Take a look at any group of teenagers queuing outside the classroom and you'll find them glued to their smartphones as if the phone were a biomechanical extension of their arms. There is no doubt that instant messaging (IM) is an integral part of daily life among smartphone users. According to Statista.com, 20% of the world’s population were actively using WhatsApp in 2016 with 64 billion messages being sent daily. With this in mind, I’ve been looking at ways to exploit this trend to increase student motivation for writing in my Cambridge English: First classes.
Setting up a pilot
I began with a pilot study with a group of 8 young Spanish adults, with the aim of increasing both instrumental and intrinsic motivation. I decided to use WhatsApp to see if, by making writing collaborative and social, I could boost motivation to produce pieces of written discourse during class and at home. In this way I hoped to favour a more diagnostic approach that would scaffold writing as a process rather than concentrating on the product, while encouraging students to discuss their ideas.
IM as a motivational tool
I chose IM as a motivational tool for writing in response to the lack of motivation among my students to engage in writing tasks, despite the instrumental motivation to take the Cambridge English: First exam. I considered different ways that I could increase their motivation and made a direct correlation with the tweeting, texting, social media updates and IM that are second nature to my learners. Students already favour WhatsApping each other about classwork rather than using our official school platform where class content and homework is stored, so I suggested creating a class WhatsApp group where I could post information and upload useful documents that would foster student learning.
Collaborative writing activities
Once the group had been set up, I made sure I started to use it straight away so the students felt comfortable with their teacher being a member of the group, and I designed writing activities that were carried out exclusively in the WhatsApp group.
The first activity was to write a summary of a YouTube clip we had watched in class. I asked the students to write notes while watching the clip and then to write a summary of the main points in no more than 80 words. I set a word limit to encourage them to structure their summaries cohesively. The summaries were written up by each student electronically for homework, and posted in the group for peer review. This was followed by an open-class feedback activity where each summary was read aloud by the student who had written it, with the other students listening and following on their phones and shouting ‘stop’ if they considered there was a grammatical error, spelling mistake, or anything else which they didn’t understand. Because the discourse had previously been shared, students felt confident analysing and questioning each other.
We gradually built up the length of the discourse to 140–190 words, and also focused on developing the four subscales of the assessment scales: content, communicative achievement, organisation and language.
Following the trial, I interviewed the students to find out how they felt about the methodology I had put in place.
Despite being initially shocked that they had permission to use their phones in class, learners soon came to understand the value of collaborative writing and peer correction.
Many said they initially felt uncomfortable about other students reading their written work as peer correction was alien to them. They admitted that they did learn from their classmates and that the practice of writing together and finding ‘the best’ way to answer exam questions as a community increased their confidence to write which, in turn, had a direct effect on their motivation.
A dominant note in the participants’ views of using WhatsApp in this way was that it had made an activity that they dreaded into one that they found fun and were keen to excel at. This was the first notion I had that their lack of motivation to write was quite simply because they didn’t enjoy it. The interviews also revealed that the participants tended to adopt a competitive approach to writing to impress their peers with their knowledge of vocabulary and language structures, which also influenced the quality of the language they began to use.
These findings affirm the potential of instant messaging to increase student motivation for academic writing, and I have since continued to use this and similar activities with other classes to help boost learner motivation and further scaffold their writing skills.
If you are working with children under the age of 18, we recommend that you check your institution's e-safety policy before using any online digital tools. We also recommend that you discuss e-safety regularly with your learners. Here are some links to useful resources: NSPCC, Common Sense Education, TES, BBC.