Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Educational Blogging
Blinger asked a little while ago that I talk some more about my experiences using blogs in my ESL class. Sandy, my fabulous supervisor, had asked me to participate in an online course on using blogs in the ESL setting a while ago, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot anyway. Here are some more organized thoughts on it.

Just tonight in my teaching methodology class, one of the issues we were discussing was how to inspire bored ESL students who appear to have little attachment or interest in their own writing, and who have no conception of how to write for an authentic audience. My immediate response was to use blogs. Blogs are an excellent way to introduce the concept of writing for an audience. The teacher can spend a lot of time talking about the fact that because their blogs are on the internet, the students need to consider the following things:

1) What topics are appropriate to write about? Anyone can see their blogs; classmates, teachers (their own and others in the program), friends and family from home, random strangers. They should spend some time thinking about what kinds of things they feel comfortable writing about.

2) What topics are going to be interesting? This can get them to think about presentation. They need to think about their prospective audience and how they wish to present themselves to these people out there.

3) What kinds of details should be included? This is a good time to emphasize that writing is different than carrying on a conversation. Students need to think about what kind of background information their audience shares with them, and what information needs to be explained. This is especially important to think about when contrasting ESL and EFL teaching contexts.

Of course, the most direct way of making students aware of their audience while blogging is to also use the commenting function. My students just installed that function on their blogs, so I haven’t used it as a teaching aid or big motivation with them much. However, just before we installed the comments, one of my students received an email from someone in Pennsylvania, who had gone through the trouble of contacting a friend at MSU to look up the student’s email address for her, just because the person wanted to say hello and offer encouragement to my student. I have no idea how this woman found my student’s blog, but it certainly is an illustrative example of how blogs can make connections all over the world, from very unexpected sources. My student was quite surprised.

My own class seems to be keeping up their blogs well. No doubt a large part of this is due to the fact that updating their blogs at least 3 times a week is 15% of their grade. However, I do not think that they would be so inclined to keep it up if I had simply told them it was a requirement and they had to do it. I spent a lot of time explaining why I thought this was an important thing for them to do, and how it could help their learning. I told them that writing on their blog forces them to think in English outside of class, but it lets them think, and write, about subjects that interest them. Constantly practicing their English writing will help their reading, speaking, listening, and grammar as well, because putting their English to use helps them remember vocabulary, and notice grammatical structures they have already learned.

Because I teach in an ESL context, that is, in the United States to international students, I also took the opportunity to mention to my students that I hope they will continue to write on their blogs after they return to their home countries. Doing so will let them stay in touch with each other, as well as offering a constant medium for them to practice their English once they are no longer living in an immersion environment. I think many of my students realize how easy it will be for them to lose much of their English proficiency after they return home, and I hope they will actually follow through on their currently professed desires to keep practicing. Since this is the first semester in which I have used blogging with my students, this remains to be seen. I don’t think this method of inspiration would be as successful in an EFL setting, either, since most of those students may already live near each other and have no need of such a method to stay in touch. Then again, I live many states away from most of my college friends and use blogs as a way to stay up to date on their lives, even though we all live in the US. So who knows.

If you are hoping to encourage blogging as a long-term project, instead of something closely tied to the content of your particular class, I think it is also important to stress that simply the act of writing is beneficial. Many ESL students seem to become overly concerned with making sure their grammar is perfect, rather than pursuing overall fluency. I told my students that I would not correct their grammar on their blogs; instead, they can see it as a easily viewed personal record of their language progress from the start of their current course onward. I have tried to make them more aware of how much actually trying to think in English can help the fluency of their writing, whereas stopping too often to make sure the grammar is correct or to look up many new words makes their writing choppy and hard to follow. This is a very different philosophy than many of my students have ever experienced towards learning English, but I think that they do recognize some merit in it.

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