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Best Idea Ever: Streaming Conversations



Education World's Best Idea Ever feature highlights a favorite teacher-tested idea designed to help you teach a lesson, manage a classroom, communicate with parents, impress colleagues and administrators—and amaze them all with your energy and creativity!

I teach ESL and one thing I like to do with students who need to learn computer skills as well as improve their language proficiency is to help them develop e-mail journals. I've done this project with college kids, as well as with high school, middle-school, and upper-elementary students.

I start them off with an initial question: "Tell me about your home country. What do you miss most? What has been the biggest surprise in coming here?" (You'll want to choose a topic you think students will be interested in.) Then I simply respond to their initial e-mails in a way that encourages continuing communication. You can do it too. Just keep the following tips in mind:

  • Make sure you end your replies to each student's e-mail with an open question that the student has to answer with more than just one word ("How did that make you feel?" "What do you think will happen next?").
  • Never directly correct students' journals for grammar and spelling. Instead, respond indirectly to incorrect student statements with the correct statement. For example: Student: "My home country Russia nice place." Teacher: "Oh, your home country is Russia. What do you like most about it?"
  • Stagger the dates when students start their journals, so you only have to answer some of their e-mails each week.

What happens is that you create a conversation stream with each student. That's extremely important, because it means you're connecting regularly with each student -- something that can be difficult to do in a classroom. You get to make each student feel special -- not a small return on your investment of a few moments of time.

You also have provided yourself with the opportunity to use the computer not just as a tool you teach with, but also as a tool through which you teach. For example,

  • After exchanging several e-mails with your students, do a mini-grammar lesson on some of the more common grammar and/or spelling errors students have made. By tackling their errors in the form of a class lesson, you protect students' feelings and lessen the risk that the dreadful "self-sensor" mechanism will build a wall between students and the language they want and need to learn.
  • To improve the content of their e-mails, help students search online for relevant information in their home language -- online encyclopedias online or Web sites that deal with information they are learning about in class, for example. Empower them to find the resources, and have them translate the information into English.

Finally, you can use the computer to improve your own skills and resources. Check out for books that give teachers ideas for using the Internet. And, if you're not already a member, consider joining TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), the largest organization of ESL/ESOL teachers in the United States. They have many linksand links to links to links.. Also, check out

Submitted by: Michael Peter Alemn, kindergarten teacher, International School of Kuala Lumpur

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