Many teachers who catch students instant messaging during class tell them to stop and finish their assignments. But in some classrooms, instant messaging is the assignment, as educators use the medium to teach everything from recognizing colloquialisms to writing for a particular audience.
Advocates of utilizing instant messaging—a form of real-time online communication between two or more people that is faster than normal e-mail—in classroom instruction say it reaches students where they are. Studies show that some 75 percent of teenagers use instant messaging, making it one of students’ primary modes of written communication.
Why not tap into that familiarity to ease students into a wide array of language instruction, proponents suggest.
“I think instant messaging is really an untapped resource for a lot of teachers,” says William Kist, an assistant professor of English education at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, and a member of the National Council of Teachers of English. “I think probably some teachers are almost a little distrustful of instant messaging, or they see it as not a legitimate use of adolescents’ time. … But to say it’s wrong and you shouldn’t do it—it sets up a huge divide between out-of-school literacies and in-school literacies.”
Kist has written extensively on new literacies and argues that literacy is a lot broader than it used to be and includes multiple forms of electronic media. Teachers who use a wide array of media in their instruction can make school more relevant to students’ day-to-day lives, he argues.
For example, educators Sheree Rivas, Lorelei Wofford, and Laura Hefferly, of Lubbock, Texas, have outlined a lesson plan on www.readwritethink.org for 6th through 8th graders in which instant-messaging abbreviations are used to explore the relationships between purpose, audience, and appropriate language use. In the lesson, students work collaboratively to define and discuss the proper use of Internet abbreviations. They also write different messages to their friends and their grandparents and discuss the right use of tone and language with the differing audiences.
Elena Nehrebecki uses instant messaging with her English-language-learner students at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, N.J. In one lesson, she asks students to copy their instant messages onto the board, and the class then works to “translate” the phrases into academic language. She says the practice validates the students’ familiar IM language and allows them to distinguish between different ways of using the English language.
Other times, she asks students to send instant messages to each other to brainstorm ideas for writing assignments.
“They like that it validates that they know the [IM] language; … it’s just a different lingo,” says Nehrebecki.
Sometimes, Nehrebecki uses students’ instant messages to discuss the differences between complete and incomplete sentences or to recognize colloquialisms, spelling errors, or synonyms.
What Works and Doesn’t
Experts acknowledge that IM can be a major nuisance when students are not using the technology appropriately. There has to be an important educational reason for using it in the classroom.
For instance, Kist says instant messaging provides a good opportunity to discuss when it’s appropriate to use non-standard English and when it’s not.
“You can’t use a smiley face in a research report for a company, but it’s OK with a friend,” he says.
In some college courses, professors actually allow students to instant message each other with questions about a lecture while it is being given. However, one of the risks of that practice—according to a study titled “Instructional Uses of Instant Messaging During Classroom Lectures” that was published in 2005 in the journal Education Technology & Society—is that the students will become distracted by the messages or send messages on unrelated topics.
Kist says some educators set up password-protected chat rooms for their students so they can send instant messages to one another after class about the books they are reading.
“Instead of waiting to discuss To Kill a Mockingbird face to face, they can have the discussion at home,” he says.
In Kist’s view, such chats help teachers because they can learn what sections of a book are particularly appealing or troubling to students and modify their lessons accordingly.
“It helps teachers better use class time by being prepared for issues students are encountering,” he points out.
Clarence Fisher teaches 7th and 8th grade English in the tiny community of Snow Lake, Manitoba, in Canada. He uses instant messages in the evenings with his students to offer homework help or to grapple with any personal problems that may have arisen at school.
“We work through whatever we need to work through,” says Fisher.
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2007 edition of Digital Directions as Tapping Instant Messaging