Reaching for the Skype

Caroline Martin sees how internet-based communications are revolutionizing the language classroom

Imagine a classroom full of students conversing in Spanish. One young learner asks her conversational partner a question and the other student immediately responds. Sounds like a typical activity in a language classroom, right? Well here’s the catch — the student answering the question is sitting in a different classroom half way around the world.

Modern technology is constantly creating new ways to reinvent traditional language learning. Teachers in language classrooms around the world are gaining access to new tools to bring authentic language interactions to their students. Skype is a free, user-friendly program that gives students an opportunity to converse with native speakers of other languages. The personal connection that Skype provides can enhance students’ motivation and confidence.

Skype is an internet phone service that allows computer-to-computer calls between users anywhere in the world at no cost. Its simplicity makes it an ideal tool for communication in a wide variety of situations. Since it’s creation in 2003, Skype has quickly redefined and revolutionized global communication. Simply put, it is changing the ways in which we talk to each other. Skype breaks down the barrier of distance, giving language learners the opportunity to practice their oral and written skills in their target language in real interactions with native speakers.

This popular program has recently evolved into an instructional tool that increasing numbers of teachers are using for new purposes. In order to use Skype in the classroom, all you need is a good internet connection, computer, and video and microphone capabilities.

Skype also sports a wide range of additional features aside from simple voice calling that enhance its effectiveness in the classroom setting. Skype’s video component allows users to not only talk to each other, but to also see each other in real time. This is a very useful tool that enhances Skype language exchanges. Along with calling there is also a chat feature that works like instant messaging. The chat feature can be used to supplement the video calls, and is particularly helpful for repairing communication breakdowns.

In Class
Connecting with other classrooms is one of the biggest challenges teachers face when using Skype in their language classes. Skype in the Classroom is an educational component of the Skype program that facilitates classroom exchanges around the globe. It was created in response to the growing number of teachers using Skype in their classrooms. With Skype in the Classroom, teachers can create a profile as well as class projects. The goal of this online community is to help teachers bring language to life, allowing students to practice a new language with a class of native speakers, or help English learners practice their skills. Skype in the Classroom is designed to save teachers time and help them make the most of the service and the international teaching community. This program is fairly new and still needs some development, so it may not necessarily lead to instant results. Some teachers report that they are yet to find partner classes despite having their profile on the site.

Spanish teacher Colleen Blaurock is aiming to create an online community of second language learners, collaborating with both ESL and World Language teachers across the country to create tandem partnerships. Blaurock’s current project of creating an online community of second language learners across the country may help eliminate some of these troubles.

Setting Up
While the aforementioned resources and communities can be of assistance, individual teachers have to take the initiative and be willing to put in a considerable amount of effort into finding a suitable partner class.

Skype can be downloaded online for free from any computer with internet access. Once it is downloaded and installed the user must register for a Skype account by creating a username and password. Teachers should install Skype beforehand on all computers, and add the icon to desktop for easy access. The computer should be set to remember the username and password, to ensure that there are no delays when performing Skype activities during class time. As long as each computer is online and has microphone and/or video capabilities — whether they are built in or connected separately — most students can easily navigate the program.

Connection reliability can impede successful integration of Skype and other chat programs into the classroom. The video component requires a fairly wide bandwidth and not all schools are equipped with the proper resources. A poor connection can disrupt conversations, and hinder successful communication. The instant messaging feature can help users communicate during connection disruptions or frozen videos.

Skype can be put to use in the classroom through a variety of activities. Tandem exchanges are the most beneficial to all parties involved, and promote cross-cultural communication and understanding. An equal amount of time to both target languages should be allocated.

Certain strategies can help create smooth, seamless integration of technology into classroom practices. Before engaging in actual language exchanges, practicing internally can help ease students’ nerves, and allow them to become familiar with Skype’s features. These test runs will eliminate potential problems during future exchanges, and lower students’ anxiety levels. Once students are comfortable with technical aspects, they will be able focus on the actual task at hand.

Lessons and activities should be carefully planned in order to maximize potential and minimize problems. It is crucial to adequately prepare students beforehand. Homework and in-class worksheets, and other “warm ups” will allow the students to feel confident and familiar with the material while Skyping. The instructors on both ends of the exchange must communicate and come to an agreement on the content of each lesson.

Instructors who have access to a large number of computers, be it in a computer lab, classroom, or library, can choose activities based on one-on-one interactions. These activities are the most effective way for all students to be actively engaged with the materials. Students should be given clear instructions and parameters before starting the exchange.

Skype can also be used for classroom-to-classroom interaction through the use of a single computer. This can often be done within the classroom without making a trip to a computer lab or library. There is a range of activities that are appropriate for this type of exchange. All that is necessary is a projector that can be connected to the computer, so the entire class can see and be seen. Students that are shy about speaking in front of the group can be assigned various tasks, such as recording the conversations and taking notes.

