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Social Media and ELT




Kristin Sherman has been an ELT teacher, teacher trainer, consultant, and coursebook author for more than 15 years, and is the author of Network, a new five-level general English course that harnesses the power of social networking to help students learn English. Register for Kristin’s webinar on social media in ELT to find out more about this topic.

Another class interrupted by the chirping of a cell phone – has this happened to you? Are your students reading their cell phones or tablets under the desk, or even jumping up to leave the classroom?

Despite warnings and strict classroom rules, students still have trouble ignoring texts and Facebook updates during class. Recent brain research helps explain why. With every small burst of information the brain receives, it releases dopamine, the same pleasure chemical released when we take drugs, fall in love, or eat chocolate. In other words, the information students receive through social media can be addictive.

So how can we, as ELT professionals, harness the power of social media to our advantage?

Again, we can look to recent research for ideas on how best to use social media for language learning.

Engage students in the practice of English. Students who use social media in their courses increase their technology and communication skills, are more creative, and are more open to diverse ideas. (Greenhow). They can also master course content more efficiently. In one study, twice as many students who received a tweet about the focus question for the next class mastered the material compared to those who didn’t receive a tweet. Think about tweeting a focus question before your next class.

Provide more authentic input. Social media, in the form of tweets, posts, blogs or video sharing, provides real-life language and models how native speakers actually interact with each other. Suggest students keep a notebook of unfamiliar vocabulary or structures they find on social media sites to discuss in class.

Build community. Although there is a perception that computer use is isolating, most people who use social media actually spend more time with people face to face than those who don’t use social media (Jacobsen and Forste). Encourage students to interact with each other in class and online. Students who use social media tend to support each other and even act as mentors. (Halvorsen).

Develop critical thinking skills. Online discussion forums can increase students’ critical thinking skills. Create a Google group or Facebook group and post questions for discussion. Monitor the discussion to clarify or encourage students to think more deeply about a topic.

Personalize learning. The brains of young people are different today than they were a generation ago. The amount of time spent engaging with digital technology has actually changed the structure of our brains. About 30% of our brains are involved in processing visual images as opposed to 3% for auditory input. Although students may still have different learning styles or preferences, more and more are either visual or kinesthetic learners. A teacher talking to a classroom of students is not the best way to teach today’s students. Post links to video to use as note-taking practice, or to photos for writing prompts.

Using social media also allows students to practice interaction in a way that works for them. They can slow down turn-taking if helpful and refer to a written record of a “conversation.” Encourage students to interact on social media by posting comments.

How have you used social media in your ELT classrooms?

Greenhow, C. (2008) “Educational benefits of social networking sites” eNews, July 10, 2008.
Wade C. Jacobsen and Renata Forste. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. May 2011, 14(5): 275-280. doi:10.1089/cyber.2010.0135.
Halvorsen (2009) Halvorsen, A. (2009). Social networking sites and critical language learning. In M. Thomas (Ed.), Handbook of research on Web 2.0 and second language learning (pp. 237–258). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

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  1. Thank you for this! I especially appreciated the non-condemning tone of the article. Every generation shakes things up in a way that the older generations don’t understand and don’t appreciate (“Oh kids these days!”). If teachers can just get over it, learn what’s necessary and use the latest thing, we’re all better off.

  2. Excellent article and an absolute challenging paradigm shift for a teacher in her fifties like me… I’d like to know more info. about the book references you mention at the end. Are they available on the Internet or at bookshops? Thanks in advance for your answer. Kind regards from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

    • Most of them are available online as articles. Just google them and you should find the articles. Let me know if that doesn’t work.

  3. “A teacher talking to a classroom of students is not the best way to teach today’s students. Post links to video to use as note-taking practice..” That wouldn’t be a video of someone talking, would it?

    Develop critical thinking skills, but reduce the role of language and abstract thought in favour of visuals in education. No tension there?

    Is the intellectual atrophy not a problem?

    I imagine a revolutionary approach to sports education which sees how unfit young people are nowadays, and sees the solution in switching to new virtual sports that can be done sitting down.

    • Tom, you raise some really good points and I would never suggest that teachers are not able to do an excellent job in a standard classroom. I have taught in distance learning settings (including all online) as well as in a regular classroom, and I have to say, I enjoy the face to face interaction. I can modify my lesson plan to make sure students are engaged and understand the content when we are in the same physical space and time. Perhaps I should have said “A teacher talking to a classroom of students may not be the best way…” I think there is value in incorporating a variety of media — if it works for the teacher and the students. For example, my students have enjoyed watching videos of lectures and panel discussions, and I believe it has encouraged their critical thinking. Although you are completely correct in pointing out that the videos feature talking, students are exposed to speakers other than their teacher, and sometimes more than one speaker. I think the exposure to a greater range of speakers is helpful. I agree, and research shows, that reliance on digital media in excess might encourage shallower thought. Our greatest challenge is in fostering critical thinking and a deeper level of analysis while we also encourage digital literacy.

  4. Other research about social media (in addition to the three cited in blog above):
    Graves and Zieeherarjeribi on tweeting focus question and mastery of class content
    Min Jung Jee (2011) on authentic input online
    Yang and Ahn (2007) online discussion and critical thinking scores
    Derwin (2009) online vs. face-to-face classrooms and critical thinking
    Hanh and Kellogg (2005) “conversations” online, fewer turn-taking constraints, etc.
    Medina, “Brain Rules” recall of visual vs. oral, visual processing
    Yoon, Gobbetti and Kasik, 2008, Z pattern reading in print
    Byerly, et al., F pattern reading online
    Jensen (2008) percentage of different learning styles

  5. Excellent article. I appreciate that you supprted your post by research on effectiveness of social media

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