Using E-Mail with your students

John Bauman

The increasing importance of electronic communication (e-communication) via the Internet is something language teachers can't afford to ignore. The nature of communication is changing, and communication is what we teach. This article discusses some first steps a teacher can take, once e-communication has been established. The enhancements to the classroom experience are significant, and they derive not from the kind of e-communication used, but merely from the fact of using this new mode. This discussion will be about using the simplest form of two-way e-communication, e-mail, to replace other communication modes.

Computer Use

In order to retain control of the goals of the class, teachers should start out with a minimum level of computer use, and not allow the computer to change their style. Use the computer to do what you already do, but in a new way, and see what happens.

Basic information about setting up and using e-mail was described recently in these pages (Newfields, 1996). Warschauer (1995) lays out the basics of e-mail and many other aspects of the Internet for language teaching. The procedures for using different systems vary, and pedagogical e-mail use must rest on a foundation of teacher and student ability to use the system.

At its simplest, e-mail is nothing more than the sending of written text from one computer to another. Most teachers now exchange written text with students on paper. Shifting this to e-mail produces at least two changes with profound results. First, students and teachers can exchange the texts between classes, instead of in class. Second, the student writing is received as a computer text file. The first change allows new sequences of events in a course; the second allows student texts to be manipulated like any other computer files. I will discuss both of these changes, and then give some references to descriptions of additional uses of e-communication for language teaching.

The Assignment Cycle

Consider an English class that meets once or twice a week. Even in a class that is not focused on writing, a teacher may well have students write something between classes as homework. It might be to reinforce what was covered in class, to follow up on a topic, to anticipate a new topic, to provide a partial basis for a grade, to add a writing component to the class, or simply to have some individual communication with students. Whatever the reason, we're all familiar with those wads of paper that we periodically haul home from class and have to do something with. With the papers exchanged in class, a homework assignment initiates a sequence like the following:


Teacher gives assignment.


Students do assignment.


Students give assignment to teacher.


Teacher reads assignment and provides written feedback to student.


Teacher returns assignment


Students read teacher's feedback.

Assuming weekly classes and a link between class activities and homework assignments, at this point students are reading feedback on an assignment related to a class that happened over two weeks earlier. If assignments are given weekly, another assignment has already been completed, and a third has been given. Student interest in the assignment from Class one may wane.

With electronic text substituted for paper, and this text exchanged by e-mail, a sequence like this becomes possible:


Teacher gives assignment.


Students do assignment.

Students send assignment to teacher.

Teacher reads assignment and provides written feedback to student. Teacher returns assignment

Students read teacher's feedback.


The teacher can plan for class 2 having already had two-way communication with students about class 1.

The students have received feedback from class one's assignment before class two begins. If the sequence is repeated, there is no overlap; assignment one is dealt with before assignment two is given.

At first glance, this looks like a lot of work. Indeed, if this kind of cycle is used in a class that would otherwise have no written homework, it is a lot more work for everyone involved. But if this cycle is used to replace a cycle of weekly homework on paper, it's no more work at all. With one assignment per class, both sequences above will result in the same number of assignments.

What does change is that the time frame in which to do the work becomes shorter, for both teachers and students. Therefore, it's very important to anticipate how a particular class will proceed through this cycle, and to plan a schedule that is fair to both teacher and students. There are two important points between classes to schedule, those at which mail is sent. Here's an example that shows some of the considerations in scheduling these mailings.

A Case Study

I have a university class that meets on Monday mornings. I know that all of the students have e-mail access on campus, and some have it at home. I know that my class is the first class they have on Monday morning. Every week we go through this cycle.

Monday morning. Class. Homework assigned.

Homework must be done and e-mailed to me by Thursday at 7:00 PM.

Thursday evening I go through all of the homework, react to it, and return it.

On Friday the students download and read my feedback. There may be something in it to be done before the next class.

The students mail to me by Thursday evening, and I mail to them, as a group, later Thursday evening. These times have been chosen considering my situation and that of my students. I want them to be able to read and perhaps print my messages before class; therefore, the replies must be available for download on Friday. It is an imposition to ask them to submit the homework earlier than they are used to, so I set the deadline as late as possible, that is, Thursday evening. I have a commitment to deal with homework for this class on Thursday evenings.

Since the schedule is tighter, it's important to set an exact time as a deadline. Students won't always meet it, but it establishes a limit on the teacher's responsibility to respond on time. I know that anytime after 7:00 on Thursday I can go through and respond to the messages in my computer, and when I'm finished, I've fulfilled my responsibility to the students who have met the deadline.