The use of video conferencing is appropriate for language learners of all ages and levels. Teachers of low-level students can create highly-structured lessons that incorporate video chatting. Teachers of low-level students should also help facilitate conversation by providing students helpful resources such as clarification questions, vocabulary lists and other conversational aids. Higher-level students may use video conferencing for more open-ended conversations and discussions. The simplicity of the program makes it a valuable tool for learners of all ages. While K-12 classrooms may be limited to using Skype during class hours, older students have more freedom to use it in their own time to enhance their language skills.

After finishing a session, students should complete tasks that call for them to reflect on what occurred during the exchange to ensure a deeper level of understanding.

High school foreign language teachers across the U.S. are using technology in meaningful ways. Colleen Blaurock teaches Spanish in Perry, Ohio. She uses Skype in her classroom to connect her students with native Spanish-speaking students. As an alternative to dealing with the issues of overseas communication, including time differences and poor connections, Colleen found an ESL classroom in neighboring district to partner with her students. Even her beginning-level Spanish students have had the opportunity to converse with partners in a language exchange. The program gave new and meaningful context to both classes. The structure of the lessons allowed the students to become comfortable conversing in their target language. The one-on-one Skype video chats provided them with not only valuable grammar and pronunciation practice, but also improved the conversational skills, such as negotiating meaning, that are essential to excelling in a foreign language. After three-months of online meetings, the classes were actually able to meet up in real life. Colleen believes that this real life connection with the person behind the language made the content relevant to her students.

Jonathon Shee, a high school French teacher and head of the World Languages Department at St. Luke’s in Connecticut, has been using Skype video conferencing in his language classrooms. His classes incorporate two different types of Skype activities. He uses Skype for one-on-one individual conversations, as well as class-to-class exchanges. The class-to-class conversations typically involve the students taking turns speaking with students in the other classroom one-on-one or in pairs. Shee uses Skype as a tool to allow students to break through the nervousness barrier of speaking with native speakers. With the support of a facilitating teacher, plus careful preparation, his students are able to practice their skills in a comfortable environment. Interacting with peers of the same age makes the purpose behind language learning more accessible to his high school students. Shee’s students are required to write journal entries after each session, allowing them to further reflect on how they used language in meaningful ways during the activities.

Dealing with Time Differences
Although Skype has enormous potential for enhancing classroom language learning, there are still problems. The issue of time differences is a major constraint to its use during class time. Meticulous planning and communication with foreign teachers is one way to find suitable times to chat. Another option is to find native speakers of a foreign language within your time zone, as Colleen Blaurock did with native Spanish speakers in Ohio. Different regions of the country have large foreign language communities. The French regions of Canada provide teachers within the U.S. with nearby potential partners that may eliminate some of the time difference issues.

Social interaction plays a vital role in language learning. Using video conferencing allows students to experience authentic interactions with native speakers while remaining in the comfort of their classroom. In a traditional classroom, teacher to student or student-to-student interactions occupy the majority of the time. When students are exposed to native speakers, it is often through a pre-recorded medium but Skype offers students the opportunity for candid, real-life communication. It incorporates collaborative learning and meaningful language use — two important activities. The personal interaction it provides helps spark student motivation and interest in language learning.

Colleen Blaurock’s research on using Skype in Spanish language classrooms revealed that it made her students more conscientious of their own learning inside the traditional classroom. It is what made learning a second language “real” for her students. Exchanges with peers can enable students to relate to language learning on a more personal level, and increase their motivation. Ideally, internet conferencing will be used in the classroom to form ongoing relationships between students across the globe. Over time, these connections will allow students to relate to each other on a more personal level, furthering their language acquisition.

Incorporating technology in the classroom brings language learning into a relatable context for students. It allows learners to develop their language skills while becoming familiar with internet-based communication — something that is steadily increasing in our global society. Students can obtain critical skills through intercultural interaction and global participation.

There are a many other online resources that facilitate connections between classrooms looking for mutual language exchanges. The Mixxer is a free educational site for language learners hosted by Dickinson College. It is designed to connect language learners around the globe. ePals is another global community created to connect K-12 classrooms globally. ePals focuses on providing connections to students, classes, and school districts worldwide that are safe and secure.

In the years to come Skype and similar programs will play an increasingly larger role in language teaching practices. With increasing accessibility to the internet and computers, teachers in remote locations around the world will soon be able to connect their students with classrooms across the world. Cross-cultural communication is becoming more and more ingrained into our daily lives, and is now accepted as vital to language acquisition. Blaurock believes that “second language teachers need to start thinking differently about how we teach second languages. There are so many online tools to facilitate the teaching of a second language; we need to continue to explore new ways of teaching and learning.” Integrating technology into the classroom breaks down the barriers of traditional language learning, creating a learning style that is relevant to twenty first century life.

Language teachers interested in joining a database to facilitate classroom partnerships within the U.S. should contact Colleen Blaurock at

Caroline Martin is a recent graduate from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a B.A. in Italian Studies and Linguistics and works for the UCSB Education Abroad Program.