Teaching with Social Networks

Whether you find yourself addicted or at a loss when it comes to things like Facebook and twitter, more and more people are using social networks for personal and professional reasons. For example, LinkedIn has active discussions about language teaching and various professional groups of teachers and applied linguists. Many schools and institutions have Facebook pages which they use as an extension of the school’s social programme, and thousands of people stay up-to-date using information from twitter. These sites all have valuable applications for language teaching, not just in the ways described above, but as part of actual lessons as well. In this article I am going to discuss the reasons social networks can provide such rich and authentic language practise for students and explain ways to keep your own private life separate from your professional use of social media in class. I will also discuss some simple practical ideas which you could easily use in your own classroom.

Many teachers who use social networks in their personal lives may not know how they could be used for language teaching. If that is the case, what about those teachers who are not even comfortable using social networks in their personal lives, let alone in a professional context? In my work I have encountered many people who admitted they could see the value of social networks for connecting to other learners and speakers of the English. This is especially true for teachers in an EFL context where the students do not get many opportunities to interact with people outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, there are two major problems with social networks for language teaching. Firstly, many teachers may not wish to mix up their own personal lives with their professional lives (such as adding students as friends on Facebook) and secondly, teachers might feel uncomfortable about advocating for their students to make contact with strangers through a social network, especially if you teach younger age groups. A third complication could be that some teachers are unfamiliar with social networks even for personal use, and as such feel that they could not possibly recommend them to students.


These are all valid concerns. In order to avoid these problems it is important to start off with security in mind. The way social networks function is by having users enter personal information about themselves, which is then searchable by other users. All this personal information is stored in a database and much of the information provided is available for anyone to see and search. If users are not careful then it is possible to gain phone numbers, addresses, birth dates and even find out where people are going to be at a particular time. It is often possible to get all this data simply by looking at the information that comes up when you view someone’s profile. For this reason, I recommend you take one of the many quick privacy reports before even attempting to use social networks with your class. You can also view recommendations about how to improve your privacy settings there and improve your privacy rating. Once you are comfortable about your own online privacy you can turn to your students to ensure they do the same.

If you are planning to add your students as friends it is highly recommended that you make your profile as private as possible because your students and your friends will get mixed together and that could lead to issues. A possible solution is to have two accounts, or if you are uncomfortable having your students as ‘friends’ on Facebook then simply don’t accept their requests. You can still utilise social networks in your class without adding your students as friends.

Here are a few tips for teachers to remember when using social networks with your students.

  • Don’t get caught with your pants down. If you do have deeply personal content in your profile or on a site, request that it be removed or remove it yourself – this is good general practice. Alternatively, you could avoid getting into these situations in the first place, whichever is easier…
  • Test the sites are accessible from the students’ machines. If you plan a lesson involving the use of a site such as Facebook, always check that you can access the pages you intend to visit from the students’ machines, preferably using a student login otherwise your entire lesson could be ruined.
  • Keep the class together. You can create a group or page which is especially for your class, so you can keep members organised and together. If you create a group, you can also connect with students without having to add them as friends, thus ensuring privacy for you and for them. This is also how many institutions manage their students on social networks.

Each of these may require a little bit of work in terms of learning your way around whichever particular site or social network you have chosen to use, but the knowledge will help you maintain your professional image online.


For anyone unfamiliar with the term, netiquette is etiquette for the internet. Your students will hopefully have a good idea of what it means, but it never hurts to go through the list with them for good measure.


  • make contact with people you don’t know or have never had previous contact with unless there is a good reason.
  • accept connections with people who you don’t know or have never had previous contact with unless there is a good reason.
  • post offensive materials or comments which may offend other users or result in you being banned from the site


  • reply to other people’s public posts about topics which are of interest, even if you don’t know the person this is ok. For example, if you are fans of a celebrity who has a public fan page, or members of a particular group online, it is fine to chat and respond to people’s posts on these public areas because the nature of the discussion is open. This is not the same as sending a friend request to someone you don’t know.
  • check back on the site in your free time and see if someone has responded to your post.

The above rules of netiquette are by no means extensive, but if you go through them as a brainstorming activity with your students before attempting any of the following practical ideas I am sure you will compile a comprehensive list.

Some Practical Ideas

Below are a few lesson plan ideas which you may wish to use. They use a variety of different sites but hopefully the general ideas could be exploited in other ways for more variations.