Most e-mail programs have a "reply" function. This function automatically sends your reply to the address that it was sent from. This greatly facilitates sending mail back to the students who sent it, as long as they sent it from their own e-mail account. Advise the students that you will use this reply function to respond to homework, and that they should send the homework from the same account that they will use to download your reply.

I have found that most students happily meet my requests (to send by a deadline, to send from their own account, to download replies before class) as long as I reliably do my part (devise a reasonable schedule, respond individually, respond on time). The inconvenience of the shorter time frame is balanced by the positive aspects of e-mail usage.

The first class

Like a chain and its links, a network is only as useful as it is to its least proficient user. To start getting the benefits of e-mail, both teachers and students need reliable, consistent, and easy access. Even for new users, the process should become transparent, so that the learners' effort remains focused on communication, not the technology. Unless you want the class to focus on using the Internet (and you may), get communication established quickly and then just use it. Here are some tips for starting out.

Start in the first class with a hand-out

Determine the capabilities of the students before the term begins. If they have access, prepare a hand-out with your address, a few questions, and a deadline. Verify that the deadline will allow the students to download and print your reply before the next class, and adjust the deadline if necessary. Explain when the reply will be sent, and ask them to download it.

Don't collect e-mail addresses from your students

A single mistaken character will invalidate an address, so the chances of collecting and typing a number of addresses without errors is slim. Give them your address, and make sure it's correct. You will receive their addresses when they send you a message, and the addresses will be accurate. Inform the students that you will reply to the address that they send from. If you only reply using the reply function, you will never have to type an e-mail address.

Send a timely reply with an activity

Make sure that you keep your end of the bargain by replying to the students who meet the deadline. Send some questions, or a simple exercise, as part of the reply. Ask them to print the reply, do the activity, and bring it to class. This will let you know who has gotten the reply. Use the activity in your reply as the start of the second class. Even if it just lasts five minutes, it will let the students who didn't complete the cycle (and there will be some) know that it's an important part of the class, and should motivate them to establish communication.


The second change noted above is that the student writings are received as text files. "Text" in a computer context has a special meaning, sometimes referred to as "ASCII text" or "plain text." This kind of text is cross-platform, meaning that any computer and many different programs can use it. Of course, it can be copied and modified. Many ideas below take advantage of the flexibility with which electronic text can be manipulated. Here are some suggestions to get you started responding to your students' e-mail.

The most important thing is to communicate with the students. Comment on their ideas. Give your own opinions. Students want opportunities to communicate and will often send messages beyond what's assigned.

Send some questions. If you want to be sure that the students think about the questions before class, type each question on a separate line, with three or four blank lines between them. Ask the student to print the message, write the answers, and bring it to class. I don't collect these pages, but use the questions I sent as a basis for conversation in class. Sometimes I send all the students the same questions, sometimes different ones.

If correct structure is a concern, here's an editing technique. Copy the student's submission twice. Make an obvious division between them, such as a row of asterisks. Correct the errors in the second copy and send both as your reply. Instruct the student to print the message, compare the two versions, and mark the changes with a highlighter. The changes can be discussed in class.

Another way to create an exercise from a student's own work is to make a cloze. Copy the submission twice, as above. In the second copy, substitute blank lines for some of the errors. Make sure to double-space the cloze. Send this back to the student and request that it be printed and that the blanks be filled in.

Like a cloze, almost anything that can be typed as a handout can be formatted in electronic text and sent by e-mail. The copy and paste functions enable you to send the same thing to each student. I like to send role plays, so students have time to read them before class.

After a role play, have the students send a report of what happened. Be sure to ask them to include the name of their partner. You can compare the reports of pairs and send each the ideas of the other.

If you assign a problem with an "official" answer, such as a "Dear Abby" letter from the newspaper, you can type out the official answer, once, and paste it into your replies. If the students have interesting and varied opinions about a topic, compile all of the responses into a single file and send that file to each student. Everyone gets to read the opinions of everyone else.

When using the paste function to send the same thing to the whole class, remember that just because part of the message is a "form letter," that doesn't mean it can't be personalized. Perhaps the most efficient way to reply to a class is to have a text that you paste into each reply. Then add to it or alter it for each student.

A dialog journal works better through e-mail than on paper, since there's no period when the student is deprived of the journal while the teacher reads it and responds. Wang (1996) found that students using e-mail communication asked more questions, used more language functions, and wrote more spontaneously than did students using paper for a dialog journal. Deal (1995) reports that electronic journals better aided students in synthesizing their learning and teachers in understanding students' concerns.

