A Taxonomy of Educational Chats for EFL/ESL


Dafne González

Universidad Simón Bolívar

Caracas, Venezuela

Universidad de Valencia

Valencia, Spain






Chats are synchronic communicative spaces which are being incorporated to online  activities, especially in EFL/ESL courses due to the possibilities they offer participants to interact with native and non-native speakers of the L2.  Teachers interested in using chats for educational purposes  should know the characteristics of  different  chat tasks according to the objective, role of  moderator, and structure of the  interaction to be generated,  in order to plan their activities accordingly. The presenter will be discussing a taxonomy for educational chats which was designed based on her experience using chats with language learners and student-teachers.





1. Synchronous Communication : Chats

2. Nature of Chats Characteristics

3. Chats in Language Learning

    4. Chats in

Teacher Development


5. A Taxonomy

of Chats





        Url’s Mentioned



“hmm It is very hard to chat useing English to chat for me, but it is fun!”

               (comment  made  by a Japanese student after using a chat for the first time. April 22)


            Synchronous communication* in online learning is an issue in language teaching nowadays,  by all means. Language Teachers around the world are, little by little, incorporating online components to their face to face classes to offer  students the opportunity to communicate with  speakers of the language, whether native or non-native. This exposure to the languages of the world through synchronous modes of communication has also other positive sides. On one hand, the opportunity to interact and learn with and from people from different cultures and different native languages, it is a way to travel on-site. On the other hand, while using these means of communication, students are getting prepared in the use of web tools, which is an added value for their future as professionals in any area.

            However, to be able to take this challenge, language teachers need to be computer literate, or e-literate, and should learn to take the best from the web tools available and apply this knowledge to their educational contexts. This has not been an easy task, some teachers are afraid of technology whether because they have not been offered training, or because they do not feel ready to shift their traditional educational paradigms, to those more collaborative and student-centered needed in e-learning. Another obstacle is  that most institutions do not have the required infrastructure to carry out online projects.

            I have always been interested in learning and applying new methods and technologies to enhance my pedagogical practices; but with the new electronic supports,, even though I felt much inclined to use them, due to different reasons, I did not, until I joined Webheads in Action (WiA). WiA is a virtual community of practice (CoP) which comprises language teachers worldwide with the main  purpose of learning collaboratively to create virtual communities and explore the use of synchronous and asynchronous Computer Mediated Communication* (CMC) tools to enhance their teaching practices. After joining this community, I have had the chance to learn to use and apply  to my teaching, which is mainly online nowadays, all the knowledge acquired and shared within the group.

            Once I started participating in chats with Webheads, and then designing and implementing online units and courses, I began to realize the importance of chats in e-learning. One of the main criticisms done to e-learning is the lack of human contact, the isolation of the students in cyberspace; as one of my student-teachers pointed out “the tutor is a remote mail box, and we never know when it will be opened”. Chats bring us the live, real time contact and interaction with and among colleagues, and students, which in turn enhances discussion and collaboration.

“Human interaction, discussion and collaboration is still the foremost in leading to new knowledge and enabling us to overcome the challenges that face us in the classrooms               

 (Bert Kimura’s welcoming e-mail address. Coordinator of the

                                                   TCC 2003 Online Conference. April 22, 2003.).



            My university students have also mentioned in their evaluation of online units and courses that group work in chats have been the most useful component for them in terms of learning gains.  Students teachers have remarked how the brainstorm sessions conducted in chats have been eye openers and have prompted them to reflect about the content being discussed, with the advantage of the chatlogs for further revision and reflection.

All this, and my own experience participating in chats for web tools exploration,  other times presenting or attending presentations made by other members, led me to reflect in all the different ways in which chats can be used for learning and teaching, and the implications it has for the role of the e-moderator, the audience and the material to be used.

 This is how this Taxonomy* of Educational Chats was born, and, even though I am presenting it at this online conference, it is still under revision, and I guess it will always be, as we will dig deeper into the use of chats for educational purposes.

 I will start by given an overview of chats, their nature and how they can be used for language learning and teacher development. In this way, the taxonomy will be more logical to the audience.

  1. Synchronous Communication – Chats

Synchronous communication refers to real time communication, interaction with live audiences. This kind of communication can take place through videoconferences, with the use of video, or webcams, and text chat, which can be enhanced with voice and webcams.  Almeida d’Eça (2002) has defined chats as

a two-way synchronous form of computer mediated communication (CMC), a dialogue in real time as we keyboard or speak our words, an online conversation between two or more people by means of a computer. (International Conference at the University of Evora, Portugal).

