2002). "To chat or not to chat in the EFL classroom, that is the question!" Paper presented at the "Language - Communication - Culture" International Conference, University of Évora, Portugal, on November 29, 2002. Available at http://www.malhatlantica.pt/teresadeca/papers/evora2002/chat-and-efl.htm

Berge, Z. (1995-2001). The Role of the Online Instructor/Facilitator. Retrieved June 19, 2003 from http://www.emoderators.com/moderators/teach_online.html

Lee, J. (2002). "Nu Shortcuts in School R 2 Much 4 Teachers. New York Times online edition, September 19, 2002. Retrieved June 19, 2003 from: http://www.learningexperts.com/McQuillan/NYTimes%20092002%20RU%20Ready.pdf.

Paulsen, M. (1995). The Online Report on Pedagogical Techniques for Computer-Mediated Communication. June 21, 2003 from both http://www.emoderators.com/moderators/cmcped.html and http://www.nettskolen.com/pub/artikkel.xsql?artid=123. This report's contents on paper and in any electronic form is * copyrighted 1995 by Morten Flate Paulsen.

Stevens, V. (2002). A day in the life of an online language educator. TESL-EJ 6, 3. Retrieved June 18, 2003: http://www-writing.berkeley.edu/TESL-EJ/ej23/int.html

Stevens, V. (2002-2003). Webheads in Action: Communities of practice online. Retrieved June 18, 2003: http://www.vancestevens.com/papers/evonline2002/webheads.htm

Tapped In URLs cited:

About the Author

Teresa Almeida d'Eça (http://www.malhatlantica.pt/teresadeca/) has been teaching EFL for 28 years in the greater Lisbon area (Portugal), where she comes from and lives. She has been interested in the introduction of ICTs in EFL for over seven years, has presented regularly at conferences at home and abroad and has published two books on the use of information and communication technologies in education. In January 2002 she joined Webheads in Action and has since then developed a special interest for synchronous communication tools and their role in language learning.