Vol. 7. No. 2 M-4 September 2003
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Free Online Voice Chat Programs

An updated version of this article is available at http://tesl-ej.org/ej36/m1.html. -- [Editor, March 2007]


Recently, a friend who is a job counselor told me that students who successfully obtain jobs today often have three other skills besides their major subject or trade certificate: A driver's license, English ability, and computer skills. As we enter the generation of children who have grown up with computers, there is increasingly a push to use computer-generated materials and programs in the classroom. "Talking computers" and talking on computers are finally becoming a reality. With some fairly inexpensive equipment, any ESL/EFL student with access to a computer can practice speaking and listening in "real time" (immediately with a live person). In this way, ESL/EFL students can practice their English and learn computer skills connected to the internet.

The equipment required for voice chats are:

The computer needs to have Netscape Navigator 4.0 or higher or Internet Explorer 3.1 or higher, and 16 MB of RAM with an internet connection. While this list seems to exclude many students, I have personally seen voice chats work in very remote locations with extremely slow dial-up internet connections. A headset can easily be purchased for less than $20 and today sound cards are not high-priced items either.

This paper, while not intended to provide comprehensive coverage of all the available programs, will give you some easy, first steps towards exploring online voice chats. You may discover later that there are other good programs that I have not mentioned. To find more yourself, type "ESL voice chat" into your favorite search engine. Before examining some of the specific programs that are available, let us look at how teachers might go about creating a voice chat component for their classes. [-1-]

Setting Up Your Own Online Voice Chat Class

If you decide to include voice sessions in your online or classroom lesson instead of just letting students explore these programs independently, you first need to decide which program to use. Go to some of the sites discussed below and try downloading or registering step-by-step. Pick the one you feel will be the most user-friendly for your students with the best, consistently clear voice quality.

Write down the steps for registering in detail, and plan to spend one entire class (online or in a computer lab) preparing your students for the voice chat. If your class is larger than 10 students, have them sign up for the time and day of the week they will "attend" the voice chat. Three–five students per session is a good number for an online voice chat and 15 is the maximum. If you have a class of 25–30 students, divide them into two groups and work with them online at different times.

Next, you need to set up some chat rules which should cover such issues as turn-taking, allowable language, and the participation of all members (not just a few vocal ones). Some discussion programs have a way the teacher can control the students' participation and turn-taking.

Once the voice chats are up and running, some teachers like to announce a topic ahead of time. Other teachers assign a reading passage to be discussed. Online "live" discussions can also be used for students having trouble with assignments or their computer equipment. Students should be able to continue talking while they are viewing websites, so a website can make for a great discussion topic. There are many websites that are simple and graphic—ideal for lower level ESL students. With higher-level classes, students could go to a different website and then return to the main website and report to the group what they discover. Below are some questions and reliable websites to get you started:

Animals and Endangered Species

  1. Do you like animals? Do you have a pet?
  2. If you were an animal, what one would you be? Why?
  3. Do you think all animals should be tamed?
  4. Have you ever been to a zoo? What animals can you see there?
  5. What are game preserves?
  6. What do you think about hunting?
  7. What are some good things about pets?
  8. What do "endangered" and "extinct" mean?
  9. Can you name some creatures that are endangered or extinct?
  10. What can we do to stop this problem?
    http://www.wwf.org/ or http://www.panda.org/


  1. Describe the place where you live now.
  2. What is your favorite room?
  3. What is your favorite piece of furniture?
  4. Describe your dream house.
  5. Would you rather live in the country or the city? Why?
  6. Practice directions with this house floor plan:

Natural Disasters and Taking Risks

  1. Do you like adventure and excitement?
  2. What does "taking a risk" mean to you?
  3. What is something risky that people do? Can you give an example?
  4. Have you ever done anything dangerous? What was it?
  5. Have you ever been injured or hurt? What happened?
  6. What's the difference between taking risks outdoors and natural disasters?
  7. What are some natural disasters?
  8. Have you ever experienced one? What happened?
  9. Who helps after a disaster?
    http://www.fema.gov -

For numbers 7-9, students could each pick one and then after 5 minutes report to the class


  1. What's your favorite kind of music? Why?
  2. Have you ever taken music lessons?
  3. If you could play a musical instrument, what would it be?
  4. Have your tastes in music changed over the years? How?
  5. What kind of music do you listen to when you're 1) driving or riding in the car, 2) trying to relax, 3) hosting a party, 4) looking for background music for dinner, 5) you want to be cheered up?
  6. What are some traditional instruments in your country?
    http://www.broadcast.com or http://launch.yahoo.com/


Free Online Voice Programs

Let us now look at some of the various free voice chat programs available. The numerous voice programs available on the internet can be divided into two main categories. First, there are voice message programs or programs with audio technology offered that are offered for general use, independent from any language school (many of them are not specifically designed for language learning or teaching). Second, there are free voice chat programs offered within ESL program settings, such as online schools.