Agony Aunt / Problem Page Lesson

This lesson works well if you have been learning about ’giving advice’ in class and you would like to give your students some authentic, meaningful interaction with other English speakers. Although you may need to screen the pages you use carefully, you could take your students to a site which allows people to write in with problems or ask for advice. First your students could create their own posts asking for advice (make sure they only write about something they are comfortable sharing with the class, such as the feeling that they are not learning fast enough or have no one to practice with. If they can’t think of anything they could write it on behalf of an imaginary friend). After that they should follow the thread and also try to reply to some other people who are having a problem which they think they can help with. Although it may sound risky, I have done this lesson a few times with mature classes and students always get a lot out of it. If you explain that the class will be sharing the posts then people generally do not post up anything too personal or that they are uncomfortable sharing, and my students are always respectful of other people. The real advantage of this lesson is that it goes beyond authenticity and is actual real world use of the target language. This really gives such a class the edge over any contrived language practice lessons. A lot of rich, real language also comes out of these lessons, which students can ask about and share in class later. This project can span several classes and provide a great deal of rich authentic language interaction.

Facebook Group

There are lots of groups on Facebook and other social networks which are specifically for language learning. For example, the BBC has a learning English Facebook page which allows wall comments and photos. This is a great place to get your students commenting on things and replying to posts. They could ask questions about something specific on the wall or post a link to something they found useful. Although this might not take a whole lesson, it could be treated as a homework or used as a study suggestion. Alternatively, you could have students go and post something on the wall and search other posts for something interesting to share with the class. The Facebook page is also a great way to run services such as word of the day and to promote school excursions, or to run study-buddy pairing.

Twitter Contest

If your class enjoys a bit of competition, why not ask students to create a new twitter account and to see who has the most followers after a week, who can manage the highest number of tweets in a week, and who can manage to get a famous person to follow them. There could be a running commentary of the scores going on over the course of the week and the final lesson where the winners are announced should be quite exciting. Twitter is also a great media for the consequences game, where students contribute blindly to a story and read the final result at the end.

These are just a few ideas but as you can see, there is no need for privacy to be invaded or personal space encroached on just because you are using social networks with students. The key is to try a few of these things out yourself (perhaps in a language you are learning yourself) and then get the students to have a go.

Despite the precautions needed to ensure privacy for yourself and your class, there really is a lot of scope for using social networks as part of a class. In addition, the benefits for students in terms of meeting other people to practise with and retain contact after the course is finished make using social networks a very powerful tool at the language teacher’s disposal.

 originally published in  Modern English teacher, 20(3), 37-39. 2011.

TEFLology (podcast)

This is a quick post to recommend a brilliant new podcast all about Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). If you think that a podcast about TEFL sounds rather dry and boring, you will be surprised at how listenable, upbeat and interesting the TEFLology podcast is. This will become apparent right from the catchy theme-tune, which is sung by one of the presenters and has TEFL-related lyrics! This is not a podcast for people who teach TEFL but have no interest in their work, or for people who go backpacking around the world and teach English as a way to pay for their air-fares. This is a serious but fun podcast for people who want to know more about the present and the past of language teaching. The TEFLology podcast deals with interesting and relevant issues as well as looking back at the history of TEFL and different approaches to teaching languages. It is done in a light-hearted and upbeat way by three “self-certified TEFLologists” who certainly know their business very well, but who focus more on discussion than academic debate or name-dropping.

The podcast is released bi-weekly and each episode lasts about half an hour. The episodes are split into different sections, including a section on TEFL news, TEFL pioneers and there is also a section in which the TEFLologists discuss various methods or teaching approaches. The three hosts of the show, Rob, Matt and Matthew, demonstrate an excellent balance of rapport, preparation and ad-libbing and I find listening to the podcast is always both fun and informative. I don’t know if this makes me a TEFL geek or a “TEFLolophile” but I just wanted to share the podcast with readers of my blog as I can highly recommend this as a download for your commute or as something to listen to on one of your numerous but short-lived coffee-breaks.

Here is the link http://teflology.libsyn.com/ and it is also available on iTunes.

TEFLology Podcast

Interview with Philip Benson – Autonomy


This interview took place between Richard Pinner and Philip Benson via Skype. Philip Benson is a leading researcher and expert on Language Learner Autonomy. He is the author of several books on Autonomy and currently teaches at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. 


RP: First, the new edition of your book. Is there anything new in there that wasn’t in the first edition?