            This definition contains all the elements that describe the nature and characteristics of chats, which  in turn, make them a great tool for language learning and especially in the context of English as a Foreign Language (EFL).

  1. Nature of Chats – Characteristics

The word chat means informal conversation, as defined in Merriam-Webster:  to talk in an informal or familiar manner”, and that is what makes chats a natural space for communication to take place.  The language in chats can not be compared to the language in academic writings. It is usually composed of short phrases, and a special lingo “chat language” which makes the communication faster, to emulate a face-to-face (f2f) conversation. That is why chats should not be used for teaching or correcting lexical items or syntax, in other words, it can not be taken as a  product to be evaluated in terms of grammar and spelling. In real time, f2f conversations, people make mistakes, restart their sentences, self-correct, etc. In this sense, conversations in chats are very similar to f2f conversations:

·        Greetings are part of the “meeting” rituals.

·        People talk without respecting turns, not always, but it is very frequent that people start answering without waiting for the person who has the floor to finish. Interruptions of this kind are very usual in f2f conversations.

·        People introduce new topics without finishing previous ones.

·        Turn taking is not usually well distributed. Some people tend to hold the floor or participate more than others.

·        Some people only listen to the dialogues taking place.

·        Different threads may be going on at the same time: two or 3 people are talking about something, and others talk about something else (even if they are not next to each other).

·        People attend to the thread that is of their interest, and may change their attention after a while, and some may participate in two or more different threads at the same time. It all depends on their ability to concentrate.

The fact that that there are different threads  does not mean that at the end each person has not taken anything out of the conversation, especially when they have met with a purpose.  This also happens in a chat, with the advantage that at the end of the chat, we can read the log, and learn about all the topics treated even by those we were not paying attention to. In a f2f  conversation, because there is not a written record, unless the conversation is recorded, and not even this way. If you have tried to transcribe a recorded conversation, you know what I am talking about.

Of course, there are traits of f2f conversation that are missing in chats, that is the case of body language and voice suprasegmental levels*. The use of videos (webcams) and voice may help to overcome these obstacles; however, voice applications and webcams are still far from substituting the physical presence of the interlocutor, even though emoticons* do help to express some emotions in text chats.

Chats have been neglected in the classrooms due, mainly, to the bad reputation of public chatrooms, and most educational institutions do not allow chat applications in their computer labs. In spite of the fact that research is needed regarding its benefits for language acquisition, the practice with students and colleagues has revealed many ways in which chats can be used to offer practice in a second or foreign language. Warschauer (1998) narrates his own experience as a language learner of Hawaiian, and how CMC was useful for him:

During oral class discussion, it is not infrequent that I become lost, and thus receive no benefit. However, during computer-mediated discussion, no matter how complex, I can always reread the sentences, take out my dictionary, ask questions of the person next to me-in other words find some way to make the input comprehensible and thus benefit from it (p.5).

This reflection reveals that CMC can reduce the level of anxiety of a language student.. Affectivity has been considered by many educators as an influencing factor in the learning process, Dewey, Montesory and Vygotsky during the first half of the 20th century, and its importance was reinforced by Humanist psychologist in the 1060’s. Rogers (1969) emphasized that the affective domain needed to be considered if a global education was to be achieved.  In the field of second language acquisition, Krashen & Terrel’s Natural Approach (1983), proposed activities which are especially designed to minimized stress, following one of Krashen’s five hypotheses for language acquisition, the affective filter. The social nature of chats contributes to lower the affective filter, offering a relaxing atmosphere for learning to take place.


  1. Chats in Language Learning

Poole, Axmann, Calongne & Cox (2003) consider that “given the right conditions, the synchronous environment of the chat room can be a successful medium for learning” (p.1)

Let us look at several characteristics of chats which may be taken advantage of to enhance language learning:

·        Interaction with real audiences*.

·        Input and Output

·        Immediate feedback from interlocutors.

·        No restrictions regarding location.

·        Opportunity for negotiation of meaning to take place.

·        Collaborative learning towards knowledge construction.

·        Opportunity for intake* through “language noticing* ”.

