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E-mail as a teaching tool
ETAI SUMMER 1997 E-mail as a teaching tool
Jack Pillemer

I. Introduction:

This presentation/ paper/ lecture arises out of a conviction that e-mail affords the English language learner an opportunity to increase his/ her writing output in a very meaningful and personal way. For the EFL learner there are very few frameworks in which he/she can do this. Most writing activities, no matter how "communicative" they are still remain simulations. The students have to imagine a particular situation and a particular audience and then style their writing to complete the writing assignment successfully. Students are always told to imagine that they are writing to a long lost relative, a letter to the editor of a newspaper, an old friend etc. This activity, no matter how well prepared by the teacher, will be perceived as "an exercise in writing" by the student. With e-mail, the student does not have to imagine anything! He/she is writing to a specific person that actually exists. This is no mere exercise. The letter that is sent will actually be read and related to. The student will be perceived by the reader on the basis of what he/she has written and how the ideas have been expressed. This new writing framework influences both the motivation and the responsibility taken by the student.

II. My first reaction to e-mail

Approximately three years ago I discovered E-mail. With a slow second hand modem in a 386 computer and a primitive dialer I was suddenly connected to, what felt like then, the whole wide world. With a flurry of excitement, I tracked down friends and family who were also connected to E-mail. What was stranger than anything else, was the desire to strike up new contacts and share ideas with people I had never met in my life before. I found myself eagerly opening my mail box to see who had responded and what they had to say. I began chatting to three high school students in a rural area of North America. They had free access to e-mail whenever they had completed their class assignments and probably found me as interesting as I found them. They asked me about my life and I asked them about theirs.

III. Experiments with e-mail as a teaching tool

A. E-mail and private tutoring

At the time, I was privately tutoring two students. Writing had always been a tiresome chore for them. They did it because I demanded it and in some theoretical way, they realized that it was necessary if they wanted to improve. Their work was always a little careless and the subject matter I chose didn't seem to stimulate them very much. I decided to find them keypals in the hope that this would be a novel way to encourage writing. They both took to the task immediately. Their motivation increased, and more importantly, their desire to write accurately (both grammatically and in their choice of vocabulary) was remarkable. I became the mailman and the mail box.

Whenever they arrived for a lesson their first question was whether they had received a reply or not. Then they had to read the letter and wanted to answer it immediately. They knew what they wanted to say and I guided them whenever I saw the need.

My own personal experience and the experience tutoring these two students lead me to the following conclusions:

  1. E-mail correspondence increases motivation to write.
  2. The EFL student tends to feel responsible for what s\he has written since it is personal (meaningful). S/he is reflected through the words and ideas and someone will actually read what has been written and respond to it. The response will be completely different from a teacheròs response.
B. E-mail for a class as part of an international project

Excited by this discovery I looked for a suitable E-mail framework on the internet into which I could slot a grade XI class. A project called "Journalism and the media" on Snunit seemed interesting and I enthusiastically registered my class as participants. Thereafter, I had to organize the class in such a way as to make the project succeed. I had numerous problems to overcome:

  1. I was the only person with access to E-mail.
  2. The school had one telephone line with a slow unreliable modem which could be used for the project.
  3. Most students did not know what e-mail was.
  4. Some students did not know how to write on a word processor.
  5. The computer lab at the school was not available for use during scheduled class hours.
The problems were dealt with as follows:
  1. I received the first letters of introduction from a class in North Carolina to my e-mail address. I printed them out and then handed them around the class. My students had to choose a key pal. This stage generated great excitement. The motivation to participate and communicate couldnòt have been higher.
  2. Students were asked to prepare their own letters of introduction to their chosen partners using Word or Qtext and to save them as a file on a diskette. This diskette had to be handed in to me. Those without computers at home or without a working knowledge of word processing were paired with more knowledgeable class members.
  3. I would upload each file, create one long E-mail letter and send it to the teacher in North Carolina.
  4. When I received the replies to these letters, I would save each one on the appropriate diskette and then hand it to the pupil in class. S/He would read the letter at home, answer it, save the answer as a file and hand the diskette back to me.
The instructions regarding the content of the correspondence was dealt with in class.

A number of factors lead to a decline in motivation on the part of the students and on my part as well.


  • Not all of them got replies and felt let down
  • The replies which were received were not personal enough to arouse interest to keep the correspondence up
  • The process was slow and cumbersome for students who did not have computers at home or the needed skill.
For me

The work from home was more than I had bargained for. I had to try solve technical problems that I hadnòt imagined. (Converting from Word (*.doc) files to ascii files, not being able to open certain files etc.).

I didn't have enough support from the co-ordinates of the project which was sorely needed I felt the need to be in greater control of the process but I had not established a framework for that control. For example, I had allowed students from another class to join the project but I had not set aside a scheduled weekly meeting with them to update them.

My experience with this e-mail project lead me to the following conclusions:

  • E-mail definitely excites, motivates and encourages writing.
  • The technical organization should not fall on the teacheròs shoulders alone.
  • The nature of the project must be clear and a personal element in the communication is essential if it is going to endure.
  • The participants must all come from the same class or at least have a meeting time during which both the organization and content can be organized.
C. E-mail project for a class where the teachers themselves define the framework and content

With these conclusions fairly clear in my mind, I set out to try an e-mail project which would more successfully achieve the aims that I defined.