PB: Yes, there’s a lot more. It says on the description of the new edition that there are over 300 references added. The first edition came out in 2001, and at the time I tried to do all I could to gather the most important aspects in the field from the last 30 years. But in the last ten years or so, a lot of new work has been done and the amount of research has almost doubled, all in just the last ten or so years. There have been a lot of important developments since the first edition, so the second edition brings everything up to date. There’s also a section on teacher autonomy there too, which wasn’t in the first edition. Also, in the first edition there was already a section on technology, but that’s been significantly expanded now. Obviously the technology then and now has developed a lot, particularly in things like communication and the widespread use of the internet.

RP: So well worth purchasing, even if you have the first edition. I’ll have to go on amazon, because I’m still on the old edition. When I saw you speaking at Temple University, Japan, which was part of the Distinguished Lecturer series that they offer, you dedicated a fairly significant amount of time to your definition of autonomy. Is that also something that is new in the second edition?

PB: No, actually that is work which mostly carries across from the first edition. What I’ve been doing recently is investigating the idea of capacities for control, but that definition hasn’t changed since 2001. I don’t think it’s useful to add more definitions and to keep trying to come up with new ones. Obviously, what we need to do is to drill down into it, rather than widening the definition beyond something that’s useful. I think if we are going to get anywhere then we all need to be talking about the same thing and using terms in the same way. In my definition, I refer to autonomy as “a capacity to control learning” and I’ve just been trying to further define each of those terms.

RP: So, how did you first get involved in working with autonomy?

PB: Well initially it was through technology and my involvement with CALL. Basically, in one of the places I was working they decided to set up a self-access centre, and because I was into computers they asked me if I wanted to be involved in that. When I first started working in autonomy, I suppose I was initially approaching it from a self-access viewpoint, but of course the more I got into autonomy, you know it developed and there is a lot more going on.  I have a background in CALL. Back in the 80s and 90s CALL was about creating programs or applications for language learning. But now, CALL also features an aspect of globalisation –of how people are using technology socially now. Technology has really advanced, so, it used to be that you would look at a program and think “how can I make this better for language learning?” and you would develop the software. But now, you can’t possibly create anything as good as what there already is. You couldn’t create anything better, than, for example YouTube.

RP: So you initially got into autonomy as a natural progression of your interest in technology’s use in language learning? That’s really interesting because that’s quite similar to me in fact, I initially started this blog to be all about CALL and technology, but now I’m more interested in technology and motivation, particularly authenticity and motivation, which I suppose YouTube is a good example of authenticity. In your lecture, you mentioned that there are of course strong conceptual links between autonomy and motivation…

PB: Yes…

RP: … and you said that when students ask you, or you know, say that they would like to write their thesis on the link between autonomy and motivation, you usually advise them not to do it!

PB: Yes, well. I think the thing with autonomy and motivation is that, as you say, there are some strong conceptual links there and in fact there is often an overlap in the terminology. I mean motivation, it was really Deci and Ryan, when they proposed Self Determination Theory, autonomy is a component of that. What they argue is that motivation is dependent on three things; autonomy, competence and relatedness. They talk about autonomy as a kind of freedom. In my breakdown of the term “capacity” in the definition of autonomy, I talk about freedom as being part of the capacity for control, and that’s obviously an aspect of autonomy but I think they are slicing the cake differently.

RP: So when they talk about autonomy in Self-Determination Theory they are talking about the freedom to be able to choose what they learn rather than being forced, say, by having to do a compulsory course?

PB: Yes, I think so. So I think that we are in agreement there, but for me autonomy is about more than just freedom as well, there are other things that we look at when we study autonomy.

RP: Right, I see. I’ll have to bear that in mind when I work on my PhD because my tutor is Ema Ushioda, and she was primarily concerned with autonomy and then she got into motivation research through that.

PB: Yeah. Well, as I say there are strong links between the two, but as I said in the lecture at Temple, there is a widespread problem in Applied Linguists in terms of defining abstract concepts, such as autonomy and motivation.

RP: And I’m foolishly trying to tie up three of them in my research. Sounds like I need to do a lot more reading. Do you have any new books coming out in the near future?

PB: Yes, actually, a few things coming out soon. At the moment I am working with sociocultural theory. There is a new book coming out, which is one I’ve co-edited with Lucy Cooker. It’s called The Applied Linguistic Individual: Sociocultural Approaches to Identity, Agency and Autonomy and it’s part of the Studies in Applied Linguistics series published by Equinox. It’s going to feature chapters from experts in the field of sociocultural theory, such as people like James Lantolf and Martin Lamb. One of the criticisms some people have levelled against autonomy research was that it was too individualistic. This book aims to bring the importance of the social context of autonomous learning out. It’s an examination of how individuality is conceptualised. So that’s been really interesting to work on and the book is coming out at the start of next year. The other book that I’m doing is called Narrative Inquiry in Language Teaching and Learning Research which is published by Routledge in the Second Language Acquisition Research Series. I’ve co-authored this book with Gary Barkhuizen, and Alice Chik.

