Using Social Media in the Classroom

I’m a big fan of social media. Facebook, Twitter, blogging platforms and other ‘web 2.0’ sites offer users the ability to publish their thoughts and exchange ideas with a global audience.

Using Social Media in the Classroom - resources article

In this article I will be discussing ways that you can use social media in your classes and courses.

A blog (from the term, ‘weblog’) is a self-published, web-based collection of writing and (sometimes) photos. Blogs differ greatly in focus, sophistication (of topics and language) and popularity. The culture of blogging calls for regular updates, exchange of comments, and (usually) short posts.

Blogs offer a hugely exciting platform for learners to express themselves in a new language.

The fact that posts are generally short, and that new content is added frequently, make them attractive and exciting for classroom adaptation.

You can use them in the following ways:

1)    Building a class blog, where students can take it in turns to write posts on topics of interest. Other students can then add comments. The teacher will probably need to moderate, as comment threads can sometimes become heated and if you are representing an educational institution, this could become a tricky issue.

2)    Creating lessons based on blogs. I once devised a reading task taking four types of blog- one academic, one on the life of an ambulance driver, one personal blog and another on current affairs. I had students skim read each blog and answer thematic questions. They then exchanged their opinions on each blog and decided which one seemed most interesting. We then had a language analysis task, with samples of text from each blog. Students examined differences in style (i.e. formality), lexis and tone, before focusing on the personal blog, which used more colloquial language. After a matching task where some key phrases were identified, students were set the task of writing a blog entry on something they had done that week.

3)    Having students start their own blogs. For this to work, they will probably need support, as blogging is a habit that has to be kept up consistently and it takes time to get good at it. Teachers can do this by examining the discourse features of personal blogs and producing a structured lesson that enables learners to mimic these features in their own writing. Common discourse features of personal blogs are:

  • Short posts
  • Informal or colloquial language
  • First person perspective
  • Contemporary topics
  • Taking on the form of a dialogue with readers (especially in comment threads)

Twitter is a microblogging site. Microblogging involves writing very short updates on what you are doing, your ideas, activities, links to interesting sites and so on. Twitter limits updates to 140 characters, and these updates are known in the Twitter community as ‘tweets’.

When you join the site, you can ‘follow’ other users’ tweets, which appear in a kind of news feed when you sign in. They have the option of following you back. There is the same culture of regular updates as with regular blogging- and some users are very prolific, tweeting many times per day, while others are less active.

The short length of tweets is linguistically interesting because it forces the writer to be very concise, and to focus very specifically on the readers’ interests.

Some ideas for using Twitter in a course:
1)    Twitter warmer: Focus on a Twitter feed from a news source such as the BBC or CNN. In small groups, learners can read one tweet and try to predict the broader details of the story. They can then exchange ideas with another group before checking fuller details online.

2)    Twitter search activity: Twitter has a powerful search tool that allows users to look for specific search items in the ‘twittersphere’. Learners can be given an item of new vocabulary, for example, and search for authentic examples of use in real time. They can then derive the meaning from context (with appropriate support from the teacher).

3)    Practice of short forms- the concise nature of Twitter lends itself to this

4)    Practice of the present continuous- the immediacy of Twitter suggests the present continuous, e.g. ‘writing an article on social media in the EFL classroom’

Facebook and other social networking sites
Social networking sites allow users to make connections and keep in touch with other users, who become ‘friends’. As there is the possibility to interact via messaging (both instant and via a form of email service) and status updates (you say what you are doing), there is the opportunity for language practice.

Some sites are more or less ‘serious’ than others. LinkedIn, for example, is a social networking site for professionals, and has an appearance and functionality to match.
How these sites can be used in class totally depends on the level to which your class members are willing to interact with each other in a (relatively) private space, and how suitable that is.

Some ideas:
1)    Create a class group on a social networking site. Groups are a form of virtual club. If the group has a clearly defined purpose, which can be defined in class (perhaps as a task making use of various language items), this will encourage online activity. The teacher can act as an administrator, suggesting topics for discussion and posting links. This can become more exciting if members are attracted from outside the class by class members inviting their friends to join.

2)    Your school can create a profile on the site and students can become friends with the school. Teachers can then answer students’ questions online and engage in discussions. This will also have the effect of boosting the school’s profile.

Teachers must be aware that while it’s easy and exciting to put your thoughts all over the web, you must be aware of the law in the country you are working in. You must also be particularly careful if you’re working with minors and ensure that no sensitive information is revealed online. Remind your learners never to share addresses or location specific contact details with people online who they don’t know. You can help protect them by making blogs password protected, protecting Twitter updates and creating hidden profiles on Facebook.

You should also check terms of use and privacy statements to make sure you know what the owners of the sites are doing with any information they collect and to check that the services are suitable for the age group of your class ( Many don’t allow users below the age of 13)

Above all, social media is a very hot area of communication within young people’s lives at the moment, so it makes sense for language teachers to get involved. Have fun!

Tom Hayton

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