TESOL Connections

Quick Tip: 2 Engaging Summary Writing Activities

by Katie Mitchell

Writing summaries is an important but difficult skill in English language writing: Students must master strategies such as selecting, deleting, reorganizing, and paraphrasing. Try these two engaging activities with your learners to help them write accurate, effective summaries. 

Writing summaries is an important way for students, at any level, to demonstrate their understanding of both English and content knowledge, yet it can be difficult. Research suggests there are several key strategies students can use to write a summary, including selecting, deleting, reorganizing, and paraphrasing ideas (Jordan, 2001). These strategies might seem simple, but it’s often a struggle to teach summary writing. To address this common issue, following are two engaging activities that help students write accurate, effective summaries.

1. Blackout Summaries

This activity is inspired by blackout poetry, in which poets cross out words from a text to create their own unique piece. It encourages students to focus on deleting ideas from a reading, rather than selecting them, in order to prepare for summary writing.

To do the blackout summary activity, students follow these steps:

  1. Read an article for homework.

  2. Get into pairs in class.

  3. Black out all the unimportant words in pairs: The remaining text should ideally be comprehensible and may even be grammatically correct, but it should not contain any fully intact original sentences.

  4. Compare their blacked-out readings with another pair.

  5. Delete more words based on their group discussions.

  6. Write a summary in their own words based on the blacked out article.

This creative activity gives students a fresh perspective. They begin to analyze the text in a new way and notice superfluous adjectives and details. The example (Figure 1) from CALL Environments, a professional development resource by Egbert and Hanson-Smith (2007), demonstrates this process of whittling away at the selected sentences, finding the gist.

This blackout task also makes it easier for students to paraphrase in their summaries because they have removed large chunks, making plagiarism less likely.

2. Match the Summary Activity

The second activity asks student pairs to read two similar readings and write a summary of one, and, after eliminating obvious clues, have their classmates attempt to match the summary to the correct reading. By summarizing one of two texts that are very similar, students focus on finding important details and identifying the author’s point of view.

Provide students with two readings on similar topics. They should be different in one major way. Then, have students do the following:

  1. Read one article and work in pairs to write a summary of the article.

  2. Skim the other article.

  3. Make edits to their summaries, realizing that their original summary might be too general.

  4. Cross out the major differences (e.g., city names) in their summaries to make the next step of matching the summaries to the correct reading more difficult and share their summaries anonymously with other students.

  5. Encourage students to guess which reading the summary describes.

For this activity, I’ve used, for example, two readings in Reading Explorer 2 by MacIntyre and Bohlke (2015); the readings are about the underground systems in Paris and New York City. Both readings involve exploring underground, but the explorers make very different discoveries.

Other resources for paired readings include ESL textbook series, like Reading Explorer and Making Connections, and websites, like NewsELA’s Text Sets. By using paired readings, students realize that their summaries can’t be too general and that they must focus on the author’s purpose. This playful activity also gives students a genuine audience for their writing, helping them understand the importance of specificity and clarity in their summaries, thereby encouraging reflection and revision.

Hopefully, these two activities inspire you to inject creativity into your summary writing instruction.


Egbert, J., & Hanson-Smith, E. (2007). CALL environments: Research, practice, and critical issues (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Jordan, M. P. (2001). Summary writing strategies based on discourse structures, relevance theory and kernel preservation. Canadian Journal for Studies in Discourse and Writing/Rédactologie, 17(1), 28–66.

MacIntyre, P. & Bohlke, D. (2015). Reading explorer 2 (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: National Geographic Learning.


Katie Mitchell is the reading/writing curriculum coordinator at University of Colorado Boulder’s International English Center. She is interested in curriculum development, computer-assisted language learning, writing instruction, game-based learning, and English for specific purposes. Katie has presented internationally on these topics and has worked on large-scale curriculum projects, including an online business English product and an Xbox game. She has taught in Albania, Germany, Thailand, and the United States.

From the Executive Director: The TESOL Board Governs, Guides, and Gives Advice to the Members

by Christopher Powers, TESOL Executive Director

In the wake of the recent TESOL Board of Directors meeting, TESOL Executive Director Christopher Powers covers some of the important topics and initiatives discussed and shares the board members' responses to the question, "What one piece of advice would you give any TESOL member, new and experienced alike?" 

