December 1997 // Case Studies
English-as-a-Second-Language Learning and Collaboration in Cyberspace
by Susana M. Sotillo
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Susana M. Sotillo "English-as-a-Second-Language Learning and Collaboration in Cyberspace" The Technology Source, December 1997. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

For the past two years I have been using computer-mediated communication to enhance the learning process in my graduate and undergraduate courses. Students enrolled in my Principles of Second Language Acquisition (SLA), Introduction to Linguistics, TESOL methods, Women's Worlds, and Advanced ESL Writing are required to actively participate in computer-mediated discussions and instructional activities. For the first two weeks of the semester, students are shown how to set up their e-mail accounts, upload and download texts, subscribe to mailing lists and newsgroups, join threaded discussion groups, exchange ideas using Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and conduct research via the World Wide Web (WWW).

In Fall 1995 I began to experiment with e-mail and the Internet in teaching advanced ESL writing to 13 students who were teamed up with native speakers of English. As part of the course requirement, the ESL students had to complete 10 writing activities in cooperation with their native-speaking partners. The native speakers of English were students in my Principles of SLA class, some of whom were seeking certification as ESL teachers. As part of the course requirement, they were asked to provide both explicit and implicit feedback to ESL learners concerning grammar, organization, spelling, and punctuation. This provided non-native speakers of English an opportunity to use e-mail in order to obtain corrective feedback from native speakers. The native speakers also benefited from this experience by putting into practice ESL teaching methods and techniques they had learned in the classroom. At the conclusion of the Fall 1995 semester, we all met at a restaurant in the Ironbound section of Newark to celebrate this unique language-learning partnership. The results of this pilot study were presented at the December 1995 Annual Conference of the Modern Language Association.

In Spring 1996 I began to collect data for a longitudinal study on the effects of computer-mediated instruction and communication on ESL learners’ development of writing fluency and complexity. Two research questions were posed: (1) Is the development of writing fluency and complexity facilitated by the electronic exchange of information between native speakers (NSs) and nonnative speakers (NNSs) engaged in collaborative writing activities? And, (2) Do NNSs utilize electronically transmitted feedback to revise their drafts?

The results of this longitudinal study were presented at the March 1997 TESOL annual conference. The following is a summary of the major findings:

  • Computer-mediated collaborative writing between NSs and NNSs in networked classrooms benefited learners who regularly exchanged e-mail messages with their partners.
  • Computer-mediated writing activities in collaboration with NS partners facilitated growth in both fluency and complexity over time in 69% of the participating ESL students.
  • Electronic exchanges between NNSs and NSs allowed learners sufficient time to focus both on form and meaning while planning and shaping the content of their writing.
  • Selective NS corrective feedback was utilized by 76% of the learners in revising their drafts.
  • Learning in a computer-mediated environment under the tutelage of a more skilled user of the language (English) enabled self-reliant NNSs to gradually move from reliance on the NS partner to independent problem solving and learning.

These findings are consistent with those reported in the research literature on computer-mediated instruction and communication. For example, studies show that the presence of computers in the classroom and the phenomenal expansion of the Internet are:

  • Changing our teaching philosophies and practices.
  • Restructuring the nature of social relations in the classroom.
  • Expanding access to information and knowledge.
  • Allowing the distribution of information across local, regional, and national boundaries.
  • Encouraging teacher/learners and student/learners to co-construct and share knowledge (Cummins & Sayers, 1995; Goodwin, Hamrick & Stewart, 1993; Meunier, 1994; Pennington, 1996; Sayers, 1993; and Warschauer, 1996).

In addition, in the field of composition studies, research has shown that networked-classroom communication:

  • Promotes collaboration among learners (Bruce, Peyton & Batson, 1993).
  • Encourages peer review (Kemp, 1993).
  • Enhances oral skills (Krooneneberg, 1994-1995).
  • Decreases teacher domination of discussions.
  • Provides more opportunities for student expression that lead to more complex language production (Chun, 1994; Kern, 1995).

Computer-mediated ESL instruction is enhanced as learners actively exchange information electronically with the instructor and other classmates. This process continues as they surf the Web searching for information, collaborate on research projects, and request assistance and clarification from native speakers of the language. Learning ESL in cyberspace also encourages independent problem solving and critical thinking.

There are excellent sources for ESL teaching and learning available on the WWW. The following URLs are particularly useful for teachers seeking to enhance their students’ learning experience:

There are also specific ESL sites for students. The following is only a partial list of what is available in cyberspace:

Some of my favorite sites are the Internet TESL Journal, the ESL Virtual Catalogue, Dave's ESL Cafe on the Net, and Frizzy University Network (included in the above URLs). I have also set up my own web pages and threaded discussion groups to meet the specific needs of my ESL students (available at linguistics/sotillo.html).

In conclusion, I would like to remind those who doubt the efficacy of computer-mediated instruction and communication that this is only a tool to enhance the teaching/learning process. Computers in the classroom will never replace competent and caring teachers or provide an ideal substitute for face-to-face interaction. Language learning is context-dependent and socially constructed. It is a challenging and rewarding endeavor in which humans have engaged for thousands of years. The presence of computers in education and everyday communication will dominate life in the 21st century. It is in this spirit of hope and excitement about what the future holds for us that we should incorporate the newest technologies into our teaching and learning experiences.


Bruce, B., Peyton, J.K., & Batson, T. (Eds.) (1993). Network-based classrooms: promises and realities. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Chun, D.M. (1994). Using computer networking to facilitate the acquisition of interactive competence. System, 22, 17-31.

Cummins, J., & Sayers, D. (1995). Brave new schools: challenging cultural illiteracy through global learning networks. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press.

Goodwin, A. A., Hamrick, J., & Stewart, T. (1995). Instructional delivery via electronic mail. TESOL Journal, 3 (1), 24-27.

Kemp, F. (1993). The origins of ENFI, network theory, and computer-based collaborative writing instruction at the University of Texas. In B. Bruce, J.K. Peyton, & T. Batson (Eds.), Network-based classrooms: promises and realities (pp. 161-180). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Kern, R.G. (1995). Restructuring classroom interaction with networked computers: Effects on quantity and characteristics of language production. The Modern Language Journal, 79, 457-476.

Kroonenberg, N. (1994/1995). Developing communicative and thinking skills via electronic mail. TESOL Journal, 4 (2), 24-27.

Meunier, L.E., (1994). Computer-assisted language instruction in cooperative learning. Applied Language Learning, 5, 31-56.

Pennington, M. C. (1996). The power of CALL. Houston, TX: Athelstan.

Sayers, D. (1993). Distance team teaching and computer learning networks. TESOL Journal, 3 (1), 19-23.

Warschauer, M. (1996). Computer-mediated collaborative learning: theory and practice (Research Note #17). Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai'i, Second Language Teaching & Curriculum Center.

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