The Internet TESL Journal

The Internet: Making it Work in the ESL Classroom

Gerald Fox
geraldfox [at]
Shinonome Junior College (Matsuyama, Japan)


This paper will attempt to address three important areas related to Internet second language instruction. First of all, how can the Internet be used to motivate students in their efforts to acquire English proficiency skills. Secondly, what are the learning outcomes that use of the Internet can support. Lastly, I would like to look at some of the components of a successful program of instruction which utilises the Internet.

Motivation and Outcomes

Motivation is always a key issue in the field of education. As instructors, we are all naturally attempting to present a system of education that is intrinsically motivating rather than one in which the motivation comes from outside influences. In other words, we want to see our students develop interests in the subjects we are teaching that they will pursue on their own, rather than because of outside pressures such as homework, tests and the like. The use of the Internet in language education seems to fill, at least with many students, the criterion of promoting this type of motivation.

Muehleisen (1997) outlines this quite clearly in stating that students are interested in joining the Internet revolution for three reasons. On a very basic level, students see the Internet as trendy and want to be a part of it, others are also drawn by the practical aspects of job skills acquisition and on learning skills that will be useful in life. Whatever reasons are at the root of this motivation, it is clear that a great many students in my experience are excited about it.

After students become involved in a comprehensive English language program which incorporates Internet use, students may experience further motivation on several levels. One supportive and potentially motivating outcome of Internet use is that students begin to realize that not only is the world connected together through the use of this technology, but as the majority of information on the Internet is in English, they begin to appreciate in more concrete terms the usefulness of acquiring ESL skills. Thus, English is taken to a new level, no longer an interesting curiosity or hobby, it now takes on the characteristic of a vital and important skill that will be useful later in life. (Muehleisen 1997) Internet use also offers a more practical real life language experience, providing students with functional communicative experiences that serve the learners needs as well as motivate them to use English in their daily lives.

From an instructor's standpoint, involving students in Internet usage also promotes a variety of activities and learning outcomes which are desirable.

First of all, as the Internet is primarily text driven, electronic discourse that students will participate in tend to be lexically and syntactically more complex than oral discourse. (Warschauer 1997) Students that are participating in email, discussion groups and the like are going to be using a broader range of English that those who tend to focus mainly on spoken or conversational English.

A positive outcome of this balance is the increased reading and writing skills that are developed as a result of using the Internet effectively. (Peyton and Crandall 1995) I once heard someone describe reading as a "receptive" language process. If that is so, then it is also clear that writing is a "creative" language process closely linked to other language processes and that the acquisition of one stimulates the other. Students who are taking the time to respond to email and who offer opinions on discussion group pages are intimately involved in this creative process and are as a result largely driving their own progress. Singai (1997) further states "Although electronic, the Internet is entirely related to literacy. People still interact with it through reading and writing."

This of course does not mean that there needs to be a shift away from conversation skills acquisition but suggests a balance in the curriculum between reading/writing and speaking/listening.

Trokeloshvilli and Jost (1997) add a few more positive student outcomes to this list that are easily addressed in a well designed program. These include an improved level of writing skills, a higher awareness or consciousness of the world around them, and active communication. These are certainly excellent points as they cut to the heart of what many instructors are trying to achieve.

The old adage that "practice makes perfect" is certainly applicable here. I once had a college professor tell me that one learns to read by reading. Of course, this is an oversimplification, but none the less it does follow that students who take the time to write generally improve.

The idea that using the Internet as a way to achieve a higher awareness is perhaps a strange statement on the surface to make, with all the odd sites and bizarre bits of information on the web. It "can" be enlightening however if used carefully. This may well require some active teacher participation to keep students on the right track but the fact remains that the Internet is a truly wonderful place for learning about other cultures and ways of thought.

Active communication and self expression are hallmarks of the Internet and once brought into play can prove to be mentally stimulating for students. Active is indeed what the web does best. Being able to enter a chat room with a person in Switzerland and with a dozen people from all the corners of the globe, can be a very exciting experience. Students must read, write, and think on the spot, offering their opinions and ideas in a common pool of experience. These are certainly outcomes much to be appreciated.

