Instant messaging with learners

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Instant messaging with learners by Kat Robb

instant messaging


You either love it or you hate it, but the fact of the matter is that smartphone technology is here to stay. It is intrinsic to daily life in a society increasingly dominated by electronic devices. Current global subscriber rates for mobile phones are 4.7 billion, and smartphone ownership worldwide is predicted to reach 2.08 billion by the end of 2016 ( Mobile technologies are creating pivotal changes in the language-learning classroom, which is something some educators choose to embrace but others are reluctant to integrate into their teaching practice. Fear of the unknown, lack of knowledge and distraction, are the main reasons why many teachers are not enthusiastic about exploiting smartphones in the classroom. I am not suggesting for one minute that incorporating smartphones into the classroom is going to instantly provide all the answers to low motivation and instructional goals being met more successfully. However, I do believe that if smartphones can be used to facilitate learning both inside and outside the classroom and serve as a fresh medium of instruction, then they should at least be considered. Besides, incorporating new technologies into the classroom can open up new learning opportunities to better meet learner needs and it brings the outside world into the classroom.

I have no objection to students using their phones in class, and I enjoy finding new ways of incorporating them into my teaching practice to scaffold learning and motivate learners. At IATEFL this year, I shared some research that I carried out last summer during a ten-week EAP course with a class of 16 multilingual students to help them with their academic writing. There was a mixture of nationalities in the class: Omani, Thai, Italian, Iraqi and Chinese, and despite the common language being English, there was a distinct lack of integration among the students. I therefore needed to find a strategy to prompt students to engage with each other and eliminate any barriers there may be between different L1 uses. I split the students up by nationalities, and had the students sitting together in groups of four in a café style classroom layout to promote interaction, but this was not enough.

This was the first time the students had been away from home for an extended period of time, so their phones became an extension of their hands in order for them to feel connected to friends and family at home. By harnessing the affordances of smartphones for free instant messaging (IM), I set up a class WeChat IM group with the aims of reaching the four learning objectives below:

  1. To boost student motivation for academic writing.
  2. To increase student collaboration.
  3. To establish a sense of community in the classroom.
  4. To improve academic writing skills.

I specifically chose WeChat (The Chinese version of WhatsApp) because it is possible to sign up using Facebook accounts so there was no need for an exchange of personal information and consequently no infringement on privacy. My intention was to make a correlation between the constant Tweeting, social media updates and instant messages my students were writing all day long, and academic writing, while also trying to bring a motivational and fun element to the learning.

During the ten-week course, the students were guided through a range of activities both inside and outside the classroom, in order to help them reach the four learning objectives outlined previously. They were encouraged to share their ideas and collaborate with peers as they interacted using WeChat. Not only was this a more student-led approach to learning, it also created a sense of community amongst the class members. I was perfectly aware that it might feel strange to the students having the teacher as a member of the group, so I built up the activities gradually over time, starting with a simple synonym race (outlined below). I also ensured that all members of the class were on board and gave them an anonymous questionnaire to complete to ensure there were no objections. The questionnaire also provided information regarding the usefulness of having an IM group from the learners’ perspective. I think it is important to get student feedback on learning activities because as teaching professionals we are quick to make pedagogical decisions, and the only way to gain an insight into how it feels from a student point of view is to ask.



The feedback I received was generally very positive, here is a summary of the most common responses the students gave:

  • The activities were fun and interesting and transformed a task we dreaded into something we enjoyed.
  • I communicated more with my classmates and learnt from them.
  • I compared my work with my classmates and adopted a competitive approach to impress them (this was reflected in the quality of the writing the students produced).
  • I feel the gap between the teacher and I has narrowed, because she is a part of the chat group.
  • I feel more confident about writing now, so I am more motivated also.


Here are some of the activities I conducted during the course:


Synonym race

Using a selection of high frequency words in academic English, I sent words one by one to the IM group. Each time I sent a word, the first group of students to reply with a synonym got a point. This motivated students to think quickly, and added a fun element to the activity. It also helped widen their lexical range and they were able to refer back to the messages during the course to find and use the lexis as they required.


Lecture summary

This was a collaborative writing task where students shared their notes from the weekly lecture and wrote a summary together in no more than 100 words. The four groups wrote their summaries up on WeChat and sent them to the group. Each group read the summaries of the other groups and made a note of any inaccuracies, points they wanted to question, and things they liked. The groups proceeded to read their summaries aloud open-class, and as they did this any student was allowed to shout stop at something they wanted to question. Because the writing had been carried out collaboratively, no student felt pinpointed or undermined, and discussing language openly in class promoted interaction and interest in different uses of language and vocabulary.


TED talk summary of main ideas

For homework I gave the students a TED talk to watch in their own time over the weekend. This gave the students a sense of ownership over their learning because they were free to carry out the task at a time convenient for them. The task set was to post a summary of the main points of interest, supporting them with evidence. This is one of the tenets of academic writing and something students find difficult to achieve because substantiating their opinions does not always come naturally. The audio-visual medium of TED and the exposure of personal opinions and ideas to the entire class motivated the students to impress their peers using their best language. The summaries were sent to the WeChat group for me to moderate and face-to-face feedback was given to each student individually during class tutorials. This worked well, so I continued to do this throughout the course to help the students develop their summarising and analysing skills, and of course, promote their listening.


I have used IM groups in a range of contexts including business English, the Cambridge suite of exams, and general English. I find that instant messaging promotes student interaction and provides them with a sense of belonging. I treat each context differently and adapt the activities accordingly, but usually favour a blended approach because I find it works the most effectively.


The benefits of having a class chat are:

  • It is student-centred, interactive and communicative.
  • It creates dialogue amongst students and nurtures a social atmosphere
  • It increases motivation and shifts the motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic.
  • It encourages sharing and extends learning.
  • It creates a personalised learning platform that students can refer to both inside and outside the classroom.



katrobbs22Kat Robb is a teacher and teacher trainer based in Barcelona where she teaches and trains both face-to-face and online. Kat’s main field of interest is educational technology, so she is constantly exploring new ways to incorporate technology into her teaching practice. She shares her ideas at conferences and on her blog:


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