Using E-Pals to Increase Student Engagement and Fulfill All Five C’s

Last December, an English teacher in France posted in the French teacher comprehensible input (CI) group on Facebook that she was looking for a French class in the United States to set up an e-pal exchange with (I’m sure many of you know the term “pen pal.” I had quite a few when I was a young teen. These days the students communicate through email, hence the term “e-pal.”). My students were roughly the same age as hers so I set up an exchange with her. We alternate between writing in French and writing in English so that both our students can practice their target language (TL).

For the past two months, I have been conducting Special Person interviews in my class. Here is the post I just wrote about that. As a result, my students have been receiving a steady diet of CI. Each student is interviewed about their family, birthday, likes, and fears. So after I matched each French student with one of my students based on questionnaires the teacher in France sent me, I had my students write an introductory letter to their pen pal. Thanks to the Special Person interviews we have been doing, my students had very little difficulty writing about six to ten sentences about themselves with no supports whatsoever in TEN MINUTES!

The teacher in France sent me a letter with some information about her town and her students. She also sent me the link to her school’s web page, and that is when I had a GREAT idea. Why not take the basic French 1 topics that I am planning to talk about anyway, such as geography of France, weather, school, food, and hobbies and present them while using what we learning about the lives of our new e-pals as a real-world context? That is exactly what I did, and here is how I hit all those topics.

1. Geography of France. Our e-pals live in a town in southwestern France. I projected a map of France from Google Maps in class and used the opportunity to point out some of the geographical features of France in general such as mountains, big cities, and bordering countries. Then I could ask questions like, Classe, nos amis habitent près de Suisse (Class, do our friends live near Switzerland)? Il y a des montagnes près de leur ville (Are there mountains near their town)This particular town is near the Garonne River, so I showed them where it was on the map and talked a bit also about some of the other rivers in France. This helped my students start to acquire words like mountains, rivers, country, near, far, next to, east, south, west…and so on. You get the idea.

Once I was done with the geographic map, I switched Google Maps to the satellite view and zoomed in so students could get a glimpse of the center of town and the school our e-pals attend. Guys, my kids went CRAZY when they saw that they could virtually see what their e-pals’ town and school look like! They were so excited! I thought their heads were going to explode! For more information on using Google Maps in your language class, read this awesome post from la Maestra Loca, Annabelle Allen.

2. Weather. Since class began I have been asking them questions about the weather each day. Talking about the weather in general can get a bit monotonous, but now that my students and I are able to compare weather in our region with weather in our e-pals’ region, it has gotten a bit more interesting. A real world connection makes all that vocabulary and language structure real, relevant, and a lot more interesting than it is when talking in the hypothetical.

We use the Internet to check and compare our daily and seasonal weather with theirs. I can ask questions like, Ici il pleut. Il pleut là-bas (It’s raining here. Is it raining there?)? I only use French weather sites (Look ACTFL, an authentic resource!). These sites are very visual, usually with just a symbol and a temperature in Celsius. I don’t mind the lack of weather vocabulary, however, because I know my students won’t get bogged down by too much unfamiliar language. They only need to concentrate on the pictures. I also get an opportunity to talk about French usage of the metric system and, since French weather sites also give the weather for the overseas départements of France, I have the chance to add in a little more geography as we talk about the weather in places like Mayotte, Guadeloupe, and French Polynesia.

3. School. I plan to write the teacher in France and ask her if she will send us a copy of what a typical school day looks like for her students, because I would like the opportunity to talk about the differences between our school schedule and theirs (Many typical French school schedules are available online, so if need be, I can use a generic one until I get a real one from France). I plan to project the schedule and use the target language (TL) to talk about the differences between our school schedule and theirs. A school schedule comparison is a great opportunity to reinforce time expressions and names of school subjects. Then from there I can personalize the conversation by asking students in French to tell me their favorite classes, and ultimately they will be able to ask their e-pals about their favorites as well.

4. Food. The school our e-pals attend posts its weekly lunch menu online (Another authentic resource! Yay!). This is an amazing document to use when we are talking about food. I project the weekly menu and we talk about what we would eat each day if we were students there (And yes, even though this is a first-year class, I have NO PROBLEM teaching them a conditional form. I NEVER shelter grammar) and compare it to our own lunch menu. The importance of eating healthy food is such an important part of French culture, which is something my students quickly realize when they compare the two menus side by side.

5. Hobbies. One of the questions on our Special Person interviews was about what my students like to do in their spare time. As a result, my students can talk pretty easily about activities that they like or don’t like to do. My class is a nice mix of musicians, jocks, gamers, and book nerds, so my students have acquired about 15-20 different words they can use to express things they like to do. It has been interesting to compare our favorite activities with the favorite activities of our e-pals so that we can compare and contrast and add even more expressions to our internal language systems based on what our e-pals like to do.

Guys my students are SO engaged in class these days, because everything we are doing we can relate back to a real person. My principal came to observe me and she was very impressed by how excited my students were and the fact that they had a real-world connection to their language study. This project has been great for my professional evaluations too, because I hit ALL FIVE ACTFL WORLD READINESS STANDARDS!

If you’re interested in getting your students e-pals, let me warn you about being careful to protect your students’ privacy. I DO NOT allow my students to give their home address, email address, social media profile name, or phone number to their e-pals. The only means of communication for them is through me, and the teacher in France does the same thing. Once our students have written each other more frequently, the teacher in France and I may talk about allowing our students to exchange private contact information so they can communicate directly. I will most likely send out permission slip forms to parents to make sure that they feel comfortable with that. In this day and age, you just can’t be too careful!

This e-pals project is one of the best activities I have ever done in a second language class! And in our Internet world, connecting with a teacher in a foreign country and setting up an exchange is relatively easy. I urge you to give it a try, no matter what language you teach!



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