Using blogs with language learners

Blogs have long been used by educators as a means of promoting reading and writing and English language teachers have also been using them not only as a way of helping learners develop such skills but also as tools to improve their language awareness.

There are different ways in which blogs can be used and different online platforms available which give bloggers a variety of options and a wide online readership. However, there are also blog applications on Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) which restrict the audience to students and instructors enrolled in particular courses on the VLE. In this post, I discuss the way in which I have been using blogs with my EAP students and I hope this will give you some ideas about how to explore such tool in your own teaching practice.

Blogs in VLEs, such as Blackboard, can in principle have two disadvantages in relation to web2 blog platforms: they do look definitely plain and unattractive compared with the visual resources and tools open access online blogs offer, and they do restrict the readership to the ones enrolled in the system. However, when explored for specific purposes and in particular contexts, VLE blogs may, in fact, offer a couple of advantages. First of all, the limited editing functions may make them less daunting to users who are not particularly well-acquainted with web page construction and design and for whom having to learn how to build a site would actually require another whole set of tech skills. Because they do not have to look pretty, blogs in VLEs may free students to focus more on the content of their posts instead of worrying too much about adding aesthetic elements to them. Secondly, although posters’ ideas will be shared with fewer readers, some bloggers, particularly if they are language learners, may actually feel more confident to write knowing that if they make a mistake or do not express themselves as they would like to, this will only be seen by their tutor and other language learners like themselves. It can be less intimidating posting to a restricted, familiar readership than knowing that your writing will be open to scrutiny and criticism on the whole internet.

I have been using blogs on Blackboard with my language and literature students for about two years now and the results have been quite positive. Although their blog entries are usually short, I have observed that some of them really enjoying posting and value this as an opportunity for a bit of extra writing practice without the burden of been assessed for it. In this particular case, the blog entries are not part of their module assessment but are assigned to them as pieces of homework. Making blogging part of their homework is a very important aspect of it and typically I assign blog posting to:

  • flip a lesson, i.e. students have to search information on a particular aspect related to a literary work that we will be studying in the following sessions;
  • build collaborative learning, i.e. no student is asked to blog about exactly the same thing so each one of them has to contribute with something to the group learning and also acquire some knowledge from what their classmates post;
  • practise paraphrasing. Since this is a notorious difficult skill for learners of academic English, reading articles in literary criticism and posting their summaries and paraphrasing of some paragraphs can help students practise their writing at the same time they get to grips with the concepts and ideas in the articles and with the genre conventions in literary criticism.

An important aspect of using blogs with such learners is to give them some space to make decisions about what to post and how to post it. Although I do assign them a very specific task – for example, ‘find a description of a character in the novel, copy and paste the passage, and comment on it’- they still have the autonomy to decide which character they will choose, which passage to copy and analyse, and also decide whether they want to add pictures or video links to illustrate their analysis. A certain degree of autonomy is important to give students a sense of ownership over the task and make it less as a piece of homework and more like an intellectual exploration of the aspect discussed.

Another significant aspect is feedback. More often than I would wish so, I do not have time to comment on each individual post, but I do write my own blog entry with general comments on what they produced as a way to wrap up the activity. I also make sure I show their blogs on the screen in class and verbally comment on them.

Using blogs with my students has considerably increased their amount of writing and reading practice, with groups of 20 students producing per term around 120 posts of about 150-200 words each. It has also increased their engagement with and understanding of the literary texts and provided invaluable practice towards the essay writing assignment.

Below are some suggestions for further reading on using blogs in education.

  • Amir, Z., Ismail, K. and Hussin, S., 2011. Blogs in Language Learning: Maximizing Students’ Collaborative Writing. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 18, pp.537–543.
  • Blau, I., Mor, N. and Neuthal, T., 2009. Open the windows of communication: promoting interpersonal and group interactions using blogs in higher education. Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects, 5(1), pp.233–246.
  • Churchill, D., 2009. Educational applications of Web 2.0: using blogs to support teaching and learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(1), pp.179–183.
  • Hourigan, T. and Murray, L., 2010. Using blogs to help language students to develop reflective learning strategies: Towards a pedagogical framework. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, [online] 26(2).
  • Kajder, S., Bull, G. and Van Noy, E., 2004. A Space for ‘Writing without Writing’ Blogs In The Language Arts Classroom. Mining the Internet. Learning & Leading with Technology, 31(6), pp.32–35.
  • Kim, H.N., 2008. The phenomenon of blogs and theoretical model of blog use in educational contexts. Computers & Education, 51(3), pp.1342–1352.
  • Trajtemberg, C. and Yiakoumetti, A., 2011. Weblogs: a tool for EFL interaction, expression, and self-evaluation. ELT Journal, 65(4), pp.437–445.
  • Williams, J.B. and Jacobs, J., 2004. Exploring the use of blogs as learning spaces in the higher education sector. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, [online] 20(2).