Last week was an exciting time to be in greater Washington, DC. I am not just talking about the Washington Nationals’ ascent to the World Series. (Nonbaseball fans, please forgive our excitement, but Washington, DC has not had a team in the World Series since 1933. And the rest of the world, please forgive our vocabulary, because there is no sense in calling a championship series for 29 U.S.-based teams and one Canadian team a World anything.) No, in the world of TESOL, what was really exciting was the gathering in Alexandria, Virginia of TESOL’s Board of Directors. This is your Board—our Board—and their work guides our association.

The board is made up of 11 directors—all elected by you. If you count country of birth, citizenship, or residency, these 11 members represent eight different countries across five different continents! And they are an incredibly multilingual group, collectively speaking dozens of different languages.

The board meeting covered some of the routine topics you might expect: reviewing professional council, management, and investment reports; discussing new professional learning programs; and exploring the impact of TESOL Quarterly, our industry-leading journal, and TESOL Journal, our members-only journal. The board also made some key decisions that you will all be learning about soon: the location of the 2025 TESOL International Convention & English Language Expo and the 2020 James Alatis Award winner. The board also addressed many of the critical and strategic issues affecting our association. They reviewed our nondiscrimination policy for nonnative speakers, “Position Statement Against Discrimination of Nonnative Speakers of English in the Field of TESOL,” and explored how we can lead a global campaign to measure excellence in English language teaching through skills, experience, and credentials rather than the irrelevant question of where one was born and how one first learned English. We met with the chairs of the Diverse Voices Task Force and discussed ways that TESOL can continue to live up to our ideals of diversity, equity, and inclusion. And we committed to the high priority strategies that we will employ next year to help us achieve our strategic outcomes of greater global presence and connectivity, an increase in TESOL knowledge and expertise, and an amplified voice to advocate for English language teachers and learners. Stay tuned for more information about each of these initiatives.

With so many talented TESOLers gathered together, it also gave me an opportunity to draw on their wisdom, so that I can share it with you. In the in-between-moments of our meetings, I asked the board members to suggest one piece of advice that they would give to any TESOL member, new or experienced alike, and I would like to share some of these suggestions with you.

TESOL International Association Board of Directors, 2019 (click image to enlarge).

Justin Shewell, senior international educator at Arizona State University, and Deborah Healey, our current president and professor emerita at the University of Oregon, both talked about how TESOL members can connect with and support each other. “Use the interest section lists for advice,” suggested Justin. “And provide assistance to others.” He also reminded members to use the TRC—the TESOL Resource Center, which includes lesson plans, teaching tips, activities, assessment tools, and much more.

Deborah had a simple, but valuable suggestion: “Read the myTESOL lounge and respond to someone.” If each of our members took the time to do that each week, just imagine the level of knowledge and expertise that we could share.

Christel Broady, Chair, Advanced Graduate Programs, Director of ESL Programs at Georgetown College, put her advice in the context of advocacy. “Consider becoming a TESOL member so that you can make your voice heard,” she suggests. “Nobody knows your context of teaching English as you do. Make sure that the association as a whole hears the positions of all members so that all situations will be considered in policies, standards, and worldwide leadership in the profession. You count. Everyone counts.” Absolutely true!

For Kathy Lobo, high school ESL teacher at Newton Public Schools and lecturer at Brandeis University, and Grazzia Mendoza Chirinos, Project Management Specialist, Basic Education, ICTs and Gender, at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the key is engagement, regardless of where in the world you are based. “The main thing is to be engaged in your professional life as a lifelong learner, both with TESOL International Association and your local affiliate,” says Kathy. “TESOL has a wide range of ways to engage across one’s career, including retirement. When you engage with people there is a profound relationship that is established and that becomes transformational.”

Looking from her perspective in Honduras, Grazzia suggests, “Become engaged, volunteer, be active in the work of TESOL International Association. There are online and on-site ways that fit your agendas and schedules. Also, network, meet other like-minded colleagues who have lots to share and with whom you can engage in projects. Finally, go back to your countries and to your schools and share everything you have learned. Talk about TESOL and lead them into becoming active in TESOL and the local affiliate. You can’t lose. It is a win-win situation!”

These are such simple, but powerful ideas—ways in which you can help yourselves, help each other, and strengthen our association. I look forward to hearing more ideas from all of you, the board, and other TESOL leaders about how we can all engage, learn, and advocate together.

Christopher Powers
TESOL Executive Director
Email: cpowers@tesol.org
Twitter: @TESOL_Powers


Making Reading Visible: Graphic Novels in the EFL Classroom

by Iskra Stamenkoska and Aleksandra Popovski Golubovikj
Learn how to use graphic novels to increase motivation, reduce cognitive load, and improve inference and critical thinking skills. 

