ePals

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Snail mail

It’s been a looong time since I last wrote a letter to anyone, especially an informal one. With technology taking over the world, I feel like pen pals have become a thing of the past. Wow, it’s now around 20 years ago I had a pen pal in France, arranged by my teacher at high school. With people getting used to receiving messages and letters instantly via technology, I think people have become too impatient to have pen pals the way we once did. This doesn’t mean we can’t use technology and still have pen pals. There are websites out there to connect students from all around the world. The one I’m going to talk about is ePals.

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ePals home page

EPals was founded in 1996, but has had a makeover since then. It has merged with a program called In2Books which is a structured curriculum that pairs students with students or students with adult mentors. They read and study something in common, and then have a dialogue about it. It promotes collaborative and authentic learning for grades 3-5. The program provides access to free books too.

ESL learners require motivation and confidence to write. If they are able to write about their interests with a real purpose, then this helps motivate them a lot more. Epals is a fantastic way for ESL learners to connect with native speakers and other ESL learners globally, to communicate, share experiences, discuss ideas and help one another and also learn about different cultures. Many researchers (Au, 1993; Barnitz, 1998; Freeman & Freeman, 1990; Halliday, 1975; Lindfors, 1987) argue that personal interaction plays an important role in learning a language. Students are able to learn better through interacting with each other and sharing ideas and messages in a meaningful way. Pen pal or ePals is a perfect way to fulfil these aspects of language development. Having a pen pal gives learners an opportunity to improve their writing through an authentic audience. It gets students excited, knowing that their writing will be read by someone genuinely interested in what they have to say, and can expect to receive a genuine reply.

Learners can rest assured that ePals is safe and secure as they try their very best to safeguard privacy and ensure cyber safety. Teachers will be pleased to know that there are plenty of ready to use resources on the site to make life easier for them. There are also resources for learners in the Learning Centre, where they can find links to some fun activities. Learners can play games with each other or share news from around the world.

Not only is ePals for connecting with others, it has a ‘projects’ feature. There are many projects for newly connected schools to engage in, which include topics such as global warming, culture, history etc. These projects come with learning objectives, lesson plans, and resources, making life a lot easier for teachers.

A downside to having a pen pal electronically as opposed to the traditional mailing method, is that learners don’t get that excitement of waiting for the post and physically opening their letter. I guess this has become the norm these days, and youngsters don’t feel like they’re missing something they haven’t had before.

One of the great advantages of this site is that there is a Teachers’ Forum, which makes it easy for learners to communicate with teachers from around the world. The forum is useful for learners to ask questions or to just get ideas from posts. In addition, there is a Help Centre to assist site users, which includes videos and answers to frequently asked questions. This is handy as the site is not really for technophobes as it can be quite cumbersome with many navigations.

It is free to register with ePals, just click here to join.

Further reading:
Liu, P. (2002). Developing an E-Pal Partnership a School-Based International Activity. Childhood education, 79(2), 81-87.

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Boardthing

I hope you all enjoyed reading my last blog. Today, I’m going to blog about something I wish I had known about and used in my teaching so far, but surprisingly, I had never come across it until now… that is Boardthing!

If you like sticky notes and whiteboards, and you like sticking notes on whiteboards, then you will definitely like Boardthing.

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Traditional whiteboard with sticky notes

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A screenshot of Boardthing

Boardthing is a free tool, which can be used in the ESL classroom to access a shared board online. Students use a unique URL that is created each time a new board is created to access that board. The URL can be turned into a QR code, using a QR code generator, to make this task easier due to the long URL, or it can be replaced by a short URL, using TinyURL. Boardthing is very simple and easy to use, which is an advantage for students who are nervous using such technology. You can have as many members on the board as you like. The way it works is that you create cards, like sticky notes, and you write in it and post it on the board. You are able to choose from a variety of colours for the cards, and you can even link them with lines to show their relationship.

Unlike sticky notes, the cards can be easily edited, moved around on the board and be put into groups – without falling or leaving a sticky residue! Additionally, a new board can be created with a click of a button, rather than having to do it all manually. To make things more interesting than a simple whiteboard, with sticky notes, the tool allows you to add images with captions, and interactive content, such as videos and hyperlinks, into the cards. In addition to just adding images, you can have an image as a background and put the cards on top. Oh, and I almost forgot, you can of course draw on the board too – a whiteboard wouldn’t be the same if you weren’t able to draw on it now would it?!

Zou et al. (2016) found that with collaborative learning using wikis, students enjoyed correcting each other’s mistakes and it had improved their writing skills. Boardthing is useful in brainstorming and collaborating with others. The great thing is, as soon as a participant writes an idea, it is added to the board, from the comfort of their own seats and without having to wait their turn or share the board marker! Additionally, participants can vote on ideas. Each participant is given a certain number of dots they can use to vote. There are no restrictions on the number of times a participant can vote on an idea and the number of dots given to each participant is also not limited. This should ideally be changed, as results of a vote could be skewed due to participants voting more than once.