·        Chatlogs* allow for further analysis of conversation, to add coherence to the different threads of the conversation.

·        Promotion of learner autonomy.

Most of these aspects have been considered by different hypotheses of second language acquisition, Krashen’s input hypothesis (1985); Swain’s output hypothesis (1985, 1993); Long’s interactionist hypothesis (1985); the noticing hypothesis has been sustained by Gass (1997), Long (1991), Doughty (1991), Sharwood-Smith (1993);  Schmidt’s intake hypothesis (1990). The negotiation of meaning through interaction and modification of input has also been mentioned as a facilitator of language learning (Long, 1985, 1996). More recently, Egbert, Chao & Hanson-Smith (1999), have discussed eight conditions for optimal language learning environments, most of which can be fostered in chats:  opportunities for interaction  and negotiation of meaning, interaction with authentic audiences in the target language, students involvement in authentic tasks, exposure to and encouragement to produce varied and creative language, feedback, metacognitive guidance, and an ideal anxiety or stress level.

            Not many studies have investigated the use of chats in language learning, but the ones carried out reveal some interesting aspects. Pelletieri (1996) found that some of the patterns of computer mediated interaction are similar to those found in face-to-face interaction: all aspects of the discourse serve as triggers for negotiations, the type of the task influences the kind and amount of negotiation, indicating that difficult tasks promote more negotiation than easy ones. Self-repair, corrective feedback, negotiation within negotiations; in sum, changes toward the target forms, which seems to indicate that students made efforts to ensure their understanding of the messages. Chun (1994), also found that chatting seems to improve students interactive competence.

            Language students, however, may find some difficulties in chats. In this sense, Mynard (2002) points out some of them:

·        If students’ keyboarding skills are slow, they may miss part of the conversation taking place.

·        Slow readers may find difficult to follow the sometimes fast scrolling screen.

·        Chat lingo may result incomprehensible for newbies*.

·        Cultural specific issues may result in misunderstandings.

However, the assets of chats tend to outnumber the possible difficulties, which can be minimized with a good lesson plan and preparation on part of the teacher.


4.      Chats in Teacher Development

So far, we have discussed the use of chats with language students. In this section, we want to bring up the use of chats in teacher development.  According to our own experience in Webheads in Action, chats can be used to improve different aspects of our teaching practice.

·        Planning for events. Teachers are always short of time to attend meetings, or to collaboratively plan activities. We have found in chats a great alternative to meet with colleagues not only in our city, but with those living across the ocean to write lesson plans, to prepare events, and design joint projects. While writing this paper, I have been meeting in a chat with a colleague in Portugal preparing a proposal for next year’s TESOL Convention in Long Beach, CA; and in the morning, I was chatting with another colleague in Abu Dhabi, preparing a summary for another event. Needless to say that without the chat it would not have been possible to accomplish all the activities I engaged in today.

·        Sharing work done. Collaboration and sharing are key words in professional development. To explain this aspect, I am going to describe how work sharing contributes to our development. In Webheads in Action, we share our work, our findings in online synchronous events, taking place at Tapped In, Yahoo Messenger or some other chat platforms.  Methods, evaluation, activities, course design, are just some of the topics that may be found in the different sessions planned. Most of the time these events take place only with text-chat, other times voice and webcams are used to enhance the presentations. Webpages and Power Point presentations are also used. E-learning and online components for f2f courses are the main issues behind our sharing and collaboration efforts, but teachers who do not teach online could benefit from online activities to enhance their practice. In the same way that we have been meeting in this community to learn about web tools, teachers could create their own group in schools to discuss their lesson plans or to share activities.

·        Practicing e-moderation with students. Moderating e-courses, or e-units is not the same as teaching a face-to-face class, and the only way to learn to do it is with the practice. Getting together with one student in a chat for an individual tutoring is quite different from working with groups of students or whole classes in this environment.  Internet offers the possibility to get in touch with students from all over the world who are eager to practice their English with speakers, native or non-native, of the target language. Teachers may also start practicing with their own  students in the classroom, setting tasks to be completed trough chats, and then the teacher will supervise these groups in the same way she does when they work in groups around a table, with the advantage of having the chatlogs to later check the work the students have done.