Millennials want creative education. They are growing up navigating narratives presented through various formats (websites, video games, TV, podcasts, interactive media, pictures). Therefore, engaging them creatively and developing their visual literacy is paramount. There are many benefits associated with the up-and-coming arts-based pedagogies: improvement of the aesthetic; socioemotional, sociocultural, and cognitive skills building; and academic development (Iwai 2002), as well as cognitive stimulation and increasing students’ positive attitude toward learning (Marshall 2014).

Graphic novels are the prefect medium for exploring arts-based pedagogies. Though relatively a new arrival on the literary scene, graphic novels have received some popular attention in the last decade. Much of this attention is attributed to their power to attract reluctant readers with their captivating storylines.

What Is a Graphic Novel?

Will Eisner, the father of the graphic novel, originally defined comics as sequential art. This definition was expanded upon the growth and broadening of graphic novels. Schwarz (2002) offers the following definition: “Graphic novels are fiction as well as non-fiction with pictures-comics in book format” (p. 262). However, we would like to expand upon this definition to stress that graphic novels are longer, intellectually and thematically sophisticated texts. This is certainly supported by Kelley (2010):

Like a traditional piece of literature in which authors choose their words carefully, the graphic novelist thinks critically about the color, line, form, shape, and detail, as well as the language they use. The story conveyed by a graphic novelist is as intricate as a story told by a traditional author, regardless of the age group of the target audience. (p. 6)

Therefore, it is only fair to stress that graphic novels are far more than mere texts with illustrations. They tackle complicated literary themes, which are deeply rooted in their sociopolitical context. More often than not, graphic novels explore multidimensional, complex themes much like traditional works of prose, only they have the added depth of the visual medium.

Why Graphic Novels?

Graphic novels have great potential, serving multiple purposes. For instance, the unique multimodal format creates powerful connections with students who are disengaged because both format and topics are relatable to young millennials. Also, visual learners respond better to graphic novels than to conventional texts. There is a plethora of reasons why educators should consider incorporating graphic novels in their curricula. Here, we offer a short list of the most compelling arguments.

  • Increase Motivation: Graphic novels can improve learners’ attitude toward reading. They send the message that reading can be fun and motivating. When you give an adolescent a fun and engaging book such as a graphic novel, you help them become a lifelong reader.

  • Educate on Civics: There are plenty of graphic novels that relate to subjects across the curriculum, so they can facilitate the introduction of complicated, abstract issues and concepts, such as ethics, role and function of religion, government, role of history, power and authority, and so on. In other words, the reader receives a lesson in civic studies, which is hidden in the complex topics.

  • Reduce Cognitive Load: The illustrations in graphic novels reduce the cognitive load and enable schemata activation. When readers use both linguistic and visual representation of the text, they are better able to recall and understand what they are reading.

  • Hone Inference Skills: Graphic novels are an invaluable tool for honing inference skills. As text is minimally present and students receive the message in two forms—text and illustration—they often have to infer the message from the context. As in movies, events in graphic novels are often condensed, so the reader has to deduce what happened but was not explicitly stated.

  • Improve Critical Thinking Skills: Furthermore, between the panels of the story, there are pauses of spaces (gutters) over which the reader must navigate and infer what is happening, both within and between the sequences. In that manner, graphic novels are superior in eliciting the types of critical thinking responses teachers are looking for. Their unique format helps scaffold and build information—the reader must analyze the received information and construct the meaning about the characters and events. This information is derived from facial and bodily expressions, color, language, text size, text font, shading, foreground and background images, and so on.

Classroom Application: Prereading Activities

As with any unfamiliar text, we believe it is important to incorporate prereading activities. This is particularly important considering the unique format of graphic novels.

Author Schemata

The purpose of this activity is to move away from the traditional approach of discussing an author’s biography by encouraging students to make predictions and assess their prior knowledge about the author and their background. Students browse through the book (cover, blurbs, illustrations) and make predictions based on the author’s name, the book cover, the title, glimpsing through the pages, and so on. You can encourage your students to consider the colors used for the cover pages and the font used for the text on the cover. Get the students to brainstorm ideas working in groups. In the feedback session, students should support their assumptions with evidence.

KWL (Know, Want to Know, and Learnt)

This activity is used during all three stages (pre-, during, and postreading). Students fill out a chart with what they already know about the author, the characters, the topic, the title, and so on. Next, they fill out the second section—what they would like to learn about the story. Encourage the students to pose questions for this part. This is a great prompt for critical thinking. Finally, in the postreading, students elaborate on what they have learnt by answering their own questions. Here lies another advantage of graphic novels—when students need to find information in different parts or chapters, the panels make it easier for them to skim and scan through the whole chapter or even the whole book.