I happened to find a teacher in a South African boarding school who was looking for a class of students to correspond with her students. The age of the students and the size of the class was suitable. This was not within an existing project so we could define our own aims and synchronize our own timetable. It seemed perfect. This time I had 5 students who had their own E-mail or easy access to e-mail. They played the role of postman that I had played the previous year. Students who did not have access came to them to write their letters or they brought their letters on diskettes.

In order to make the letters more interesting and in the end more personal I suggested a format to the SA teacher which was adopted. Students would introduce themselves in the normal way (School, age, family, interests etc.) but they would also be asked to relate to a number of questions. For example they were asked to describe what they could see from their window. They were asked what they would like to be doing if they didnòt have to be at school. They were asked to mention two or three things that really annoy or fascinate them.

When the students in my class received the first introductory letters, they were enthralled. The fought over who would be their key-pals. Their replies were also meaningful, though I only saw a few letters as I was no longer a "central post office".

I had planned to introduce topics for each set of letters, which would exist side by side with the personal relationship that would be developed. This was essential to keep the interest up.

Again, unforeseen problems limited the success of the project.

  1. Not all of my students wrote their letters and certainly not all at the same time. The South Africans didnòt all reply immediately.
  2. Some letters were very short. My students, who had put in a lot of effort expected more.
  3. The vacation in SA was just before we went on vacation meaning that there was a long period without contact.
  4. The South African teacher was in fact a computer teacher and E-mail was her subject for the first term. She no longer had the time to direct the students with regard to the subject matter of the letters and left everything up to me. This was impossible. Our needs no longer coincided.

The teachers at both ends must co-ordinate their expectations in advance. They should clarify the issues of numbers of pupils, age and sex of pupils, vacation times and how long they would like the correspondence to continue.

Both must be committed to make the project work. Their aims need not be identical but each must understand the others aims.

The responsibility for ensuring that letters are written and sent must be centralized and an appropriate framework for this should be created.

III. A model for a future e-mail project

I'm now planning for the 1997/98 academic year and will attempt once again to involve my EFL pupils in corresponding via e-mail. This third project will be based on the lessons learned from the previous projects outlined before.


To motivate students to write on a regular basis and take responsibility for both the content and the quality of their writing.

To expose students to a different cultural environment and thereby broaden horizons and encourage tolerance and understanding.


To ensure that students make contact with someone in a different country/culture via a class e-mail project. The student should write letters on a regular basis within a semi-controlled environment.

The student's written expression should improve during the process.

The student should be helped to reflect on the writing process in order to raise his/her consciousness of where more effort or help is needed


Co-ordinating a class e-mail project which contains the following elements:

1. Personal open honest expression of ideas between keypals. This will be achieved if, when the project is introduced, the aims of the project are made clear to the students.

Students should be made to reflect on when and why they feel most comfortable expressing themselves. Openness, honesty and sincerity will probably encourage the same from their key-pal and in the end both will benefit from being exposed to another human being.

Secondly, the teachers will play a vital role in urging the students to be more open by formulating questions that will ensure this process.

2. At least 5 letters which relate to specific "topics" introduced by the teachers. Five different topics will be dealt with which will highlight the differences and the similarities between the key pals. Actual events may dictate the nature of these topics [ natural phenomena (snowstorms, heat waves) violence (terror, crimes), national or international events (elections, sport)]. Where these subjects do not present themselves, subjects such as schooling, the army, religious/national/cultural/ethnic identity, drugs, environment etc. Should be introduced. It is important to stress that they type of question and the way it is phrased may determine whether the E-mail project succeed or fails. These questions must not be perceived as essay topic questions.

3. An organizational framework which ensures that the e-mail correspondence takes place within the scheduled time period, that the students know what they have to do and have the knowledge and means with which to do it.

This element is perhaps the most important of all. A well-structured, well-planned environment must exist. The teacher must know who has sent letters and who hasnòt. A solution to the technical problems of each student must be found. Organized work groups around students with e-mail access is a good idea. The teacher should know who is in each group and be aware of problems.

Regular lessons should be scheduled to deal with the project. During these lesson students share information, prepare for the next letter, discuss interesting facts that they have learned etc.

4. Limited control and evaluation of each student's participation. At the end of the e-mail project (or during it), the student must hand in at last two of his/her own letters and any two letters s/he has received, (not including the letters of introduction). S/he must also be asked to relate in writing to some aspect of the project.

This work may be part of a general portfolio or it may stand on its own.

The aim of this evaluation is make sure that the student has fulfilled his obligations as a participant in the project. A student who has invested a lot of energy should be given credit for his effort. The quality of the writing should not lower the evaluation unless it indicates lack of effort.

6. Preplanning and double checking

All of the elements above should be thoroughly discussed with the teacher of the "foreign" class before starting the project.

A mutual obligation to make the project succeed must be established with the foreign teacher.


Hand out for participants at ETAI Summer 1997 session

Plan for Workshop

I. Description of personal experience with e-mail.
Conclusions reached.

II. Model for future use

III. Unresolved issues

IV. Sharing of ideas and experiences

Useful information


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Journalism and the media


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Jack Pillemer
Phone 02-6720842

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