General Use Voice Chats

The chart below is a summary of some audio technology programs, updated and revised from information taken from Vance Stevens' site of April, 2002. The services listed are mostly free, and downloads of software such as Media Player are also free.

Groovehttp://www.groove.net/Create or join chat rooms,conferencingNoFile transfer, whiteboard
iVisithttp://www.ivisit.comCreate or join chat rooms, conferencingMultiple screens, PC and MacFile transfer, no whiteboard
Talking Communities http://talkingcommunities-online.com/Client.html Yes, conferencing possibleNoFile transfer and web page creation
PalTalkhttp://www.paltalk.comCreate or join chat rooms,conferencingMultiple screen video chatsFile transfer, no whiteboard
LiVVehttp://www.livve.com ConferencingYes, but not freeWhiteboard, file and website exchange
ICQ http://web.icq.comYes, multilingual programs availableYesFile transfer, web browser but no whiteboard
Yahoo! Messenger http://messenger.yahoo.com Multiple voice participants in conference mode, PC onlyAllows display of multiple web cams, PC onlyNo whiteboard but file transfer when receiver and sender are both logged into this site

Free Voice Chats Offered by Online Language Instruction Programs

Now we move onto online language schools. These are mainly programs that students could be made aware of and use on their own time, since teachers are unable to exercise control over them. In these programs, there is usually a class schedule, including free demonstration classes, and there is a teacher present to focus the discussion. The students can "drop in" when they have free time and participate. However, these demonstration classes are designed to pull students into paying classes, so students should be made aware of this fact. Most of these sites are not as flexible as the online voice program sites. There is sometimes a whiteboard and file sharing, but the usual setup is simply a chat room with sometimes as many as 50 students present! There are not many opportunities for students to speak, and the chats are often quite structured. Students might benefit more from listening practice than speaking practice.

Having taught online in this type of situation, I can report that there are students who get quite attached to online teachers and show up each week in the same free chat rooms without enrolling for longer courses. They appreciate the chance to have a more relaxed discussion without a formal lesson. While teachers are paid half the salary they were paid even a few years ago, the quality of discussion leadership as well as the policing by the teachers of the problem students who occasionally want to be rude or too talkative, is quite good. Some of the teachers are at home with small children, some are sitting in conversation schools such as Cambridge Schools or ECC in Japan. There are many under-employed, but qualified teachers who fill these jobs.

There are an endless number of English schools online. However, the number narrows to only a few who offer audio technology, and there are an even smaller number of free sites. Global English and Englishtown were two of the first, but they now share the field with others. Englishtown offers group and private lessons 24 hours a day, but there are presently no free voice lessons except a 7-day free trial. The Global English free voice chats are 6am–8am and 7pm–9pm PST (West Coast of the U.S. and Canada).

Here are some other conversational schools: http://www.mylanguageexchange.com (uses PalTalk), http://globalchat.com or http://globalchat.co.jp/ja-EN (in Japan), and http://www.PeakEnglish.com. At present, Peak English has only free text chat lessons, but they plan to add free voice chat demonstration classes sometime during the summer of 2003. Global Chat offers free "lessons."

With both Peak English and Global Chat, there is a fee-for-service arrangement for teachers that is growing in popularity among online conversation schools. The students pay the teacher a set fee every month and the company keeps a percentage of this fee. The teachers recruit their own students. Most schools have a fee range. While this arrangement is easier and cheaper for the conversation schools, the quality of education may not be as high.


Like everything else, using these free voice chat programs gets easier the more you do it. It takes some time to learn the basics, but the rewards will be worth the trouble. You may find that this is the most popular and most often-used part of your course.

Suggested further reading

Cotton, E.G. (2000). The online Classroom: Teaching with the Internet. Indiana: EDINFO Press.
This book is a good start for K-12 teaching and includes a complete section on computer safety.

Sperling, D. (1999) Internet Activity Workbook. New York: Prentice Hall Regents.
The sections on KeyPals in this book could easily be modified to become "TalkPals" using one of the voice programs.

Sperling, D. (1998). Dave Sperling's Internet Guide. New York: Prentice Hall Regents.
This book is now the classic introduction for teachers. Page 40 discusses how to set up global voice conversations using computers.

Steel, J. (2002). Herding Cats: A Descriptive Case Study of aVirtual Language Learning Community. "Chapter 4: Controlled Chaos," Indiana University of Pennsylvania http://www.netdial.caribe.net/~jhsteele/catsch4.html.
See the sections on HearMeVoice Chat (which was replaced by Telcopoint Voice Chat), ICQ, MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger.

Vicki Starfire
Fujikin, Inc., Japan

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