·        Exploring web tools. Technology overwhelms us with new tools everyday, thus exploring web tools is a never-ending activity for online educators. Sometimes these tools seem difficult and above our understanding. Chats give us the opportunity to explore, and evaluate these tools with the collaboration and scaffolding* of one or more colleagues, who may have experience with it, or more technological knowledge to guide us in the process. Chatlogs will stay there for those who come behind.

·        Participating in online conferences as audience, and as participants. This is evident when at this  moment we are attending this online conference, and one of the ways to interact with the participants is through chats. Participants have the opportunity to attend presentations given by people who can be in another continent, ask questions as if f-2-f without leaving their homes; and presenters have the chance to discuss their work with a wider and diverse audience which makes his/her work more relevant.

After all this discussion about the benefits of chats, and knowing  it is not an easy task to moderate and to design activities leading to an expected performance, we are presenting this educational chat taxonomy with the purpose of helping teachers design their chat activities.


  1. A Taxonomy of Chats

After participating in many chats for different purposes, the differences observed in terms of the role of the moderator and the performance expected of the participants,  were the trigger to develop this taxonomy, which, as I  have mentioned before, is still a work in progress. I have had the feedback of many colleagues from the Wehbeads in Action Community (Elizabeth Hanson-Smith, Vance Stevens, Teresa Almeida d’Eca, Susanne Nyrop, Rita Zeinstejer, Buth Othman) to get to the categories presented in this paper. The table has been divided into six columns : Category, purpose, characteristics, moderator’s role, examples, and subcategories.

The category indicates the kind of chat. So far, we have found free topic chats, Collaborative task-oriented chats, academic seminar or presentation chats, and practice chats. As you can see, some categories have different or combined titles, this is due to the discussion and feedback given by the colleagues mentioned. We have not decided yet on the ones that should be used, so this conference is a great opportunity to have these names discussed with the audience.

The purpose column indicates the objective of this kind of chat, the kind of activity for which this chat would be useful. The moderator’s role column describes the way the moderator  behaves during the chat. Depending on his/her performance the chat will be a controlled activity or a free activity. The colors in the table show  the level of freedom or control  of each kind of chat, being free topic chats the ones with less control, and practice chats the ones with  more control. By control, we mean the autonomy of the participants (less control = more autonomy), the structure of the activity (less structure = less control), and the intervention of the moderator in guiding the activity (less intervention = more autonomy of the participants). Then, under the examples column, we mention some chat activities in which we have participated, and that we consider fit in the corresponding category, some of these activities have links to web pages documenting them. After the main classification was created, we found that there were some chats that fell into one category but that presented some differences, which led us to design the last column, subcategories. These subcategories are present in the academic seminars and in the practice chats.

    1. Free Topic Chats

The main purpose of these chats is to practice the target language, for others, to learn about and to explore web tools with the social scaffolding of colleagues or peers.  There is not a pre-established agenda, and there is free moderation. Different threads are going on at the same time, and each one joins the conversational thread of his/her interest.. A good example of this kind of chat are our Sunday meetings, at Tapped In, where English teachers worldwide get together to discuss about web tools and the best way to incorporate them into their educational contexts,  in a friendly atmosphere.

    1. Collaborative Task-Oriented Chats

Participants get together in a chat to accomplish a real-life task. The activity has been planned and structured in such a way, the once in the chat, participants know what they are there for, and they are responsible for going through a process to be able to accomplish the objective of the activity, which might be a final product, or only a subproduct to be used as resource for a following activity.  In this kind of chat, there is no need for a moderator, the same group establishes the norms, and handles the situation to complete the task in the alotted time. Two good examples for this type of chat: some teachers  gathered in a chat to design a strategic plan for a week we had to moderate for one of the TESOL Electronic Village Online 2003; and when my architecture students worked to share the characteristics of the different buildings each student had read, and come up with the shared characteristics, which were going to be used in further tasks.

    1. Academic Seminars –Academic Presentation Chats

These chats have the purpose of presenting material. Usually, the moderator has prepared the material in advanced, and of course the topic to be discussed has been previously announced to the audience. It may be in the form of a workshop, where the presenter shows hands-on how to do something and the participants have to get involved in the “doing”; a demonstration, where the presenter shows how to do something, the audience asks questions but is not involved in any other action; a presentation, where the speaker only presents information and expects the audience to ask questions, it can be the presentation of a program, a methodology, results of a research, etc; a pot luck, or swap shop, where each participant brings material on a given topic to be shared, discussed and analyzed during the chat; the Eurolanguage sessions are a fine example of this kind of chat; a discussion, where the presenter brings a couple of questions to be discussed or brainstormed about.  An example of this type of chat is a videochat unit, we are implemenenting, it is a collaborative project with teachers in Spain, Denmark, France, and the United States, and students from Universidad Simon Bolivar in Caracas, Venezuela. Guest speakers are usually invited to these academic presentation chats.

