Use of Blogs at English Language Lessons

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This is my final assignment for the E-learning and Digital Cultures course organized by the University of Edinburgh on www.coursera.org in February 2013. The assignment consists of two files. The first file includes a PowerPoint presentation dedicated to the use of blogs and blogging activities in the system of teaching English as a second/foreign language. The second file contains some theoretical materials related to the use of blogs in English language teaching, as well as my meditations and reflections on the use of blogging activities in my actual teaching practice. So both files are related to the same topic - the use of blogs as a form of online writing in the system of teaching English as a second/foreign language. So these materials refer to some extent to several important and up-to-date aspects discussed in the given course as "Communication technologies", "Open (and Opening) Education" and "The Meanings of Learning".

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Use of Blogs at English Language Lessons

  1. 1. 1Olga S. MuranovaSaint-Petersburg State University of Technology and Design,Herzen State Pedagogical University (Russia, Saint-Petersburg)Online Writing for Students and Teachers. Use of Blogs at ESL/EFL Lessons As we know, the word “blog” (short for “weblog”) means a frequentlyupdated website that often resembles an online journal. So blogs are tools on theWeb that enable people to publish their writing onto a website and allow a wideraudience to interact with it if the writer wishes it. There are different types of blogs: 1. The Tutor Blog is run by the teacher of a class. 2. The Class Blog is a shared space, with teacher and students being able to write to the main area. 3. The Learner Blog is the third type of blog and it requires more time and effort from the teacher to both set up and moderate, but is probably the most rewarding. It involves giving each student an individual blog. 4. The Photoblog – it implies using photographs in one’s blog (so it seems to be a very good type of blogs for younger learners). It’s quite easy to create and update a blog as it requires only basic access tothe Internet, and a minimum of technical know-how. Because of this, it is one ofthe easiest ways to publish student writing on the World Wide Web. It’s almost aseasy as sending an email. Nowadays, blogs can also display photos. Thereforesome people prefer to use them with audio and even video. However, even asimple text-based blog can be used to great effect with different categories ofEnglish language learners. There are many reasons why more and more teachers choose to use weblogswith students. One of the main reasons is a possibility to provide a real audiencefor student writing. Usually, the teacher is the only person who reads studentwriting, and the focus of this reading is often made on form but not on content.With weblogs, students can find themselves writing for a real audience that, apartfrom the teacher, may include their peers, students from other classes, or evenother countries, their parents, and potentially anyone with access to the Internet. In this article I would like to describe in what way we introduced bloggingactivities at our lessons using LiveJournal activities as an example (http://www.livejournal.com/ ). In most cases students were asked to organize ablog of their own where they would be able to post the results of their homework,new vocabulary for their home reading, the texts of their own essays, businessletters, CVs, and any other writing assignments. A bit later, at the stage of theirgroup work or work in teams, they could have a good possibility to see andcomment on the blog posts and assignments of each other, to ask each other and
  2. 2. 2their teacher on-line some questions about the language material studied at thelessons as well as to consult with each other about the activities and tasks whichthey were supposed to do at the lessons or at home. Most of our activities like thiswere based on preparing, reading and discussing textual blogs, – although fromtime to time some focus could be also made on art (art blog), photographs(photoblog), videos (video blogging, or vlogging), music (MP3 blog), and audio(podcasting). When visiting a computer classroom, microblogging (that ispreparing very short posts) seemed to be well-applicable and rather effective too. At the same time, keeping their own blogs enabled students to find pen-friends from different cities and countries to be able to practice communication inEnglish together with them, or to be better-prepared for doing presentations andparticipating in student conferences due to the regular opportunity to include intheir reports, stories and presentations different videos, photos, audio records andother accompanying materials found on the Internet. Besides, organizing andkeeping students’ blogs gave us, teachers, a good chance to monitor and commenton our students’ activities and their on-line communication with each other. Ratheroften our students’ blogs served as a good base for preparing their e-portfolioswhile helping the teacher to observe and evaluate his/her students progress in theprocess of learning and communicating in English. Probably, all this proves thefact that keeping student blogs would make our work with students at the lessonsand especially beyond the classroom much more intensive, diverse and, in the longrun, more interesting and effective both for students and for teachers. As our teaching practice shows, most of our university students areespecially interested in writing blog posts connected with traveling and trips, theirfavorite musical bands and singers, different films which they’ve seen on TV or inthe cinema and their favorite personages of some popular books and films. A bitmore seldom they also seem to be rather enthusiastic about discussing in blogstheir hobbies, favorite football or some other sport teams, ways of spendingholidays, participation in some university events (including student KVN, sportcompetitions, and so on) and national celebrations. As a rule, mostly it depends ontheir age, future specialty, education and level of cultural or intellectualdevelopment. In many cases using special blogs which are aimed at inspiring freewriting proves to be highly effective too. For example, a couple of years ago mystudents aged from 13 to 17 wrote a detective story in the blog not seeing eachother. It was funny to watch how new absolutely unexpected ideas were born, orhow elves crawled into the detective story uninvited. Sometimes, when studentsgot stuck, I had to give them a hand, suggesting a new turn of a story, or someminor idea. It was really great! I should also mention here that at our actual lessons we usually introduceblogging activities in those cases when we deal with at least intermediate studentslearning conversational English. Very often students are supposed to prepare blogsat home, so that at the lessons we might just discuss and use them for some otheractivities. Nevertheless, due to having the Internet access almost everywhere and atany necessary time the other students of the same groups (as well as their teachers)can read their group-mates’ blogs not only at the lessons. It enables them to react
