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Published April 18, 2010 | English (Second Language)

Creating Great Online English Tutors

In the winter of 2008, Gina Lavine and Lucie Cantin, both teachers of ESL respectively at Collège Lafleche and Collège Ellis, as well as Mariane Gazaille, a professor of second language instruction at UQTR developed a cross-level tutoring program using the VIA Telecommunication Platform. Their basic idea was to pair future ESL teachers at the university level with college students at either the introductory or intermediate levels of English in order to help the college students to advance in their mastery of the English language. This cooperative project was submitted by Mariane Gazaille to the Ministère de l'Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport (MELS) who approved and financed it. Gina Lavine explains how and why this IT tutoring created a unique and stimulating communicative environment for participants at both teaching levels to advance the study of English as a Second Language in this unilingual francophone region.

Teaching ESL at the College Level

Since 1994, the competencies attached to obligatory courses in introductory or intermediate ESL translate into English as ‘communicate in English on themes inspired by the current or future life of the student.' Speaking appears as one of the four linguistic skills to develop in students in order to achieve English communication competency.

In the real world, motivating students to speak in English in front of a group is no easy task. Getting them to discuss a given topic in small groups has to be monitored very closely by the teacher. With large groups, this is not always easy. Students sometimes slip into their mother tongue while the teacher is circulating around the classroom. It is understandable that students sometimes feel that discussing topics in English with Fracophones is not natural.

Given that actually speaking a language is how one sharpens precision and fluency, the need to interact with another person to learn a second language is a necessity. Furthermore, the ESL teacher must ensure that the conversational context is authentic. (Brown, H.D. Teaching by Principals and Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy, 2nd edition, White Plains, New York, Longman, 2001.) In other words, ESL teaching must thrust students into conversational activities that reflect the use of the English language in the real world. Such conditions are not always easy to find in a unilingual region like the Mauricie. Aware that tutoring has been shown to be a factor in academic motivation (Pamphile, Catherine. Le tutorat et ses enjeux didactiques dans les dispositifs de formation à distance, Mémoire, UNIVERSITÉ PARIS III – SORBONNE NOUVELLE, 2005.) even in distance learning, we established a program of cross-level tutoring to offer unique ESL learning situations for students as well as tutors.

A Peer Tutoring Program Using the VIA Telecommunication Platform

With the program, students particularly appreciate the quick verbal feedback...

The easy-to-use VIA Telecommunication Platform was selected for tutoring activities. VIA supports online discussions with documentary support. Conversations can also be recorded allowing teachers to view exchanges and to stay abreast of the length of discussions as well as their subjects, the documentation used, their quality and the progress made.

The tutoring activities organized by the teachers stretched over a ten week period with 15 to 30 minute weekly discussions. A tutoring activity guide was given to both tutors and students which identified the theme and the elements of the discussion for each meeting. These activities were built around homework assignments related to activities taking place in the courses. The first fifteen minutes of the conversation was on a course-related theme and the second dealt with the correction of a text written by the student during the course. All conversations were obligatorily in English and dealt with themes that were familiar to students.

Prerequisite knowledge and skills for online tutoring were first discussed in class and included the presentation of vocabulary linked to the communicative environment, reading documentation, listening to audio documents and writing a short text related to the theme being studied. The professor at UQTR prepared her students both technically and pedagogically for their role as tutors.

The Current Situation

The students enjoy the more intimate context of the learning and arrive in class with more confidence.

The unique collaborative experience between Collège Laflèche, Collège Ellis and UQTR has now gone beyond just this one project. The cooperation between the three schools is now assured. The distance IT tutoring program took place in the autumn of 2009 with two groups of students, one from Collège Laflèche and the other from Collège Ellis. Preliminary results indicate that the tutoring is an effective pedagogical tool to build English oral communication skills. With the program, students particularly appreciate the quick verbal feedback which is frequent and provides personalized pronunciation and other language error correction. The students enjoy the more intimate context of the learning and arrive in class with more confidence. As a result of this positive experience, the students and tutors requested an informal get-together over coffee and donuts, which the teachers graciously organised.

There is a lot of support to extend the program because it meets the need for English mastery on behalf of all of its participants. The convergence of interest among the partners is in itself already a measure of success, and college students who have English discussions with students barely older than themselves is certainly an activity that reflects the use of the English language in the real world!

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