The illustrious Stephen Krashen was the guest speaker at the MIDTESOL conference this past weekend. Since I follow him on Twitter and know of his inclination to retweet Bill Murray, I was able to predict the opening salvo of jokes, which was actually pretty funny. The rest of his speech was eye-opening (see page 46/48 for his presentation notes). The main focus was on literacy, specifically the connection between the mere presence of books and the ability to read well. And it doesn’t matter what kind of books: Krashen encouraged the attendees to check out comic books and graphic novels and see for ourselves how compelling they are.
His argument was related to a past article in which he argues for the benefits of “junk reading,” meaning reading that isn’t considered “quality.” Pleasure reading, regardless of what language it’s in, has the potential to put readers in a “flow state,” which can in turn lead to getting readers hooked on reading.
But why does this matter for college-age ESL students? When do they ever read for pleasure, even in their own language?
When? All the time.
It’s just not books. It’s on their phones.
During break times, almost every class in our intensive English program is silent. If you peek into one of those classes, you’ll see the students with their necks craned phoneward, scrolling through lines and lines of text. Messages, comics, articles, blogs, memes, etc.
It’s probably all in their own language, of course, but what if it wasn’t? What if an insidious ESL teacher could infiltrate the feeds on their phones with bits of reading in English? It wouldn’t matter if it were “junk” or not. Just getting them exposed a few more sentences of English every time they took out their phones.
It’s a hypothesis. I haven’t tried to do anything like it in my classes. But for it to work, a few things would have to be taken into consideration:
- Student-selected content: This would only work if students were actually interested in the content of the English language posts. ESL-focused social media accounts aren’t always interesting or accurate. Encourage students to find accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. that have content that they’re interested in. Or learn about their interests and find something for them.
- Encouragement: Both the teacher and the students would need to be on board with an idea like this. The teacher should encourage students to “make English a part of their lives” and tell them how successful they’ll be if they get exposed to more English. But students can encourage each other as well. When I ask my students to do listening logs, I always have them tell their classmates about interesting things that they listened to. The goal is to build excitement for English-language content. You would have to do the same thing with social media.
- Accountability: This would be the most difficult part, and also the most important. You want to know that students are actually reading and making an effort at understanding the English content that comes across their social media feeds. If they just scroll past everything that comes up in English, it defeats the purpose. I don’t have good idea for this one. An old-fashioned report might do the trick, but I’m sure there are more elegant and modern ways to collect and report on social media posts. Maybe you could have students comment on certain posts that are interesting to them and demonstrate that they’ve done so, but I could see that getting messy with tracking those comments down.
I know that this method works because I’m a guinea pig for it. I’m lucky enough to have friends from around the world who I follow on Facebook and Instagram. In addition their more eloquent posts, they’ve supplied me with plenty of dumb memes and small snatches of easy-to-read (yet authentic) text in Spanish, German, and Korean.
On Twitter, I follow Uni Erfurt, where I studied abroad. Even if I don’t click on the links they post, the brief summaries are a quick jolt of German that I can glean a new vocabulary word or two from.
On Instagram, I follow my favorite soccer players, many of whom are multilingual and post the same comments in Spanish and English. Son Heung Min is a great player to follow for me, linguistically speaking, because he’s a Korean who played in Germany, so sometimes he posts a comment in Korean with both German and English translations.
On Facebook, there is any number of dumb pages to follow. Mis Curiosidades is pure trash: clickbait captions, inane memes, and no substance whatsoever. It’s absolutely perfect for me. Most of the vocabulary is simple enough for me to understand and the sentences are short enough that I can figure out the grammar. If I want even more colorful language, I can check the comments section.
Can you get students to do it?
That’s another question.
Like most everything in the classroom, it comes down to motivation. You need to give them content in English that they really, really want to see. Even the lowest level student will spend some time slogging through English if it leads to a message that they’re interested in.
I’m not yet sure how it can be pulled off, but there’s my dastardly plan.
Thanks for reading.