Taking off the Training Wheels

by Douglas DeLong

The Internet is a wonderful gift to students and teachers of the English language. It has opened up doors and created opportunities that were inconceivable just a few short years ago, and it promises to evolve into an ever more expansive medium in the future.

What can students do on the Internet? They can access information about just about any subject they desire in English. They can use interactive exercises to practice their reading, listening, writing, and even speaking skills. They can communicate with other students from anywhere in the world. They can use their creativity to publish their own websites, either on their own or in collaboration with other students or even other classes.

What can teachers do on the Internet? They can provide interactive materials for students to access, either in their own classroom or in a distant classroom. They can act as English tutors, providing one-to-one instruction for students online. They can freely access hundreds of lesson plans and ideas for classroom activities.

The resources available today on the Internet are truly astounding. Only a few years ago, you would have been hard- pressed to find much information about ESL on the Internet. Today you can find hundreds of sites dedicated to helping ESL students and teachers. These sites provide students and teachers with unlimited opportunities to practice and improve their English ability.

These ESL-specific sites are wonderful, but don't forget that there's a vast world of websites on the Internet beyond ESL sites. Indeed, the vast majority of Internet sites are written in English. For students, these authentic English sites provide an excellent chance to spread their wings, and experience the thrill of riding the bike without the training wheels.

The problem is, of course, that with about a billion websites on the Internet, finding appropriate sites for students can be a daunting challenge.

The logical place for any student to start would be to explore those areas in which he/she possesses a keen interest. An understanding of how to use a search engine must be a prerequisite to any effective use of authentic English sites. The student (and teacher) also should be aware of the importance of credibility when evaluating a site for its potential usefulness. Check out Some Ideas for Evaluating Websites: http://www.sccd.ctc.edu/~schu/criteria.html

It's also important to help students find resources that are appropriate to their level and relatively easy to use. There's nothing more discouraging than to find a website that's full of promise, and then discover that it's a nightmare to navigate. Fast-loading sites are also more appealing, because the student can lose interest in a hurry if the site takes forever to download.

Authentic English sites can also be used as a springboard for further discussion or activities. For example, the "Pets in The White House" site provides an excellent opportunity for students to talk about their own pets: http://www.whitehouse.gov/kids/pets.html

Similarly, the "Pet Peeves" cartoons make for a fun introduction to the subject and should get students talking about their own pet peeves: http://petpeeves.com/archive.htm

At my site, The Tower of English http://towerofenglish.com, I've created a guide to authentic English resources for students and teachers. I've set up 34 categories and included about 300 recommended websites. Each recommended site has a short summary of the site and most also have a suggested activity. Some activities are more appropriate for self-study, and others are more appropriate for classroom use.

The fastest way for any student to improve is to become immersed as much as possible in the world of English. Whether it's reading newspapers, books, and magazines, watching videos, listening to music, or using the Internet, extensive exposure to the language is crucial. It's our job as teachers to give guidance to our students in choosing appropriate resources.

TEFL.net ESL Reviews & Articles© Douglas DeLong 2001
Douglas DeLong has been teaching ESL for 8 years in Japan. He now lives in Okayama, Japan, where he has recently opened his own school, The English Studio. He is the founder of Tower of English, a guide to the Internet for ESL students and teachers.