This tool is useful in the ESL classroom, as students can get creative with ideas in a visual and fun way. It will also provide both reading and writing practice. However, some students may be reluctant to send cards due to their lack of confidence in their writing, and wanting to avoid other students from seeing their grammar or spelling mistakes. In order to combat this issue, teachers can reassure their students, praise their participation and do less error correction on the cards sent. Many of the features are available on the Smartboard software, but the key difference with Boardthing is that students have access to a shared board online – cool!

https://boardthing.com

Further reading:
Zou, B., Wang, D., & Xing, M. (2016). Collaborative tasks in Wiki-based environment in EFL learning. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 29(5), 1000-1016.

Weblog

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Sun (2010) concluded that ‘writing weblogs in an online environment could be beneficial in improving learners’ writing skills, enhance learners’ motivation to write, and foster both learners’ monitoring strategies and learner autonomy’. Weblogs, aka blogs, have never been as popular as they are these days. From famous people blogging about their lives, to make up artists blogging about the latest lipstick. It is not only a hobby but also a career for many people around the world. It is popular amongst young and old, men and women. It’s so popular among so many people around the globe that there’s very little reason why it shouldn’t be incorporated into the classroom. Blogging does not require one to have an advanced level of technical knowledge. It looks a little like an online journal and once you get all set up, it’s almost as simple as writing emails.

There are a few ways blogging can be used in ELT:

  1. A class blog is one that can be shared between the teacher and students. It can be used as a discussion space or to extend on class work. Students can share their opinions and experiences in this blog. The great thing is, it doesn’t have to be so dull, as students can make it more interesting by sharing pictures, web links, videos and audios.
  2. A blog run by the teacher can be useful to share interesting things about the British culture, which can then be discussed in class. The teacher can also write about various topics and include pictures and videos to keep students engaged. This can then lead to other tasks in the classroom. Although students are not involved in the actual blogs, they can leave comments. A teacher run blog can also be used to set homework, provide assignment details, course information, announcements, etc. It’s a good way to keep things paperless and readily accessible.
  3. Another type of blog that can be used in ELT is the student blog. Each student can have their own online space to write their individual blogs. This requires more effort from the teacher to set up and keep on top of, but is one of the best types. Students can write about their hobbies, experiences etc. and can comment on other students’ blogs.

Blogging is great for many reasons. It can create a sense of community in the class, which helps to get students to open up to their peers in class and communicating further. It also gives an opportunity for any shy students in the class to express themselves. Most of the time, students’ written work is only read by their teacher. Writing blogs provides a real audience and students are more likely to put in extra effort in their writing, knowing that a much wider audience than just their teacher will be reading their work. It’s also a form of reading practice, as they will read blogs written by their peers or their teacher. Blogging can also be a space to do group work and share ideas.

Although there are many advantages of using weblogs in ELT, there are some disadvantages too. It is not easy for the teacher to correct the work produced by the students. A way to overcome this could be to check the writing before the student publishes it, or the teacher can correct published work in class with the students. Another thing that may put students off, are the comments. They may feel nervous about anyone being able to comment on their work. However, this can be restricted to just the students in the class or just registered bloggers.

Having experienced blogging and commenting on blogs for a few months now, I would highly recommend using this in the classroom. I can see how effective it can be in teaching the English language.

Now, to get started, you can use the very popular WordPress or Blogger, which are both free and quite simple to use. Don’t be afraid to play around with the features – they won’t bite!

Further reading:
Sun, Y. C. (2010). Extensive writing in foreign‐language classrooms: A blogging approach. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 47(3), 327-339.

Edmodo

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So, I was reading about technology tools used in the classroom and I came across Edmodo. I had never heard of it before, but stumbled across it in my search a few days ago. Anyway, for those who don’t know what it is… it’s a free educational learning platform, which allows students, teachers and parents to connect. It’s been around since 2008. A few years ago, Edmodo was included in “The Top Apps for Teachers” by PC Magazine. It looks similar to Facebook – in fact some people call it ‘Fakebook’ – but it’s for educational purposes and is controlled by the teacher. Therefore, students cannot message each other privately; they must either message the whole group or the teacher.

Including Edmodo in English classes is a good way to engage students with the use of certain Edmodo features. Students can use Edmodo for online activities, such as quizzes, gain access to online resources, support, and communication, such as forums. This is a great way for students to interact with each other in English.

Resources from all over the world can be shared on Edmodo. There is a feature called Edmodo Spotlight, which can be used to search games, apps, plus free and premium tools. Conveniently, a collection of favourite resources can be created. Teachers can even sell their educational content, or upload and share them for free. This is great for new teachers, who don’t have a lot of experience creating their own resources.

