SLLT, Vol. 1, 2001

Mark Kupelian

The use of CALL and in particular e-mail in the L2 classroom has essentially increased the teacher's central role in "orchestrating learning experiences" (Kinzer & Leu, 1997, p. 24). Certainly, if one looks at the number of ways e-mail may be incorporated into the L2 classroom, one realises the challenge that exists for teachers to guide students learning via this form of electronic media so that students can develop their communication and thinking skills in what is perceived by students as a "very realistic form of communication" (Kroonenberg, 1995, p. 24).

This essay will be a discussion of the use of electronic mail (E-mail), regarded as "a powerful form of communication and a major educational resource" (Roberts, Rice & Thorsheim, 1994, p. 4), in the second language (L2) classroom. An overview will be made of current literature regarding the types of e-mail exchanges, using synchronous and asynchronous communicative technology, with reference to their relative merits and/or disadvantages of their use in the L2 classroom. Finally, suggestions will be made as to what appears most effective in terms of implementing e-mail in the L2 classroom.


Asynchronous e-mail has been described as magnifying the power and immediacy of the written word (Offit cited in Roberts et al., 1994) and as such represents authentic communication with a delay which allows students time to think and compose a message (Jung, 1999). This delay reduces student anxiety that they may otherwise feel using other forms of communication such as face-to-face or by telephone. This seems especially relevant for students communicating with native speakers through electronic penpal or keypal exchange or with their native speaking teacher. In other words, asynchronous e-mail might be less threatening for students to use to communicate with their teachers (Shetzer, 1997). Hoffman (1996), too, states that the "anonymous quality of network communication can be face-saving as well, relieving learners of the inhibitions associated with face-to-face communication and allowing them to express themselves more freely..." (p. 55).

The strategic use of e-mail can be a clever way to overcome the problem of face-saving which can inhibit learning. In fact, because e-mail is created by word processing on computer, students are more likely to revise their work more thoroughly due to the ease of correction (McGreal, 1986). Indeed, ideas may flow more freely, are recorded with a minimum of effort and can be readily amended (Hoffman, 1996). While using the word processor for general purposes apparently facilitates detachment and therefore makes students more willing to accept criticism (McGreal, 1986), it is unlikely that students would have the same feelings of detachment to the more personal writing generated through e-mail correspondence.

Another way in which e-mail may reduce anxiety is for students to communicate via student lists. This concept in which students send their messages to an e-mail list rather than to an individual allows students to receive mail in the target language without having to worry about responding to what they receive. According to the creators of the Student List Project, students can wait "until they feel ready to write or until the topic comes along on which they have something to contribute" (Robb, 1996, p. 6). However, one should note that on Dave's ESL Cafe's Student Forums, students tend to post their own opinions but rarely respond to another's message. Could it be that the egocentric nature of young adolescents may influence their desire to listen to another's opinion?


The Australaskan Writing Project, a computer-based intercultural exchange program involving the use of e-mail exchanges between students at Australian and Alaskan high schools, provided students with a strong motivation as they responded to not only the novelty of using the word processor to write for a real audience, and the excitement of receiving quick replies but also by the increased cultural knowledge gained in the exchanges (Beazley, 1988). As Jung (1999) states "e-mail-based projects can be motivating and exciting to students because they interact with real people about real things in a meaningful context" (p. 221).

However, exchange with native speaking students may prove to be difficult for L2 students and the native speakers themselves may have little motivation beyond learning about another culture. Robb (1996) advocates the use of Tandem exchanges, that is pairing students who are seeking help in learning the other's native language. As well as learning about each other's language, students will find out more about the target language culture. Robb (1996) suggests getting students to write about topics such as cultural differences and similarities, this is what it's like in our country and points of view. Alternatively, Warschauser (1996) describes an e-mail project in which Bulgarian students corresponded with American TESOL graduate students. While the Bulgarian students benefited from learning about American culture and developing their English language skills, the American students gained teaching experience through handling students' linguistic and cultural questions. Additionally, Jung (1999) cites research by Lee (1997) in which students using e-mail improved their attitudes towards native speakers and the target culture.


