Current Issue: Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall 2011:Conversations
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Cara Tuzzolino-Werben
Idiom Editor

Elisabeth Gareis
Column Editor,
Culture Notes

Nanette Dougherty
Column Editor,
Book Review

Ann Wintergerst
Column Editor,
Promising Practices


Featured Article

TESL and the Internet: Variables Influencing Use
Maria Spelleri

The other day, the department secretary handed me next semester’s room assignment—and horror of horrors, I had been assigned a room without a computer. As visions of techno-barren future classes flashed in front of my eyes, it dawned on me how much I relied on the Internet in my community college EAP courses, one way or another, in nearly every class, every day. Masking my panic, I implored the secretary to find a “wired” room for me: a single Internet-connected computer and a projector. Later on, crisis averted, I thought about what using the Internet in class meant to me, and how the extent and purposes of that use were based on sets of variables that I subconsciously, yet regularly, chose from.

Lesson Center or Supplement?

Some Web pages work well as the centerpiece of a lesson, while others are born to be supplements. One lesson centerpiece I’ve showcased several times is National Public Radio’s This I Believe project. My student writers analyze the on-line personal essays, expressively narrated by their authors, and the combination of audio and written word clarify meaning much more eloquently than if we had only read text copies of the same essays.

On the other hand, a host of Web sites add depth and color to my lessons as multimedia supplements to the primary lesson plan. For example, Townsend Press has a reading skills Website where students practice academic reading strategies like identifying main ideas and supporting details. In addition, when I can’t think of just one more sample sentence for subject-verb agreement, I’ll hop over to Capital Community College’s grammar site for a fresh supply. If our textbook is skimpy on present-perfect exercises, English Pageprovides a source of interactive exercises. Homework help is another kind of supplement. Students can enter their own content and make multimedia flashcards at Virtual Flashcard.

Providing supplemental background information is where the Internet is invaluable. For a grammar class, I illustrated a mini-lecture with on-line photos of the mummified body of Otzi the Iceman and his possessions (found in the Alps in 1991). The students needed background information to discuss the Iceman, practicing past modals in the process. In a moment of techno-gratitude, I realized that in pre-Internet days, I would have spent an hour slogging to the library, searching for photos to supplement just one part of that one class, or nearly as much time explaining the background without visual aids for a contextually weak activity.

Language Learning or Non-Language Learning Site?

A variable to consider in Website choice is whether to use sites created for language learners or sites for the general public. Colleges, instructors, and non-profit agencies have all contributed to the wealth of material written specifically for English language learners. For instance, the University of Iowa’s Phoneticspages have videos of mouthsarticulating all the sounds of English, and St. Cloud State University’s LEOhas detailed examples of writing, from resumes to thesis statements.  Randall’s ESL Cyber Listening Lab, developed by instructor Randall Davis, is a collection of audio dialogues and comprehension exercises, and the non-profit agency Literacyworks sponsors Learning Resources, lessons based on multimedia news stories from CBS and CNN.

However, with the hundreds of useful English education and ESL Websites on the Net, it’s easy to overlook the “authentic language” sites- the rest of the Internet, in other words. As with all authentic language resources, the task design, or how the material is used, determines its suitability for the ESL classroom. My colleague likes for colorful graphics on a broad range of topics like health and climate for teaching the language of change and trends. I’ve had fun with the two minute mysteries at MysteryNet. Some have interactive graphics that reveal one clue at a time- wonderful for practicing the language of possibility and speculation.

Another favorite authentic language site,the Museum of Unnatural Mystery, is a visually appealing array of cryptozoology, UFOs, archaeological oddities, and other bizarre, yet engaging topics, certain to spark student interest. I often select something from this Website to practice keyword note-taking and source citation. It’s much more entertaining than the dangers of second-hand smoke! HowStuffWorks, a site whose title is self-descriptive of its content, has cleverly illustrated articles like How Kissing Works and How Cults Work,  as well as a host of mechanical and electronic how’s. Most articles work well as raw material for a process or informative essay or as a data source for a speech or PowerPoint presentation.

In Class or Out of Class?

Equipment constraint is a further variable of Internet use. Teachers without a wired classroom can still put together contextually rich Internet activities as long as students have Web access at home or in a lab. My intermediate class completes “listening journals” completely outside of class. I give weekly listening assignments from the Voice of America’s Special English broadcasts with instructions that include taking notes and writing a reaction.

Students also participate in our class blog on their own time. Instructors can easily create a blog for free at  In a recent writing class, students used a blog to complete a writing project. They posted their essays, and their classmates read and commented on them. The blog allowed students to read many more of their classmates’ work than they would have had time to read in class, and students took pride in seeing their own work “professionally published.”

Student Tool or Teacher Tool?
Another variable in Internet use is the user. For students, my syllabus includes must-have vocabulary reference sites. The Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms shows a list of idioms related to the word entered.  Enter blind, for instance, and up comes blind alley, blind date, blind spot and more. However, the mother of all word reference sources is, which pulls definitions and encyclopedic entries from multiple sources.  My test word catatonia resulted in 9 references and 15 different language translations!

Teacher tools abound in the form of databases that provide the raw material for many creative lesson ideas. A-Z Lyrics Universe is a source for every genre of lyrics, oldies and modern, and the Internet Movie Script Database has all the words from films ranging from Casablanca to Harry Potter. Need composition or journal ideas? Georgia Techhas a few hundred! Worth 1000is a collection of unique photo- shopped images, perfect for prompts for dialogue invention, conversation, or writing.

Still other variables for Internet use exist. Adapting or using a Web page as is, for example, or directing students to specific sites versus tasks that encourage Web exploration.  All these variables show the range and scope of Internet usage for TESL—truly something for every instructor, no matter the level of the course taught or the desired lesson objective.

About the Author

Maria Spelleri is an EAP instructor at Manatee Community College in Florida, and has worked as a teacher trainer, literacy agency program coordinator, and ESL materials writer both in the U.S. and abroad. Currently she is authoring an on-line collection of creative classroom activities to accompany the Azar grammar series.