By using Edmodo, teachers can limit their paperwork. There is unlimited storage, and teachers can assign homework and manage progress on it. There are many other features too. Families can also get involved, as there is a mobile app for parents, so events, assignments, reminders and more can be shared with students’ families. Therefore, parents may find it reassuring to be aware of their children’s progress and be a part of their learning experience.

Knowing just how much people like social networking, I think students would enjoy using Edmodo, both in and out of the classroom, and it would add a sense of togetherness – with shared objectives. It could fit seamlessly with their social networking habits and so students may find it easier to dedicate time towards this educational tool. However, students that are not comfortable with social networking, may find it intrusive and cumbersome.

Here is a link to the Edmodo site.

The video below is an Edmodo tutorial for teachers.

As loud as a car hoot!

There is a quiz out there that gets your class actually excited, yes excited, to ‘play’ it. Expect heavy competition, noise and a sense of thrill in the air with Kahoot. It’s a popular classroom quiz that indeed ‘make(s) learning awesome’, as it says on the website. Kahoot is fun and addictive, and it’s a great tool to keep all students engaged at the same time. In my experience, just the mention of it gets students wide-eyed and raring to go; that’s if they hadn’t suggested it themselves already!

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Uberman (1998) notes how many experienced materials writers maintain that games are more than just time-filling activities as they add a great educational value. Yip and Kwan (2006) found that the use of online games made a marked difference in students learning vocabulary. Kahoot can certainly help with vocabulary learning and it makes a great starter, plenary or filler activity. It’s an ideal tool for informal formative assessment too.

After the teacher initiates the quiz, ‘players’ enter a ‘game pin’ on their smartphone internet browser to enter the same ‘game’ and then choose nicknames. When the quiz is started, players see the questions displayed, typically on the interactive whiteboard. They are given a predetermined amount of time to answer questions by selecting a colour that corresponds to a selection of the possible answers that are projected. Points are accrued when correct answers are selected – the faster the response the higher the points. Between each question, a leaderboard is briefly displayed, which really keeps students on the edge of their seats. At the end, the winner’s name is proudly displayed for all to marvel at, after which you usually get a request for another game!

Kahoot is so intuitive that it’s almost hardly worth describing the rules to students and is almost self explanatory upon seeing the interface. The quizzes are easy and quick to create, thanks to the user-friendly design. What’s more, there are thousands of ready-made kahoots available on all sorts of topics to simply search for and use, which can also be saved as favourites and either played individually or in teams. The downside of using other people’s created quizzes is that there are some irrelevant questions often found and even some mistakes! On the whole, though, I found Kahoots on vocabulary testing especially useful and it really is versatile in it’s applicability, as it can be equally good in testing grammar, or activating schemata, for example. On the other hand, only being able to set multiple choice questions limits the scope and depth of the quizzes, although Kahoot can also be used for discussions and surveys.

Using Kahoot, you’re bound to be a popular teacher and much loved by your students – something that I’m sure many of us quietly crave! Please feel free to share your experiences with Kahoot and let me know what you think of it.

Kahoot for teachers

Kahoot for students

A slide share on getting started with Kahoot

Further reading:
http://www.teflgames.com/why.html
Yip, F. W., & Kwan, A. C. (2006). Online vocabulary games as a tool for teaching and learning English vocabulary. Educational media international, 43(3), 233-249.

Using Skype in ESL Teaching

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Skype is a software application that is part of Microsoft. It is used to communicate with people using the internet by audio, video or messaging. Many people around the world use Skype to teach languages. It is an effective tool to teach English or any other language, as it incorporates verbal interaction between teachers and students. One of my student in Saudi Arabia was sad to lose me as a tutor when I returned to England. Recently she contacted me and asked if I can teach her through Skype. I was quite sceptical about it at the time, however, having looked in to it now, I think it may actually be a good alternative to face to face tutoring. It offers flexibility to learners who do not have the time to travel to classes.

Skype has some useful features, making it a great tool for teaching English. These features include the following:

  • Conference calls
  • Instant messaging or chat
  • File sharing
  • Screen sharing

The conference calling feature can be used to teach groups. Instant messaging is useful to share a URL or to correct the student’s mistakes. The file sharing feature is an effective way to use digital flashcards or pictures in order to teach new words. It can also be used to share worksheets for students to do and even MP3 files to do listening activities. Students are able to see what the teacher is seeing on the screen by using the screen sharing feature. This can be used to do reading exercises, go through PowerPoint slides, use Microsoft Paint as a white board and many other things. With such capabilities, students no longer need to be in the same room as the teacher, or even the same country! This way learners living in countries where there are few native English teachers can still have access to them.

Here is a link to Skype