`I really appreciate the chances to use E-mail to communicate with my classmates over the last 12 weeks. Now I see emotion in language and I feel more comfortable using the English to tell my feelings,' commented an English as a second language (ESL) graduate student after three months of sending email messages to fellow ESL students as part of an introductory-level ESL course. This paper describes how email technology was incorporated into the ESL course to support and increase the English literacy efforts of ESL graduate students. The research reported here highlights how several classmates used their written email exchanges as an opportunity to think, compose, evaluate and rehearse ideas in English before sharing them with classmates during oral presentations. As email continued to be exchanged over the course of the academic semester, many of these messages contained a great deal of emotional support and encouragement which contributed to the sense of community among email participants. Results of this email project support previous findings (Wilkins, 1991; Day, 1993; and Maring, Wiseman and Myers, 1997) and suggest that students who use email as a means for improving their communication skills become increasingly willing to share ideas, develop a sense of intimacy and create a community which can be attributed to email communication.
The email project took place in an introductory-level graduate ESL course at a large, urban university in the midwestern United States. The majority of ESL students had recently arrived in the United States and were of Chinese background. Most of these students received financial support through university graduate scholarships and stipends. Often, students worked in research laboratories or provided tutorial assistance to American undergraduate students. Since many of the ESL students had close contact with native speakers of English, they often faced intense pressure from professors and students to improve their English language proficiency while completing their graduate degrees.
University policy required that all incoming international students who received financial assistance from the university must successfully pass an Oral Proficiency English Test (OEPT). Students who failed the test were required to enrol in ESL courses in order to maintain their financial assistance at the university. International students who displayed English pronunciation difficulties were required to successfully pass a sequence of introductory ESL courses including Introduction to English Speaking and Listening Skills, Improving English Pronunciation, and Introduction to American Communication Skills. These introductory courses encouraged students to use their developing English literacy skills to communicate in written and oral forms. Once students successfully passed these courses, they had the option of attending additional ESL courses which further prepared them for academic research and teaching careers in the United States.
I was responsible for teaching the third course in the introductory sequence: Introduction to American Communication Skills. In this particular course, students worked to improve their rate of speaking, fluency, and control of grammar structures through conversation and group discussions. Through teacher and student-led discussions, role plays and formal classroom presentations, students were familiarised with American patterns of communication regarding role, situation, topic and language functions. All students were required to participate in informal classroom discussions and complete written reflective journals, in which they responded to English language and cultural experiences which occurred both inside and outside of the classroom. Students were also responsible for leading a formal class presentation on specific language functions including topics on asking for information, making suggestions, giving and receiving advice and telling a story. …