Classroom Application: During-Reading Activities

Think Aloud

This is a reading comprehension strategy which allows students to read and to articulate their opinion at the same time. After reading several pages of the graphic novel (e.g., after 10 panels or a single episode), students stop to express their opinion regarding what has been read, make predictions about what has been said, or ponder on a character’s perceptions or future or past actions, and so on.

As students read, they focus on the following prompts:

Q1. What I’ve learned so far about the main character/the story

Q2. I’m wondering about…

Q3. Summary of the chapter


You can ask the students to identify the internal and external conflicts in the book and anticipate how these conflicts will be resolved. This is a powerful strategy, which triggers critical thinking. Ask your students to support their answers with evidence from the text.

Text Reformulation

This is another during-reading activity worth mentioning. Students convert the graphic adaptation into a standard version by describing the panels with their own words. This activity will help you address the formal aspects of creative writing. An added benefit is that you can assess how much of the story has been understood, especially whether students can decode and grasp the subtle details conveyed in the illustrations.

Classroom Application: Postreading Activities

Postreading activities intend to solidify understanding of the material and guide students toward a more complex, critical interpretation of the text.


Using magazine photos, students work in groups to create a collage of images that symbolize important ideas, events, or themes in the book. On the back, have students write an explanation of what each image symbolizes and how it draws on key material from the character's experience.

Figure 1. A sample of a collage for Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
(Click image to enlarge)

Book Mobiles

Book mobiles are paper mobiles with thoughts, ideas, and information about the book. Designed as a group activity, book mobiles are the equivalent to a book report, only completed in a much more creative and engaging way. A book mobile has nine cards containing the following information:

  1. Title and author of the book (this one goes at the top)
  2. Main characters (at least three, with a short description of each character)
  3. Setting (time and place) of the story
  4. Conflict (the main problem elaborated in the story)
  5. Solution (how the characters solved the problem)
  6. Favorite part of the story written in at least three sentences
  7. Summary of the story in about 8–10 sentences with at least five details about the story
  8. Theme and take-home message
  9. Personal opinion of the book

Figure 2. A book mobile for Tomboy by Liz Prince.
(Click image to enlarge)

Final Thoughts and Book Suggestions

Our intent is to spark interest in graphic novels and to prove that, with some creativity, they can fit really well in your EFL/ESL teaching portfolio. This flexibility is evidenced in the fact that graphic novels are so multifaceted: One novel can tackle multiple topics. Consider the following graphic novels for a variety of teaching topics:

  • In her autobiography Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi combines the personal and the political into a moving story about growing up in a war-ridden country.

    • Themes/topics: religion, repression, heroism, violence, justice, and forgiveness.

  • Marzi by Marzena Sowa is a humorous chronicle of Communist Poland.

    • Themes/topics: history of Communism, rebellion and activism, food shortages

  • Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol and Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese engage the reader in complex themes of race and ethnicity.

    • Themes/topics: race and ethnicity, family, self-image, reincarnation

  • There are a number of excellent coming of age stories that deal with a variety of themes and topics:

    • Tomboy by Liz Prince: gender nonconformity, friendship, dating, bullying
    • New Kid by Jerry Craf: friendship, acceptance, family, prejudice, the importance of community
    • All Summer Long by Hope Larson: friendship, music
    • Town Boy by Lat (a follow-up to Kampung Boy): rural vs urban settings, friendship, multicultural settings, love
    • Marble Season by Gilbert Hernandez: family, pop culture, bullying, judgment, storytelling
  • Ben Hatke’s Mighty Jack (the first in the Mighty Jack Series) is a heart-warming fantasy story touching upon autism.

    • Themes/topics: communication, single parenting, facing fears, preparing for danger

Graphic novels are a powerful teaching tool that can be included in any classroom, and we hope we have added our voice and support to the discussion.


Iwai, K. (2002). The contribution of arts education to children's lives. Prospects, 32(4).

Kelley, B. (2010). Sequential art, graphic novels, and comics. SANE journal: Sequential Art Narrative in Education, 1(1), 10.

Marshall, J. (2014). Transdisciplinarity and art integration: Toward a new understanding of art-based learning across the curriculum. Studies in Art Education, 55(2), 104–127.

Schwarz, G. E. (2002). Graphic novels for multiple literacies. Journal of adolescent and adult literacy, 46(3), 262–265.