RP: So you’ve been very busy recently I take it?

PB: Always busy. But in terms of current research, right now I’ve been looking at a lot of what happens outside of the classroom. Again, going back to YouTube, there are thousands of people out there it seems who are using YouTube for language learning. If you look at the comments below the videos, it seems very clear that a lot of these people are practising their second language skills, and there is evidence of them using YouTube for development. Now, there are lots of people doing what we call “translanguaging” which is things such as  a Chinese star speaking English in an interview, or an American singing a song in Chinese in Taiwan. And if you look at the comments on there, there is a lot of evidence of language learning taking place. There are people commenting about accent or pronunciation, sometimes aspects of grammar. This is a project that I am currently working on at the moment.

RP: That sounds very interesting. Well, thank you so much for your time and for the very interesting conversation.

PB: Ok, thanks very much.










When to (and when not to) use tech in class

The question of when to use, and equally as important – when not to use, technology in class has been a question that sadly gets left out of many of the discussions around new learning technologies. Unfortunately, a lot of the choices about tech in class come from a top down implementation. So, your school gets a load of new interactive whiteboards. They give you a 1 hour training session, remove all the old whiteboards and say ‘off you go then’. Questioning their practicality often gets you branded as ‘negative’ or even ‘anti-progressive’.
Happily, there are those who dare to ask questions about this approach to instructional technology. People like Mike Levy, Phil Hubbard and Greg Kessler (among others) have voiced their concern over ‘tech for tech’s sake’ and this is coming from the leading CALL experts and advocators. Interactive whiteboards, for example, don’t do things that normal ones do. You can’t have more than one person writing on it at the same time, for example, so if you are doing a spelling race or something like that you won’t be able to use it. A lot of great software and apps are being released at an amazing rate, but all too often they are put into use without prior evaluation. As CALL practitioners we need to ask ourselves, is this useful? How so? When would this be useful and when would it not? These questions are not dissimilar to the questions teachers ask themselves when planning or evaluating any resource for a lesson. You don’t need to be an expert to conduct this kind of evaluation either.

A good example is a Blended Learning Lesson Plan I wrote myself for use in my institution. I was thinking about this lesson from a very top-down perspective, I’m sorry to say. I was concerned our Moodle forums were underused, so I thought ‘how can I get these forums to be used in class?’ I created a lesson plan where the whole class is taken into the computer room and forced to use the forum to post a response to something.
Not only did this only mean that forums were used a lot for the hour of the class and then never again, it was also questionable pedagogically. Why make people communicate over a forum when they are in the same room as each other? In the pecking order of communication, face to face is always best.

Forums are powerful collaboration tools, but the point is to allow asynchronous sharing and knowledge. The same lesson applied to learners who are in a separated by time and space would be great, but not if they could just have easily have actually spoken to each other.
We are at a stage now where technology is so ubiquitous that we are not always so keen to implement it for its own sake. We need to critically evaluate the new item, see if it works, decide what it is good for and what it is not so good for.

I woul like to invite you to post your comments about any new piece of technology you have used in class. Was it useful? What can it do well? What are its limitations?

CALL Teacher Education

There is a brilliant book entitled ‘Teacher Education in CALL’ (Hubbard and Levy eds. 2006) which details the current state of CALL teacher education – some of the predominant findings are that there is not enough CALL Teacher Education going on as part of INSET or PRESET training, and even when CALL is part of Teacher Education programs it is often considered unsatisfactory in terms of preparing teachers to actually use CALL applications in class.

In the TESLCA-L List-Serv I started a post about CALL and Autonomy and was soon contacted through the list by Greg Kessler, a researcher and CALL Teacher Education Specialist who contributed to the ‘Teacher Education in CALL’ book. The post took on a slightly new purpose then, focusing on CALL Teacher Education and how this can feed into Autonomy Training.

I decided I would expand the idea by adding a post here. By joining the free mailing list TESLCA-L you can read the archived postings and also add to them, or alternatively leave a comment here on this blog about the subject.

We are particularly interested in:

  • any CALL preparation courses you have taken
  • your attitudes towards CALL use and CALL Teacher Education
  • any experiences you have had while trying to integrate CALL into your classes

We look forward to reading your postings!