  3. 3. 3to each other’s blogs more or less regularly, without the necessity to have theaccess to them during our lessons. Probably, in some cases we have to put gradesand make blogging one of the conditions for getting their test-mark or permissionto take their English exam at the end of the semester, which makes them be moreactive about starting and maintaining their own blogs or reacting to their group-mates’ blogs. If we speak about estimating student blog writing in more detail, I can saythat in some cases we prefer to assess our students’ blogs in the same way as weusually do it with essays, personal or business letters, freewriting activities andother kinds of student writing. This approach works well when students havealready got some experience of writing their own blog posts and reacting to theirgroup-mates’ blogs. However, very often we estimate not just the blog poststhemselves but the whole work of students based on their blogs. It can includedifferent preparatory and post-writing language and communicative tasks, writingcommentaries on others’ blogs, replying to the blogs of some other students,managing blogs, etc. In this case blogs become not only the purpose of our lessonsbut, first of all, an important medium which we can use for developing studentwriting, reading and partially speaking or listening skills (if we take into accountpre- and post-writing discussions, dialogues and role-plays, etc.) and improvingtheir knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. Developing student creative andcritical thinking, imagination and logical thinking, or just enlarging their culturaloutlook becomes quite possible on the base of blogs as well. Alongside with many benefits which blogging activities may bring to ourlessons, it is necessary to realize some difficulties which can arise when usingblogs at EFL/ESL lessons. For example, at first it usually takes some time to makeour students get involved and motivated for creating their own blogs. To be able toachieve this purpose, we usually try to give our students at first some interestingexamples of blogs. In this case it is necessary to check that they are dedicated tothe topics which can be interesting and prospective for most of our current students(for example, to the questions of people’s relations with each other, to theimpressions of some interesting traveling, or to various “fashionable” literaryworks and films, and so on). It’s also desirable that such blogs should be written byother students of the same or similar age. As a rule, we also use such examples forsome further discussions, role-plays or dialogues. A bit later they become a goodbase for our students to start their own blogs dedicated to the same or any othersimilar topic. After that it becomes more “real” and prospective to suggest ourstudents some new topics and situations on which students can comment in theirblogs. Rather often they are also encouraged to propose their own topics fordiscussion in their further blog posts, which corresponds well with the learner-centered approach. By the way, in this case after some time our students usuallybegin to be not so timid about expressing their thoughts and emotions in their ownblog posts (just to some “optimal” extent, I suppose). Another problem which may arise in the process of using blogging activitiesis connected with possible cyber-bulling attacks. However, as we know, spam,“rubbish messages” or pop-up-windows can appear anywhere on the Internet. So
  4. 4. 4this problem becomes really acute in terms of using various Internet-resources andfacilities but not only for blogging. The same refers to using only appropriate blogswhich won’t “spoil” or distract our students’ attention too much. So I can assumethat the optimal way of preventing any dangerous situations connected with cyber-bullying implies the necessity to conduct special lessons and conversations withstudents about WEB-literacy and e-safety. Accepting and following a special set ofrules connected with the users’ safe behavior while surfing on the Internet can bealso very helpful in this case. Installing anti-viruses in all the computers applied atthe lessons is always necessary and up-to-date in such cases too. One more issue which I should mention here is the necessity to involvestudents not only in the process of writing their own blogs but also reading andreacting to the blogs of their group-mates (otherwise this activity will lose muchsense, probably). They are supposed to agree or disagree with each other, commenton each other’s ideas, ask and answer questions, propose any additional ideas,express their attitude and opinion about the questions discussed, and so on. Toavoid the problem with student passiveness about reacting to their group-mates’posts, we usually include in our tasks and activities such instructions as “Read andrespond at least to one (two, three, etc.) of your group-mates’ blogs”. Later, whenstudents get accustomed to reading and responding to their group-mates’ posts, it’salready not so necessary to include this sentence in our tasks (although it’s stillpossible to do it later as well, certainly). Besides, students can make questions totheir own blog posts for their further discussion at the lessons, or they can be askedto make dialogues in pairs on the base of their latest blogs. Sure, it doesn’t take toomuch time and energy “to invent” such post-writing group activities, so thatstudents should be stimulated to read and react to their group-mates’ blogs as well. At the same time, when introducing blogging activities it is necessary torealize that the teacher will need to spend some precious time on preparingstudents to writing their own blogs, providing them with good initial examples ofblog posts and then – on reading and reacting to his/her students’ posts. It isobvious that “inventing” and introducing some post-writing tasks will also takesome time. However, all these disadvantages are easily compensated with differentabovementioned benefits which using blogs can bring both to students and to us,teachers. In conclusion I would like to add that beside different student activitiesblogs can be also used by EL teachers for publishing materials and tasks for theirstudents. Blogs can also contain information to help students develop their IT anddigital skills. One of the biggest advantages of blogs is that the readers of the siteswhere they are posted can edit the content making some changes and additions.This feature can be exploited by teachers for a variety of educational aims.“History” of changes made to the content is very valuable in that respect thatteachers can monitor students participation and contribution. And finally, it is afree tool for teaching which embraces a wide spectrum of technologies (video,audio, pictures, texts, PowerPoint presentations and many others). Furthermore, ablog can become a handy tool to save classroom time or expand learning. Its anopportunity to create learning beyond classroom situation, which makes blogging
  5. 5. 5activities even more valuable and effective in our work with different categories ofEnglish language learners.
  6. 6. 5activities even more valuable and effective in our work with different categories ofEnglish language learners.

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