Download this article (PDF)


Iskra Stamenkoska, PhD, is assistant professor at FON University in Skopje, Republic of North Macedonia and is core faculty within the Foreign Language Studies BA Program and the MA in TESOL Program. Her primary area of research is EFL assessment, though she researches other issues in second language acquisition. She is particularly interested in exploring innovative instructional strategies, such as arts-based pedagogy and team-based learning. Iskra is a Cambridge Delta-certified teacher and teacher trainer.

Aleksandra Popovski Golubovikj, MA, is a teacher trainer at Symmetry Teacher Training in Skopje, Republic of North Macedonia. Her primary area of interest is literacy skills, though her interests expand to materials writing, language learner literature, and creativity in language teaching. She is particularly interested in the reading brain and brain plasticity.

"Teacher, it's me!!": Teaching Formal Email Writing

by Heather Lyn Reichmuth and Joyce Paek
Poorly written emails can affect many parts of a student's life. Use this lesson to teach your ELs formal email etiquette—a skill they'll use now and in their future careers. 

As email writing in academia and in business is the norm today, it’s important that students are guided into writing emails properly. The challenges that students face with formal email writing can be exacerbated by the power distance between their home cultures and what English- speaking culture deems appropriate (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011). This is especially important because poorly written, inappropriate emails can negatively impact a student’s reputation; for example, a demanding email can make students seem discourteous and impolite. Research suggests that students who grow up in cultures outside of an English-speaking context can format emails successfully—with guidance (Biesenbach-Lucas, 2007). After we received numerous inappropriate emails from our students, we decided to teach them formal email etiquette. Our goal was to provide students with a skill they could use not only in academia, but also in their future careers.

In this article, we discuss our experiences teaching email etiquette to university-age national and transnational students in South Korea, share the email writing lesson, and provide suggestions for expanding or adapting the lesson in diverse contexts.

How to Teach Email Writing


Begin class with a discussion on formal email writing. Ask students to work with a partner and discuss what a formal email is and when and to whom students might write one. Then, as a class, discuss the expectations for formal email writing in students’ home languages.

During these rich discussions with our students, it became clear that there were certain formalities and expectations in writing formally in their language(s), which made it easier for students to make the connection that there could also be rules when writing a formal email in English.

Next, provide students with three sample emails. (You can use emails sent by former de-identified students or create your own examples). In pairs, have students discuss their impressions of the sample emails. Each email should lack certain necessary components of formal emails, such as a greeting, a closing, or an appropriate subject. The emails may also include emojis, spelling errors, and/or directive language. (See Appendix A.)

Once they have finished discussing their impressions of the emails, have students share their observations with the whole class. Observations should revolve around what is appropriate and inappropriate in each email, which should lead students to come up with the “rules” of email writing. Afterward, provide students with a worksheet on what needs to be included in a formal email along with a model email. (See Appendix B.)

Components of an Email

1. Subject Line

Explain that a formal email must include an appropriate subject line so that when the recipient receives the email, they know exactly what the email is about. For writing to a professor, students could write a simple subject, such as Homework March 19th or Absent May 1st. In this way, their professor would know immediately what the email is about and its sense of urgency.

2. Greeting

It is important to address someone in a formal email with Mr./Mrs./Ms./Dr. This provides a chance to discuss and teach students a cultural norm in English speaking contexts—that is, married women taking their husband’s family name. In South Korea, like many other countries, women do not change their surnames once they are married. Though some women in English-speaking countries today are choosing to keep their maiden names, there are women who still take their husband’s name. Therefore, take this as an opportunity to talk about the appropriate titles to use when formally addressing men and women in English.

3. Self-Introduction and Purpose

It is important for students to say who they are and why they are writing to the recipient. This way, the recipient does not have to guess who is writing and why. You can also use this time to discuss how to request something in the email or how to apologize. (E.g., “Could you please let me know what the homework is for next class?” or “I apologize for missing class on Monday.”) You can also discuss what to write when students need to add an attachment to an email. For example, “Please find the attached homework assignment.”

4. Closing

Lastly, give students email closing options such as, “Thank you for your time.” and “I look forward to hearing from you soon.” Follow these with examples of how to format a signature, such as, “Sincerely, Minsu Park.” At this point, take the time to remind students of name ordering. In South Korea, it is typical to address someone by their last name first followed by their first name, the opposite to English. Thus, we reminded students not to sign their names as Park Minsu, but rather Minsu Park. This last name–first name ordering is also a common practice in other cultures.

See examples in Figures 1 and 2 of before and after emails.

Figure 1. Before email example.