In terms of improving target language skills, a study done on students using internet resources as a primary instructional tool found that e-mail was the most useful tool employed in the class and that students believed they improved their writing skills over and above their listening, speaking and reading skills (Oliva & Pollastrini cited in Jung, 1999). Empirical studies on the use of e-mail in foreign language writing have shown it improves students' attitudes towards learning and practising the target language (Gonzalez-Bueno & Perez, 2000). However, there are conflicting results on the effect e-mail has on the amount of language generated by students. Gonzalez-Bueno and Perez (2000) found that, in a study of learners of Spanish as an L2, students using e-mail for their dialogue journals out-performed those who used pencil and paper in the amount of language generated. This research seems to confirm earlier studies (Wang, 1993) on ESL students who when using e-mail, wrote more per writing session. Gonzales-Bueno and Perez (2000) attribute this to the freedom of access students had to computers and their attitudes towards using the computers. In a study of students' academic writing e-mail, Weasenforth and Lucas (1997) found that on-line responses tended to be shorter than corresponding off-line essays. Their findings show that students writing off-line include an initial contextualisation of information, whereas those writing on-line tend to begin by providing their personal opinion. Perhaps this is further evidence of the immediate nature of on-line communication and it is therefore unsuitable for academic type essays, unless the essays are first word processed before submission. It should be noted, however, that vocabulary and grammatical accuracy are not necessarily improved using e-mail (Gonzales-Bueno & Perez, 2000). This might appear to conflict with previously mentioned studies on how word processing improves revision. However, it proves the point that teachers need to play an active role, even in the transmission of personal-type e-mail for class purposes. Unless students receive feedback on their work, they may be unaware of errors, no matter how long they spend revising their work.

Another use of asynchronous e-mail is that of conferencing whereby students respond to a topic but have access and can respond to what other students write. Kroonenberg (1995) says that, in her experience, while students are encouraged to write freely they tend to take more care in their writing because they may be conscious of a large number of other students who have access to the writing. While this may appear to contradict earlier statements about e-mail reducing anxiety due to anonymity, students still have the possibility of delaying immediate answers unlike face-to-face or telephone communication. In fact students make good use of this delay: they say they tend to proof-read more when their writing is on the screen (Kroonenberg, 1995). An additional benefit of the on-line discussion conducted by Kroonenberg is that students who were usually timid about participating in class became more active participants. It seems they were able to collect their thoughts first through writing and reading other students responses before they participated in the classroom discussion. Additionally, Jung (1999) cites research conducted on students learning German who after using e-mail and the Internet, were better prepared for face-to-face classroom discussion.


However, working with e-mail is not without its problems. Jor and Mak (1994) describe two e-mail projects involving university students from Hong Kong and other countries. By collecting and analysing feedback from students and teachers, Jor and Mak have assembled a list of what opens windows for ESL learners and what does not. Specifically, students should have adequate access to resources, adequate time to learn, use and reflect on the e-mail writing process, be well-matched in terms of partner levels and objectives, have a willingness to embrace new technology, and an ownership of the project as writers, respondents, researchers, negotiators and judges. From the teacher's perspective, the project should be planned in advance with the e-mail being integrated into the ESL curriculum. The project should provide students with formal writing tasks with a given list of topics. Teachers should also be willing to collaborate through frequent forums, that is the commitment of the teacher to the project appears to be crucial. Conversely, what does not work is a mismatch of term dates, that is when communicating classes do not attend school at the same time, when writing tasks are informal and topics not specific enough or if there is no real purpose for using e-mail. Once again, the pivotal role of the teacher in using this technology is obvious. Without a firm commitment and well-planned activities the use of e-mail is likely to be unsuccessful.

One issue that appears to threaten the success of e-mail in the L2 classroom is the problem of non-response. According to Simmers-Walpow (as cited in Roberts et al, 1994, p. 2), "non-response is analagous to being stood up for a date". It is easy to see that this may have a profound effect on students' motivation to participate in this kind of activity. What appears to be crucial is teacher attitude as much as the attitudes of students. If teachers integrate e-mail into ongoing coursework then the importance of maintaining connections should be brought home to students. Additionally, by allowing students to share in class groups their experience in e-mail connections, students who receive few (or no) messages from outside of class can still feel a part of the activity (Roberts et al, 1994).

Finally, as an alternative to asynchronous e-mail, chat mode may avert the problems described above. In this case two or more students use the computer simultaneously to talk back and forth. Kroonenberg (1995) describes her students' reactions to using this type of communication: "I find it far easier to think in chat mode than in an actual conversation. Also, chat mode helps my writing and thinking because it cultivates the ability to think and compose spontaneously" (pp. 25-26).

Chat mode as opposed to asynchronous e-mail has the additional feature of improving the reading speeds of students. One student noted that using chat mode improved the speed of his/her comprehension (Kroonenberg, 1995). Jung (1999) also notes that shy students who usually refuse to speak in a classroom actively participate in chatting.


To sum up, research indicates that students tend to benefit from using e-mail both in its synchronous and its asynchronous forms by having opportunities to communicate in real life situations. E-mail provides a kind of non-threatening atmosphere in which students feel less inhibited about expressing themselves, are more likely to revise their work, and are stimulated to learn by connecting to a real audience. While some studies confirm the amount of discourse increases through e-mail, it does not appear to affect length of academic writing. Additionally, although students appear to revise their work more carefully, they do not necessarily improve their grammar or increase their vocabulary. Thus, lastly, and crucially, the success of e-mail seems to depend on how teachers adopt it in the classroom; like any good teaching resource, its use needs to be planned carefully and integrated properly into the curriculum. Further, it appears that students should have their work monitored so that errors may be addressed; that is, a student's mistake must be either self-corrected or teacher corrected for them to learn.


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