 Here comes another question about e-moderating these chats. Should the moderator keep on track if side issues arise, or if there are anticipated questions asked by the audience? Sometimes latecomers to the chat do not know the approach that has been set, and are eager to participate, and the discussion may take different roads and not get where it was supposed to. What should the moderator do? Questions to be discussed in our chat!

    1. Practice Chats

The objective is that the students using the chat, practice with other students and the moderator, a given function of the language. For example, role playing an interview, or something of the like.  These are very closed-topic chats, and the moderator usually establishes the rules and turn taking style.




            As we have seen through our discussion, chat is an unexploited tool for language learning and teacher development. The collaborative construction of knowledge that can take place through chats should be considered by teachers. Social constructivism emphasizes the importance of learning through social interaction and collaboration (von Glaserfeld, 1989), and chat seems to be the ideal space for this kind of learning.

 In a recent research, Margalit & Sabar (2003) found that

·        Most students and teachers believe it is possible to learn using chats.

·        They like learning via this medium.

·        They believe moderators are important to conduct the sessions.

·        Students and teachers believe chats have a positive influence on creativity, thought-generation, social relations, and learning.

·        Teachers place great importance on the e-moderation aspect of chats.

Regarding our own experience, students seem to prefer the synchronicity of chats over the asynchronous modes to interact online.  Chats do not promote learning on their own, their effectiveness lies in the way the activities are planned and carried out within the framework of the syllabus of a course. It is our responsibility as teachers to learn to use this environment to ensure optimal conditions for the students’ performance.

It is my hope that this taxonomy of educational chats we have presented here, could be of help for teachers to plan chat activities for their students, selecting the type of chat that suits their syllabus, students’ age, level and interests.

To finish, I would like, first, to invite you to come to our chat and discuss the issues introduced in this paper, as well as any other related to the topic and which was not dealt with.

And finally, present a comment made by a Venezuelan student after her first chat for a language lesson:

“it was really a new and innovating learning English class, hope this methods would be applied in the future with other students too” (April 30, 2003).



 NOTE: If you would like to make comments about this article visit the discussion board




















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Glossary of Terms Used:

 Asynchronous Communication: Time delayed communication (e-mails, discussion boards, etc.)

Chatlog: Written transcriptions of chats.


CMC: Computer mediated communication.


CoP: Communities of Practice

Emoticons: icons representing emotions and feelings used in many chat applications.

Intake: What the language learner retains from the imput received.

Noticing:  A hypothesis of second language acquisition which states that for language learning to take place, students should be aware of what he is learning, be it vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, etc.)

Newbies: A person new to the use of web tools or internet.

Real Audiences: Audiences who listen in order to get the content of the message and not  its form.

Scaffolding: A term from social constructivism, meaning the help given by experts to non-experts,  which may be fundamental if the non-expert would not get involved in the learning on his/her own.

Suprasegmental level: it deals with the concatenation of the units of intonation or prosody.

Synchronous Communication: Communication in real time, live.

Taxonomy: Classification


List of url’s mentioned in the paper:  

Benz, P. Eurolanguage at Tapped In:


Gonzalez, D. (2003). My Journey with Webheads



Gonzalez, D. (2003). Planning Chat



Gonzalez, D. (2003). Exploring web tools: Wimba Voice Direct:


Gonzalez, D. (2003). Evaluating web tools: Blogs:



Gonzalez, D. (2003). Taxonomy of Educational Chats. Working Table:



Gonzalez, D. (2003). Webheads reactions to chat taxonomy:



Gonzalez, D. (2002). Chatlog with extracts from students’ collaborative task in chat.



Gonzalez, D. (2003). A collaborative online project: Videochat Unit:



Gonzalez, D. (2003). Discussion Board:



Tapped In:


Stevens, V.(Coord.). Webheads Sunday Meetings at Tapped In:



TCC 2003 Online Conference:


Webheads in Action:


Yeh, A. (2003). A collaborative online Project: What’s in a Name?