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Email – Teaching English in a Real Situation
Marlene de Almeida Augusto de Souza

I have been working as an English teacher in public schools since 1992. On the first years, as I didn’t have any experience in teaching a foreign language, I used to teach my students the same way my teachers taught me in the 80’s. My classes were based on some grammar rules (verb TO BE, Simple Present, Simple Past, Simple Future...) and lists of vocabulary (words in English and their correspondence in Portuguese) the students could look up to translate texts.

While the students were doing the exercises, I used to walk through the desks helping them and talking to them about different subjects. This proximity made the students feel free to express their opinions about our English classes. They complained a lot. They used to tell me they didn’t know exactly why they were learning English and, despite of the fact that they were learning English since the 5th grade in elementary school (they were in the 1st grade of high school), they couldn’t elaborate a simple sentence to talk to a foreign person. I could understand their feelings, because that was the way I felt when I was finishing high school. Because of this, I was always trying some different activities to give my students a different opportunity.

I was conscious that teaching a language couldn’t mean only to teach its structure (Coracini, 1995). It is not true that if students master parts of a language (morphology, syntax...), they will be able to put everything together again and be fluent in this language. For the students it’s much easier to transfer their knowledge in a new situation if they have learned a language in terms of use other than in terms of rules (Widdowson, 1991)

While teaching a language, teachers should also teach their students how to use this language in a real context of communication, i.e., students have to learn a language to communicate (Widdowson, 1991). Because of this, it is important to give students opportunities of interacting with other speakers to use the language (Valentini, 1999). Knowing this didn’t mean that at that time I had a solution for my problem.

I had already read about some techniques in which students are supposed to practice some expressions as they were living a specific situation. However, using these techniques with my groups would be, not impossible, but really difficult. I have groups with 40 students. English classes are twice a week, fifty minutes each. Besides that, students, specially in high school, are not motivated to learn English, they say they will only learn English in language schools.

Because of this I was always asking myself: “since a language is a vehicle of communication and socialization (Watson-Gegeo, 1988), how can I teach my students through a social interaction?”.

In 1999, I started reading about the use of new means of communication specially in the teaching process of a foreign language. Such studies show that computers can be used not only for science or mathematics but also they can be used in languages.

There are many researches showing some teachers’ experiences using email to teach English as a Foreign Language: Hackett (s/d); Warschauer (s/d); Tella (1992); Bauman (2000), Nagel (2000); Souza (2002).

Some of the advantages of using email in teaching a foreign language mentioned in these researches are:

a. have a learning process happening in a real social context;
b. have readers and writers together in a meaningful dialogue; the writing has a real meaning;
c. students write not only for their teachers, but for a real interlocutor. Everything they write have to make sense; they have to find the right word to express what they really mean;
d. there is an immediate, interactive audience. The students don’t need to imagine who they are writing to. They have an immediate feedback.

In 2001, I decided to develop a project with my students in the 1st grade of high school in a public school. In this paper, I am going to report the first part of my own experience based on some data that I collected at the first semester of 2001.

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