Interactive Use of E-mail

Presented at TESOL's 2000 Internet Fair
Vancouver, Canada
March 15, 2000
John Bauman
Enterprise Training Group

This site is here to make available the ideas I demonstrated in my presentation at TESOL's 2000 Internet Fair. I talked about using e-mail with students, based on my own experience with both business people and university students in Japan. Both sets of students have e-mail access, and I have shifted all of my homework assignments to e-mail.

On this site, first I will discuss issues related to access to the technology. Then I will briefly discuss the changes e-mail makes in the communication patterns between learners and teachers. Finally I will show some ways of pedagogically exploiting the nature of electronic text.


Internet access still varies greatly from country to country, and within countries. But as time goes on, more learners will gain access to the Internet. E-mail is usually one of the first internet technologies that people use. And it can be kept very easy and non-threatening, even to the most techno-challenged of learners and teachers.

E-mail, in its simplest form, is nothing more than the sending of written text from one computer to another. Here's my advice in a nutshell: Don't get fancy. Avoid attachments, HTML, graphics, italics and other formatted text. Put everything you want to send in the body of the message using plain text (also known as ASCII), and have your students do the same. If you keep it this simple, you'll get 90% of the benefits of using the internet pedagogically and avoid 95% of the headaches. You'll be cross-platform and compatible with all hardware and software. You'll find yourself helping your students with their language problems, not their computer problems. And you'll probably see some effects that you didn't expect.

The above advice should be ignored, of course, by all computer-savvy teachers. If you know what you're doing, you should exploit the technology as you see fit. My purpose in lowering the techno-level is to bring the maximum number of teachers and learners into the new world of communication described below.

The Communication Cycle

Using e-mail has changed the written component of my classes profoundly. I'm now exchanging written text with my students electronically, between classes, instead of on paper, in class. This has made possible a new and better sequence of events related to homework assignments.

Previously, assignments would be submitted in class on paper. I'd look at them, write feedback on the paper and return it in the next class. The students would read the feedback after class, if they read it at all.

When classes meet weekly, this results in the students getting feedback over a week after they wrote the assignment, and over two weeks after the assignment was given. E-mail can significantly reduce this time, by allowing written text to be easily exchanged between classes. With clear due times for submission and an organized teacher, an entire submission/feedback cycle can be completed between two classes.

Starting out smoothly in the first class is important. Don't collect the e-mail addresses of your students. You're sure to get some of them wrong. Give the students your address on a hand-out, with a simple assignment. You'll get their addresses with their messages. This is a handout I used in a university class. The students receive it in the first class of the term. The class meets on Monday, the e-mail is sent by Thursday and replied to by Friday. Before the second class, I've had a two-way exchange with each student, seen some of their writing and commented on it, and forced them to buy the textbook.

Responding and Giving Feedback

The remaining links are to copies of actual e-mail messages that I've sent to students as replies to assignments e-mailed to me.

This is a reply to an assignment given in a first class. I asked the students to send some personal information. I hit "reply" and typed some comments. The section below my name was pasted in and was the same for each student. I don't collect the print-outs. I just check to see if they did it, and have a short, full-class discussion of the topics. In a class of lower-level students, I'll send some simple exercised based on the language we worked on in the first class, like this.

If students are sending sentences, I'll often send a reply like this. I simply send corrected sentences below the incorrect sentences. I use copy and paste to duplicate the sentences with problems and correct the lower one.

This is an example of how I edit writing sent to me by my business students. The top section is what I received. The bottom section is my rewrite of the message, with mistakes of grammar and style corrected. Brief comments are in between. The students will print this reply out, look for differences and mark them with a highlighter. We'll both look at it and discuss it in the next class. Since I am concerned with paragraph structure, I use copy and paste to create the response, instead of the e-mail programs response function. The arrows on the left of each line can change the line breaks.

In this case, I received a message that was understandable, but the student had used poor judgement in selecting verbs. I focussed my feedback on the verbs.

You can't do this with assignments on paper! I created a cloze from a student's homework. Some errors were corrected and some were replaced with blanks. Once again, the original message was included in the response for the student to look at. Make sure to double-space the cloze section.

This is an example of a compilation reply. I asked the students what they thought about the defeat of Gregory Kasparov by the computer, Deep Blue, in a chess match. I compiled all of their answers into one document, then pasted that document into all of the replies.

In this case, I had given the students some questions about business manners from The Daily Yomiuri. The first was about giving business cards when visiting with a senior co-worker, the second was about knocking on a door. The students sent their ideas. As a reply, I sent the answers from the newspaper.

In class, the students had done job interview role-plays in pairs. As homework, I asked them to send me a report of the interview and their opinion of the job or candidate. At home, I compared the reports of the partners and commented on the partner's ideas in my replies.

In another class, the students had received descriptions of criminal cases and, in groups, had had to determine guilt and choose a punishment. As homework, I asked them to write a description of a case. I received the cases and forwarded them to other students, with instructions to make a judgement before the next class. We began the next class with discussion of these cases. Here's one of the messages I sent.

Some Final Thoughts

The Internet is still new. It will continue to effect our lives and work in unexpected ways. It's a communication technology, and communication is what we teach. Especially for young learners, who will live most of their lives in a wired world, Internet English is essential. We don't know yet what Internet English is, it may always be in a state of flux. Still, e-mail is, by definition, Internet English. By using e-mail with learners we are empowering them to both learn Internet English and to participate in its creation.
The following article, published in February, 1998, is a further development of the ideas on this page.

Bauman, John (1998). Using E-mail with your Students. The Language Teacher, (21)2

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