Figure 2. After email example.

Email Writing Activity

Following the email writing lesson, give students an assignment to apply what they have learned. Ask them to write a formal email in which they introduce themselves. In the email, have them include information such as their hobbies, interests, major(s), and family. We also asked students to mention something funny or interesting about themselves for us to remember them by. Additionally, have them share their strengths and weaknesses in English and their goals for the course. Finally, have them attach a picture, which will help you put a face to their self-introduction email. (See Appendix C.)


At the university where we taught, there was a computer lab where students could work on this assignment during class time. We would walk around, answer questions, and advise students on how to improve their emails. Final emails were assessed based on whether or not students included all components of the email correctly. They were also graded on the content, capitalization, and grammar. To help guide students, we gave them the grading rubric for the assignment and encouraged them to use the rubric as a checklist (See Appendix C). We found that providing students with the grading rubric allowed them to look at their work more closely.

Additional Lessons and Alternatives

Proper capitalization can be challenging with the informality of the internet today. Additionally, a student’s home language may not distinguish between capital and lower-case characters, such as with Korean. A quick exercise reviewing capitalization rules can be a helpful reminder when writing formal emails. Formal email writing etiquette also allows for teachers to integrate grammar lessons as well. The teaching of indirect vs. direct language is one possible grammar point that can be applied to email etiquette because it is nuanced and often challenging for students to apply to their writing. Using sample sentence starters provided in class, students could be given different scenarios in which they need to email a teacher, a future boss, or a real company where they make a request or complaint using indirect speech.

If computers are not available to students, this assignment can still be done quite easily. You can make an email template and provide a paper copy for students to fill in. Handwriting the assignment still allows students to construct a formal email they can apply later when they have access to a computer and the internet. An alternative to this lesson is to have students email each other or a student in another class. Students can enjoy the interaction with a peer and possibly create a long lasting pen-pal relationship. In order to assess whether or not students are formatting the email properly, have them carbon copy (Cc) you when they email their pen-pal.


After teaching the lesson, some students approached us, apologizing. They said they were embarrassed by the emails they sent to us prior to learning formal email writing. We told them that they had nothing to apologize for because they had never received the tools needed to construct a formal email in English. Just as Biesenbach-Lucas (2007) found, with guidance these students were taught proper email writing that they could use in their real lives; it is a skill that can be easily learned, and it is up to us teachers to provide students with this practical learning experience—one that’s important for their academic and future professional careers.


Biesenbach-Lucas, S. (2007). Students writing emails to faculty: An examination of e-politeness among native and non-native speakers of English. Language Learning & Technology, 11(2), 59–81.

Economidou-Kogetsidis, M. (2011). “Please answer me as soon as possible”: Pragmatic failure in non-native speakers’ e-mail requests to faculty. Journal of Pragmatics, 43, 3193–3215.

Download this article (PDF)
and the Appendixes (.docx or PDF)

Heather Lyn Reichmuth is currently a curriculum, instruction, and teacher education doctoral student and TESOL teacher preparation course instructor at Michigan State University. Heather has 15 years of experience teaching EFL in South Korea, including 5 years serving as an assistant professor (nontenure track) at the Institute of Foreign Language Studies at Korea University. Her research interests include family language policy, multilingual learners, and TESOL teacher preparation.

Joyce Paek is a former assistant professor at the Institute of Foreign Language Studies at Korea University. She has been teaching EFL in Seoul, South Korea for 11 years and has authored numerous English conversation and public speaking textbooks for Korean students. She continues to teach public speaking and cohosts a business English radio program at Korea Educational Broadcasting System in Seoul.

Virtual Reality: Don't Just Learn English. Experience It.

by Teresa Cusumano and Elena Reiss
Virtual reality is an immersive, sensory language learning experience that increases engagement, encourages risk taking, and leads to increased language output. 

Imagine the impossible. If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go? What would you do? Who would you see? Would you swim with a whale or dive to a coral reef? Would you become a humanitarian and step into the shoes of refugees or truly experience what it is like to be homeless? Would you visit a castle or board a battleship? Maybe you would become part of science and travel through the human body as a cell?

Although these experiences seem like fantasy, virtual reality (VR) can make them a reality. Evolving technology offers students the opportunity to visit places, assume identities and roles, and participate in events that in the past were impossible, or at the very least not accessible to the vast majority. Virtual reality is an immersive, sensory language learning experience that increases engagement, encourages risk taking, and creates successful second language (L2) cognitive encounters that lead to increased language output.