Sample e-mail responses to students illustrating the options described in the "Responding" section above can be found at<>

Other Uses of E-mail

Finally, here are some references to other ways teachers have used e-mail. These methods require more than the basic student-teacher text exchange that this article is limited to.

One of the most popular uses of e-mail is for penpal communication between students, sometimes referred to as keypals. Students can be paired with other students in the same class, or with someone anywhere in the world. See Warschauer (1995, 47-50) for a general discussion and some on-line resources for finding partners for your students. Warschauer (1995, 107-129) contains five articles describing keypal projects. Robb and Tillyer(1993) also describes a keypal project, with a good description of the nuts and bolts of setting one up. Shiozawa, Imamura, Briss, & Ozeki (1996) describe three keypal projects recently done in Japan.

More ways of facilitating e-communication between students in a single class are described in Allan (1995) and Warschauer (1995, Part 1). Students can simply send mail to each other, or different kinds of e-communications can be brought in, such as a mailing list, a newsgroup, or a Word Wide Web homepage.

Bowers and Werner (1997) describe a way to use HTML and a WWW browser to respond to a student's writing, while Holmes (1996) describes some techniques using Microsoft Word or WordPerfect. Both of these editing techniques require the student text to be in electronic form, and, for both, electronic submission and return of the assignments are possible.

Goodwin, Hamrick, and Stewart (1993) describe an English course for learners preparing to study English in the United States. The students were able to begin study with their U. S. teachers while still in their own countries.

Rainey (1996) describes using e-mail, as well as other communication technology, in a business communication course.

Conrad and Rautenhaus (1994) took advantage of the fact that regular e-mail usage quickly results in a large amount of student-produced, computer readable text. They describe using a concordance program with students. The teacher guides the students in looking for regularities in the language and deducing the underlying rules. The authors also use the concordancer to compare the language in the e-mail messages with language in an English textbook corpus, finding some interesting discrepancies, mostly related to the greater informality of the language used in e-mail. Wang (1996) is another good example of research based on analysis of student e-mail.

Some Final Thoughts

E-mail is still a new technology. In Japan, e-mail access is just now becoming common in universities. For the next few years, teachers who use it will likely see heightened student interest due to the inherent novelty of anything new.

In the long term, its effects on the ESL/EFL field are hard to predict. Students who are in high schools and universities now will spend most of their adult lives in a world of fast, cheap, easy-to-use electronic communication. If they use English at all, e-mail will surely be part of their experience, perhaps a large part. Early research seems to indicate that both native and non-native speakers use a different kind of English in e-mail, a register different from written and spoken English, with characteristics of each. (Conrad and Rautenhaus, 1994; Wang, 1996; Liaw, 1996) Teachers will have to understand and deal with this register. The language that we teach is adapting to accommodate the Internet, and, eventually, our teaching will have to reflect this.


Bowers, R. & Werner, S. (1997). Using HTML for online editing. Computer Assisted Language Learning Newsletter (TESOL CALL-IS), 14(1), 1.

Conrad, B. & Rautenhaus, H. (1994). Innovations in teachers' education: Using the concordancer as a means for students at university and school level. Paper presented at the meeting of EUROCALL, Karlsruhe, Germany, ERIC Document #ED 382 023.

Deal, N. (1995). Is the medium the message? Comparing student perceptions of teacher responses via written and e-mail forms. In Emerging technologies, lifelong learning, National Educational Computing Conference '95, 216-218.

Goodwin, A. A., Hamrick, J. & Stewart, T. C. (1993). Instructional delivery via electronic mail. TESOL Journal, August, 1993, 4-7

Liaw, M. (1996). Communicative devices used by EFL students in e-mail writing. ERIC Document #401752.

Holmes, M. (1996). Marking student work on the computer. The Internet TESL Journal, 2(9), <>

Newfields, T. (1996). Language teaching and the Internet. The Language Teacher, 20(10), 40-44

Rainey, C. (1996). Technology in business communication. In Proceedings of the 1st Mid-South Instructional Technology Conference, Murfreesboro, TN, 157-167.

Robb, T. & Tillyer, A. (1993). Electronically yours: Cross-cultural communication through e-mail penpals. Paper presented at the 27th TESOL Annual Conference, Atlanta, GA, ERIC Document No. ED 366 199.

Shiozawa, T., Imamura, H., Briss, S. & Ozeki, S. (1996). Using computer networks to facilitate communication: Network projects at