The Internet TESL Journal

How to Use Skype in the ESL/EFL Classroom

Sarah Elaine Eaton
saraheaton2001 (}at{)
University of Calgary (Calgary, Canada)
This paper discusses how Skype can be used to: 1) empower ESL/EFL teachers and tutors to incorporate a simple and popular technology into their teaching practice 2) give presentations and workshops 3) be a stepping stone to using more sophisticated technology in the classroom. For those who are new to using technology in the language learning classroom, Skype is an effective way to experiment while minimizing the risk of things going wrong. Skype can help ESL/EFL teachers improve their technology literacy and increase their confidence using technology in the classroom. It provides an excellent stepping stone for those who are not entirely "fluent" with more sophisticated technologies. This paper builds upon previous work done on using Skype for literacy and language learning (Eaton, 2009a, 2010c).


Skype is a communication tool that allows users to make audio and video calls over the Internet. Calls to other Skype users are free. Skype also offers a computer-to-land-line service for both local and international calls, as a fee-based service. Similar to needing an e-mail address to send e-mails, a Skype account is required in order to make and receive calls.  Users choose a user name, which remains with them for as long as the account is active.

It is necessary for users to have a mic and audio capabilities enabled on their computer. If the  computer does not have these features built in, users must buy a Skype-enabled headset with earphones and a mic.

Once the user has the necessary equipment and an account set up, he or she can begin using Skype to make computer-to-computer calls. If both the account holder and the party on the other end have web cams, they can make a point-to-point video call. Users can see each other throughout the call. If the connection is slow or if users do not have web cams, they can still make audio calls.

It is important to remember that Skype works computer-to-computer, not necessarily person-to-person. One computer may be hooked up to a large screen and presenter slides may be projected onto that large screen to a group of people sitting in a theatre-style classroom. In this way, Skype may be used to teach groups of people. For teaching, it is key to know that  Skype may be used to connect individuals, one individual to a group, or one group to another group.

It is reported that in first half of 2010, Skype had 124 million users who placed 95 billion calls, of which approximately 40% were video calls (Melanson, 2010). Educators have been incorporating Skype into their classrooms for a number of years now (Davis, 2006; Mirtschin, 2008; Smith, 2009a, 2009b; Stephenson, 2009; Waters, 2008a).

Pioneers of using Skype in the classroom immediately noted the potential for international connections between classrooms and students (Waters, 2008b). This is a natural fit for language educators interested in having cross-cultural exchanges with students using Skype. One Australian educator has used Skype for inter-school debates (Smethurst, 2009). This may be of interest to language teachers, as it is noted that activities such as debates and speech competitions in the target language are on the rise (Eaton, 2010a).

Skype Versus Other Technologies

Some argue that Skype is less powerful than other synchronous learning technologies such as Elluminate or other webinar-type services. This may be true. It offers interaction with only a very limited number of users at one time. It also does not include the same interactive features such as white boards, polls or other features found with more sophisticated technologies. Skype’s simplicity, on the other hand, makes it an accessible tool for those who are less comfortable using technology in the classroom - and it is free.

Relationship between Anxiety, Curiosity and Receptiveness to Learning

Using a progressive approach to incorporating technology into the classroom is an effective way for ESL/EFL teachers to update their teaching techniques at their own pace, building confidence and skills as they progress. For teachers who are reluctant to use technology due to lack of skills or confidence or high levels of anxiety, getting started with simpler tools may be an effective way for them to explore and incorporate new technologies. Simpler technologies allow users to minimize their risk and “performance anxiety” as they learn.

As users become comfortable with more advanced features, they can engage in higher level uses. This may lead them to being open to trying more sophisticated technologies in the future. Skype is an excellent tool to help teachers build technology skills. It also happens to be an effective tool to teach languages, as it incorporates high levels of verbal interaction between users, in this case between teachers and students.

Advanced Features

Although Skype could arguably be considered less sophisticated than other web or video conferencing tools, it has some advanced features that make it useful for teaching English. These include:

Conference Calls

Skype can be used to make conference calls with a number of users (Family Matters, n.d.). Up to six users may be on the line at one time. At the time of writing, the conference calling feature included audio only. Video calls can only be made between two parties.

Instant Messaging or Chat

Skype has a chat function that can be used for a variety of purposes. Users may chat while in a real-time audio or video call. This is useful if the connection breaks up. Users may indicate that they are unable to see or hear well using the chat function.

In addition, if another call comes in while a user is in a real-time call, he or she may send the other party a quick instant message to let them know that their cannot be answered at that time.

The chat function helps to smooth out online communications, allowing users to briefly acknowledge one another or explain a situation, rather than simply terminating a call. This is particularly useful for ESL/EFL students who may find writing easier than speaking.

File Sharing

Users can send files, which is much like adding an attachment to an e-mail, except that the sharing takes place in real time, during a call. Users can send almost any kind of file such as a .pdf, a Word document. The the party on the other end can open it as soon as they receive it, allowing users to discuss it during their call. Teachers can use this feature to share activities or resources with students during a lesson.

Screen Sharing

This feature allows users to share a portion of their screen or their entire screen, with others on the call. This is particularly useful for giving presentations. One user may enable a presentation in full-screen mode, while sharing their screen with other users. Teachers can use the screen sharing option to give slide presentations to students during a lesson. The screen sharing function is only activated once the user is in a call. The downside is that one can only “learn by doing” for this feature.

To access this function, click on the “call” tab on the menu at the top of the screen. That displays a drop-down menu. From there the user must choose “share screen”. The user will be asked if  he or she wants to share part or all of their screen. An important tip: I open my presentation before the call and then have it running in the background. I choose to share my entire screen and then I quickly flip to my slides and run my slides in full-screen mode.

There will be a moment where the party on the other end will see the user’s entire screen before the slides begin, so ensure there is nothing else open on the desktop such as personal e-mails, etc. Screen sharing requires practice, and it is a powerful feature for learning.

Using Skype for Marketing ESL/EFL Programs

Marketing is all about relationships, particularly in education (Drysdale, n.d.; Eaton, 2005, 2009b). Skype can be used to create and maintain relationships with prospective students. This may be of particular relevance for programs that recruit international students. One example is to have a Skype account that students can call to ask questions. These calls can be answered by ESL/EFL school staff, just as the phone is.

Another way to use Skype for marketing is to conduct pre-arrival orientation tutorials with students. This can be done on a one-to-one basis, but also with groups. The orientation session can review a variety of pre-arrival information: an introduction to the school, an introduction to some of the key staff the students will meet when they arrive (including a photo to make it more personal). It can include information about airport arrivals and pick up, a list of things to bring with them (such as a warm sweater or coat), the schedule for a typical day of classes, etc.


Skype is an excellent tool for ESL/EFL educators who are tentative about using more sophisticated learning technologies. Because Skype originally began as a voice-over-Internet-protocol (VOIP) service, as a cost-effective alternative to traditional phone calls, its application as a personal communication tool makes it more attractive to those who struggle to incorporate technology into their classrooms.

Skype’s advanced features such as screen sharing, file transfer and instant messaging make this VOIP technology appropriate as a teaching tool, in addition to a personal communication tool.

In the ESL/EFL classroom, Skype can be used to provide a variety of authentic learning experiences to students, including an interview with an author or other native English speaker,  or an international collaborative projects with other classrooms.

Bibliography and Resources

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 11, November 2010