Bringing the World Into the Classroom

Upon entering American academic environments, many multilingual students struggle to express themselves in the host language; therefore, they are placed in ESL classrooms. Their challenges, however, go far beyond mere language issues. Prior negative language experiences, pressure to develop communication skills, homesickness, culture shock, and the rigor of the new academic setting inhibit language acquisition and inevitably overwhelm English learners (ELs). Making the situation worse, educational and socioeconomic differences limit their exposure to issues related to American social context, leading to a lack of social awareness and resulting in pedantic and superficial discussions. Therefore, it is vital to design safe, authentic language and cultural encounters that reduce anxiety and foster communicative competence.

Endeavoring to provide experiences that sustain motivation and develop reflective and metacognitive skills, we designed and implemented an inclusive, holistic VR-based curriculum, which has the following benefits:

  • Global Context: It contextualizes global issues in interactive simulation, thus removing geographical boundaries and providing ELs with firsthand experiences.

  • Skill/Area Specificity: It can be tailored for any language course and focused on specific skills (e.g., academic writing, presentation skills, communication) or a specific area of academic study (e.g., English for sciences, arts and humanities).

  • Interdisciplinary Adaptability: It can be adapted for interdisciplinary projects because VR provides the multimodal approach that supports L2 learners in integrated and mainstream classrooms.

The possibilities are endless and continue to grow as technology advances.

Transporting Global Issues to Local Writing Classrooms

To foster written and verbal fluency and social awareness, we created an integrated skills social justice–themed curriculum that culminated in a capstone e-portfolio showcasing students’ newly gained language competence.

VR transports L2 users around the globe to witness social injustice and build students’ empathy and pragmatic understanding. Many VR applications are intentionally designed to take users out of their comfort zones to establish stronger emotional connections with the issues, leading to

  • increased investment with the topic,
  • classroom participation,
  • informed discussion, and
  • critical reflection on the learning content.

These outcomes result in better spoken and written output.

Visiting a Refugee Camp

VR enables personal interaction with the subject, as one student vividly describes in his reflection on Forced to Flee, a 360° video that brings a Rohingya refugee camp to the classroom (see Figure 1):

In the video, they show everything around the village—the people, and the houses, and the dirt roads, and blood everywhere…The most shocking experience for me was that I could [see] the faces so close to me, almost like they [were] touching me. Everywhere I looked there were little kids and babies looking at me. I felt they wanted to tell me—help me, help me! And I wanted to touch their hands and take them, but I couldn’t feel them. I wanted to cry because I couldn’t help…I want to learn more after this VR experience and do something.

VR expands students’ research, critical analysis, and understanding of the issue way beyond what is accomplished in print. Through VR, students not only learn language, they experience it. Another student describes how VR took her research and understanding of the refugee crisis to another level:

Throughout my research I’ve understood the struggles refugees go through; however, having the opportunity to use the Virtual Reality technology at Lehigh helped me have a first-hand experience with the issue. Now that I could do the VR experience I feel more passionate about the social issue.

Figure 1. Forced to Flee VR documentary.

Becoming Homeless

Walking in the shoes of people around the world, students become impassioned and begin to look at issues from different perspectives, which requires them to formulate the language necessary to express their changing viewpoints. For example, one student describes his experience with Becoming Homeless: The Human Experience,an app that places users in the position of a person who becomes unemployed and, as a result, homeless (see Figure 2):

I wanted to try to simulate an experience that would most likely affect your mental health in a real-life scenario in order to better grasp the concept and become more attached to the matter. I found myself diving deep into the experience pretty fast. The story itself was very realistic and it put you in plenty of uncomfortable situations that you would not find yourself in on a daily basis. It was very eye-opening realizing what many people in homelessness have to deal with in their lives.

Figure 2. Becoming Homeless–Student experience in Lehigh’s Visualization Lab.

As students witness social injustice, they become increasingly aware of the complexity of these issues, expand their critical analysis of the issue, and interact with the topic they are researching in a much more intimate way, which inspires personal commentary and results in more authentic writing.

Gaining Speaking Confidence Through Virtual Reality

VR applications create safe, risk-free environments that increase speaking confidence. Unlike real-life situations, VR experiences rarely lead to negative scenarios that result in fear of speaking. On the contrary, they encourage even the most reluctant speakers to talk.

Virtual Navigation and Exploration

One such application is Google Earth VR, which allows students to “fly” over the Earth and “land” in their native towns (see Figure 3). Google Street View’s lifelike qualities inspire confidence and ease as students act as guides, giving directions and virtual tours, explaining cultural concepts, discovering new vocabulary, and sharing exciting narratives of their homes and cultures. As ELs navigate virtual environments through proprioceptive systems, they experience both physical and mental immersion (Sherman & Craig, 2003; Chen, 2016).