Components of a Successful Program

Having looked at some of the outcomes that can be aided by this technology, what are some of the elements of a well designed program of instruction?


First and foremost, it should be an integrated rather than an add-on part of the overall English education program. It is clear that simply creating a pen pal connection is not enough (Warshchauer and Whittaker, 1997). Teacher involvement and support is an essential component of a good program. Bruce Roberts, coordinator of the Intercultural E-Mail Connections program states that "When the email classroom connection processes are truly integrated into the ongoing structure of homework and classroom interaction, then the results can be be educationally transforming." (in Warschauer 1995, pg 95)

Computer Competence

A second component of a good instructional regimen is the level of computer instruction provided. Perhaps the single most important aspect of a web-integrated class is computer competence. (Trokeloshvilli and Jost 1997) As they have found, and in this I have had similar experiences, students do not always have the necessary computer skills to manage the use of the Internet. Indeed, after taking my usual student survey this year, I found that out of the 230 students I teach at two separate universities, only 3 possessed an email address, and only 10 said that they were comfortable using a computer! Thus, first and foremost, the instructor must be willing to spend a fair amount of in-class and out of class time helping students acquire the basic computer skills that will make the Internet a fun and rewarding part of their language education experience. If this is not addressed properly, students will be quickly overwhelmed and frustrated by the complexity of computer and Internet usage.

Active Teacher Involvement

A third part of the process is the active involvement of the teacher in guiding the program. While the Internet may well be self motivating, (to us) teachers do need to anticipate and offer the basic support to help students, particularly at the early stages. This help may take the form of handouts that show in detail how to use a web browser or send email, setting up a home page that the browser goes to by default and has links for students to look at, or creating sites where students can post comments about subjects, even a page that lists homework assignments and class information. All of these reinforce the use of the Internet and help students who are not technologically adept at refining these skills.

Things Which Can Be Done

There are a great number of ways in which the Internet can be used in a practical way to promote the use of English. Easily the most popular of these is the "pen pal" concept. There are a wide number of sources of pen pals on line. Again, an interested and involved teacher can make this a comfortable and exciting activity for students interested in participating. This may involve the teacher at least offering to correct letters for students before they send them out or practical advice on subjects that may be suitable. Personally, I have found that many students simply feel more comfortable participating when they are assured of error free correspondance.

To promote the use of the Internet, I do often ask that they email the letters to me first rather than type them or hand write them. For new students, this helps reinforce the basic skills. As a rule, I print these and correct them on paper as I really do want them to see the corrections I have made so that they can improve their writing ability. I do send an email back when I am finished correcting it so that they can know when it is ready.

On a more practical level, one activity that students really enjoy is to, in the early stages of Internet use, surf the web and find sites that match their interests or hobbies. This in itself is a motivating activity, but having the students then email the web address with a few comments to the instructor reinforces email and writing skills as well. Having received the email from students, I then add the URL to the student web page with a comment something like the following:

Mari Suzuki really likes The Rolling Stones

The students can then visit the class homepage and look at items that the other members have suggested. In my experience, most students find this sort of activity very interesting. One last suggestion is to be sure to include a teacher section, as many students are interested in finding out what their instructors interests are.

For a sample student web page, take a look at the link at the bottom of this page.

As students become increasingly web savvy, projects that further stimulate their creative energies in English can be planned and completed. These may include tasks such as creating their own class home page or electronic magazine.

Activities such as class treasure hunts (see Muehleisen 97) or working with desktop publishing programs can also involve them in projects that can be shared across the Internet. Basic HTML authoring programs like Adobe PageMill allows students to focus on the content, not the HTML code and offer many possibilities to novice computer users. Certainly, having one's own page, is a very stimulating experience that will involve a student in the language being studied and provides a very visual and obvious sign of progress in second language acquisition.


The Internet and its use in ESL classes shows great potential. If we consider carefully the students' needs and tailor an interactive and supportive environment that integrates Internet activities such as e-mail and web browsing into the curriculum, students will as a result find English a more important part of their lives and will be more likely to use it in a self motivating life long way.

See my student web page at


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. IV, No. 9, September 1998