Tom's ESL Lounge


Episode 1:

The Mail Went Out

February 24, 1998

Tom Axtell and Julie Lafontaine

(the authors)


On February 23, Julie Lafontaine launched an email exchange project at the Seminaire de Sherbrooke. She was assisted in the design and implementation of the project by Tom Axtell. They are both doing graduate studies in English as a Second Language at Bishop's University. This paper describes a new language learning activity and relates this to their theory of language learning.

The purpose of this project is one of motivation. The learners of the class all had difficulties and maybe even failures throughout the years with their ESL. An activity was required that would provide for a positive experience in the L2. In the words of their instructor,

"I want to break the isolation between second language learners and native speakers of the second language. I want the English to become alive and personally meaningful for each of my students. The reading and writing skills are secondary but nonetheless important. "

The project uses new technologies to bring L2 learners together. It demonstrates a model of peer tutoring for second language learners on the Internet. Tom Axtell had already seen how compelling e-mail and chat in English had been for Inuktitut speaking children at a community access centre in Arctic Québec. He was interested to see how immersed learners could become in email communication while still in a classroom setting.



The Plan

Julie arranged an email exchange between her FFL/ESL college students in Quebec and an EFL/FSL class in the US. This report describes the how the class got their first message on-line. Additional reports will document the project as it progresses to internet relay chat and if resources permit, real-time Internet telephony (audio conferencing).

As we did not have e-mail addresses of each of the USA students, the first message was mailed to the US teacher. The students would be paired by the US teacher, in the manner chosen by the class. To maximize the experience in each other's second language, the language of communication exchanges will alternate. Quebec students will first write about themselves in English. The US students will reply in English, so that the Quebec students have a chance to read the native speaker's message. Quebec students then reply in French; the US students reply in French, and so on. If each person only wrote in their second language, the exchange would be missing the input from the native language speaker that the students need most. Students were informed that their exchanges will be monitored and handed in as an assignment.

The questions we will be asking ourselves as the project develops include:

  • Why are they motivated by this activity?

  • Did they carry on their exchange outside the classroom?

  • Are attitudes toward L2 improved?

  • How feasible is this technically?

  • Did their communication indicate good comprehension?

  • What kind of correction activity occurred?

  • Any obvious difference in communication between the types of pairs i.e. female-female, male-female etc?

  • What Happened

    This class is the lowest level of the three offered at the private college. When the e-mail correspondence project was announced one student remarked, "C'est une bonne idee". The instructor was glad to hear the comment from this particular student, one of the least motivated of all. This student refuses to speak the L2 and is occasionally disruptive to the class. She hoped that the email project might improve this student's attitude toward learning English.

    Tom Axtell explained how the Internet sends messages and asked the class about their current communications activities. Only two students had email at home. One used email rarely, and the other spent about an hour per week with email. One had tried chat. None wrote letters it seemed, but they all used the telephone to communicate frequently. The class moved to the computer lab.

    The students had basic computer skills so getting on the Net and finding the site to register for email ( went quickly. There was no hesitation in following the registration process, which was in English. No time was spent in selecting a personal email address. There were corrections required in registering for the email account which they solved with some help from one another and the instructors.

    Some students were blocked in the final step of registering because they did not read the instructions on the screen properly. We encouraged them to read what's on the screen before giving them the answer. Students are used to asking for help rather then trying to figure out the problem by themselves by taking the time to read the instructions. Since the students will be using the email on their own outside of class time, they will have to rely a little more on themselves.

    The writing of their message was much more exciting for the students than registering for the email account. They were obviously thrilled by the idea that a real someone (English speaker) would actually read and reply to their message. They spent 15-30 minutes writing their introductory message. They had fun and were eager to correct their writing with the help of the instructors and co-students.

    In the remaining few minutes of class time they wrote each other messages. They enjoyed this even more, seeing the words of their co-students. However, without specific instructions to do otherwise, they had switched to French.

    The e-mail exchange appears to be from the first experience, fun and interesting. Students seemed to enjoy the exercise and all the skills and technology were in place for lots of communication with English first language speakers on the Internet. The two students who had e-mail at home worked just as hard, or even harder than the others, suggesting that this exercise will be interesting for the students long term.


    Our email project's main objective is to motivate the students to develop a positive attitude towards the L2 and its culture. The Net provided isolated 2nd language learners with a communicative experience in which they are actively and personally involved in an authentic interaction with L2 native speakers. Students are probably motivated to use and learn the L2 by the possibilities for inter-personal relations, in this case with peers in another country. Through the Net-mediated activity students will learn about the culture of the L2 and thus they might develop a more positive attitude towards the L2. The text-based medium of email and chat is believed to be non-threatening for learners. This medium lowers their affective filters (Krashen, 1984).

    We feel acquisition of language in this setting is best related to an interactionist's perspective (M. H. Long, 1990). The theories operating in this activity are the ones referring to the affective domain, motivation, sociocultural factors (attitudes) and, on another level the ones dealing with the characteristics of the language involved in the interaction.

    The email correspondence certainly provides students with comprehensible input which is necessary for L2 learning. We also believe that this activity will have a positive influence on the students' self-confidence in their L2 skills which they greatly need. The messages that they send are clear enough to be understood and they will receive a reply (positive evidence) to each specific message they send. It's been observed by Icy Lee in her review of peer studies that "students like to let their peers read their drafts because their comments were more encouraging than those of the teachers". The literature on peer learning supports this aspect of the learning we expect to observe.

    Most important we believe that the activity will enhance intrinsic motivation. A friendly relationship is likely to develop naturally between correspondents making them want to pursue the exchange for their own interest rather than for only obtaining grades.

    - 30 -

    What happened?

    Things went according to plan for the first day. There was tremendous enthusiasm among students as they succeeded in obtaining their first e-mail account. Then there was a flurry of messaging between the students. They needed to be reminded that this was an English lesson as most wrote their first message in French. A week past before the next session and short messages went out to the overseas e-pals. Not everyone wrote back and the length of time between sending and receiving a reply was too long. Interest for the exchange fell off. Next time, we'll make sure that the students have more than one e-pal and that the students circulate e-mail among themselves first.

    This was an Activity prepared on assignment with
    Professor Dr. Richard Kruk, GSE582b: Language Acquisition
    Bishop's University, Quebec, Canada

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