Writing in Online Language Classes

By Dr. Katharine B. Nielson –

One question I often get asked by instructors setting up online language courses is how to structure peer-to-peer communication. They ask because thousands of empirical studies on distance learning have established that a feeling of community drives learner engagement and, therefore, outcomes. For this reason, instructors of online courses are taught to build “community engagement” activities into their syllabi and require students to post a set number of comments to threaded discussions throughout the semester.

Setting aside the potential artificiality of this exercise, it can actually be damaging for language learners. When language learners communicate, they make mistakes. Now, this isn’t their fault. There’s no way to learn a language without making mistakes; it’s part of the process. When mistakes happen in real-time and in face-to-face settings, they aren’t a big deal. Teachers can often help clear things up by recasting errors so that learners are exposed to appropriate, authentic input.

But imagine an online language class with a discussion board requirement. Dozens of language learners are turned loose on a forum, posting their opinions, commenting on each other’s posts, and having conversations full of errors. For example, “Last week, I wented to the office and applied for passport for my childs.” These errors are natural and expected in emerging second language development. However, if posted online, they become incorrect input for the dozens of other learners required to read and engage with that content. Learners won’t necessarily know that childs isn’t an appropriate plural form, or that the past tense of go is “went,” not “wented.”

Ideally, a teacher would review the exchanges with learners and ask them to identify and correct any errors. However, that is often outside the scope of monitoring an online discussion forum full of second language engagement. So what is the solution?

What about re-thinking the whole idea of public, asynchronous written communication? Instead, teachers and learners could meet in a shared document and work on a piece of writing together, in real-time. The students could make normal, developmental errors, and then the teacher could help them correct the errors in real-time, when the learners are more likely to notice and understand the corrections or ask questions about them.

By the end of the lesson, students and teachers would have a collaborative document, perhaps with an accompanying comment thread, full of rich authentic language. This type of instruction is ideal for non-native speakers. It allows them the chance to work on a real, task-based piece of writing in a truly collaborative, community-building way. It satisfies requirements for community engagement and solves the problems of giving learners access to incorrect input. With this solution, we can simplify our online language courses by getting rid of clunky discussion forums that might actually do more harm than good.

Dr. Katharine B. Nielson, PhD, is Voxy’s Chief Education Officer.