Figure 3. Screenshot of Google Earth VR.

Virtual tours of historic landmarks allow students to travel the world without leaving their classrooms. Fringe benefits of such tours are that they can be viewed on affordable VR devices and do not require difficult setup or technological support. Exploring historic sites and museums, L2 learners not only experience cultural immersion but also acquire new vocabulary as words materialize in corresponding contexts. Rather than memorizing new vocabulary, L2 learners associate high-frequency words with tangible items and explore them in syntactic patterns (Chen, 2016). By providing interaction with authentic cultural artifacts, this contextual learning experience

  • reduces speech anxiety,
  • enhances language acquisition, and
  • promotes multiculturalism (Aldosemani & Shepherd, 2014).

Practicing Presenting

Newly gained speaking confidence prepares ELs for exploration of another application—Speech Trainer, which bridges informal speech with academic language. Students become accustomed to public speaking while presenting their PowerPoint presentations to a realistic, nonjudgmental, virtual audience. Thus, as motivation increases and anxiety decreases, VR enhances fluency, vocabulary, syntactic knowledge, discourse knowledge, and metacognition.

Figure 4. User interacting with Speech Trainer.

Virtual Exploration for Engaged Reading

Sometimes, assigned academic readings cover topics that students are not interested in or familiar with, and L2 reading challenges, such as vocabulary limitations or slower reading pace, increase frustration and lower motivation. These feelings are further exacerbated by lack of relatability, knowledge of the topic, and contextual gaps, making it nearly impossible to keep students engaged with the text. Facing this obstacle with two mandatory freshman readings, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and No Apparent Distress by Rachel Pearson, we used Google Earth VRto travel virtually to locations in the books. Both novels contain significant cultural, historical, and geographical references with which most ELs are unfamiliar. L2 students were further challenged by topic-specific vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, and complex syntactic structures.

By virtually visiting Galveston and other flood zones in Texas or by exploring routes traveled by slaves fleeing along the Underground Railroad, students were better able to empathize with the characters and plots referenced in the books. As a result, they became more engaged with the readings. VR experiences transformed students from reluctant readers to readers with increased ability to infer information, distinguish between facts and opinions, use context clues to expand vocabulary, decipher symbolism, and organize main ideas and supporting details.


Taking subject matter and learning concepts off the page and bringing them to life via virtual reality inspires ELs to become active class participants and explore the language in a more authentic and engaged way. This language immersion results in more informed rhetorical choices and a willingness to take risks with the use of language as learners express their ideas and opinions. Improved language output creates positive learning experiences, removing internal barriers, increasing confidence, and fostering curiosity toward further language development. The following list suggests applications that can be used for a variety of learning objectives in an integrated skills classroom:

  1. Discovery VR (Discovery)

  2. Forced to Flee (Viveport)

  3. Google Earth VR (Google)

  4. InCell VR (Steam)

  5. Speech Trainer (Steam)

  6. theBlu (Steam)

  7. YouTube VR (YouTube)


Aldosemani, T. I., & Shepherd, C. E. (2014, February 18). Second life to support multicultural literacy: Pre- and in-service teachers’ perceptions and expectations. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11528-014-0736-7

Chen, Y. (2016). The effects of virtual reality learning environment on student cognitive and linguistic development. Asia-Pacific Education Researcher, 25(4), 637–646. doi:10.1007/s40299-016-0293-2

Sherman, W., & Craig, A. (2003). Understanding virtual reality-interface, application and design. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann.

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Teresa Cusumano earned a BA in English from Wagner College and an MA in English from the City University of New York. While teaching English composition and literature courses in the Northeast Pennsylvania and New Jersey area colleges, she obtained an MS in TESOL from Wilkes University. Teresa joined Lehigh University’s International Center for Academic and Professional English as a language specialist and English instructor in 2014. In addition to her teaching role, Teresa serves as the faculty advisor for Lehigh University’s student organization, International Voices, which publishes an annual visual and literary arts journal.

Elena Reiss holds an MA in TEFL and English literature. With 13 years of experience designing and facilitating courses in mainstream, ESL, and mixed classrooms in the United States and abroad, she is committed to supporting the personal and professional development of multilingual learners and their assimilation into an academic environment. In her current role at Lehigh University, she focuses on researching and implementing best practices for multimodal L2 instruction, which she regularly presents at TESOL conferences.