Revisiting Blogging for English Learners in 2023
Years ago, talk about blogging for English learners was all the rage. Teachers were getting their students on Blogger, WordPress, Posterous, Tumblr, and more. One of the most powerful features of blogging was that it was public — anything students wrote could be read and commented on by anyone. We’ll get back to this point later, but as most schools began to move into all-encompassing learning management systems such as Canvas, Edmodo, Google Classroom, and others, the idea of public blogging for students faded away in favor of walled-in writing assignments that only teachers could see.
But the value of blogging hasn’t faded! All of the arguments in favor of blogging continue to ring true. So, though consolidating services in an LMS does simplify things for many teachers, it’s important for all of us to keep in mind that we aren’t beholden to the LMS, and doing work that is publicly viewable is a more authentic experience for many students.
Today, we’re revisiting the value of blogging for multilingual learners of English (MLEs) in 2023, focusing on two key areas: language development and the benefits of having an instant audience.
Blogging for Language Development
Blogging offers students a chance to practice their writing regularly. As with any skill, consistent practice is crucial for improvement. I often remind my students that the best athletes don’t get better by throwing the ball once and then moving on, but instead they master their sport with regular and consistent practice to fine-tune their skills. The process of creating blog posts allows learners to engage with English in a meaningful and enjoyable way, motivating them to continually enhance their abilities. Consider adding a variety of acceptable post types for your students to complete. For example, you might consider having students write two microblogs of fewer than 100 words due on Mondays and Wednesdays, and a larger blog of 250+ words on Fridays.
Authentic Writing Scenarios
Keep in mind that blog posts don’t have to be journals or restaurant reviews. Blog posts can mimic real-life scenarios where MLEs might need to express themselves in English, such as emails, reports, or job application cover letters. Through blogging, learners can develop essential writing skills like coherence, organization, and argumentation that are transferable to various contexts.
Building Vocabulary and Grammar
When crafting a blog post, students will inevitably encounter new vocabulary and grammar structures. This encourages them to expand their language repertoire as they strive to make their writing more accurate and engaging. Additionally, blogging helps MLEs internalize grammar rules through practical application, which can lead to better retention and comprehension. Keep in mind that you can always assign students to highlight salient grammar points you are covering in class, or even define tricky vocabulary words in the comments. Even though you’re asking your students to make their blogs public, it doesn’t mean they can’t customize their posts to emphasize their language learning goals.
Developing a Personal Voice
Blogging also allows MLEs to explore their thoughts and ideas, helping them develop a unique writing voice. Allowing for lots of low stakes posts that allow students autonomy in subject matter, style, and more gives them ownership over their writing. By experimenting with different writing styles and perspectives, students can gain confidence in their abilities and grow more comfortable expressing themselves in English.
The Benefits of an Instant Audience
Let’s return to the concept of an instant audience briefly because it’s an important one. When students know their writing will be viewed by the outside world, they put more effort into their work. The difference between writing solely for your teacher and writing for the world is similar to the difference between how you dress for dinner at home and how you dress for dinner out on the town. Yes, not everybody will dress up to go out, but more often than not, they’ll put in more effort when they know it involves people outside of their immediate in-group. Likewise, with blogging, I have found that students put in far more effort when they know their writing is “going out” into the world.
But that’s not all. There are a number of other benefits to encouraging your students to make their work public.
Unlike journaling, which is a private and introspective activity, blogging gives MLEs the opportunity to share their work with an audience. Platforms like Medium and Substack, discussed below, provide an interactive space for readers to comment and engage with the writer, which can offer valuable feedback that can help students see where they are and are not being clear. Constructive criticism from native speakers and fellow language learners can help students identify areas for improvement and refine their skills.
I’d like to add a note here that of course not everybody out there is going to give constructive feedback. Sometimes, bad actors get in the mix and can create some chaos. I recommend warning your students about this ahead of time to set their expectations. I’d also recommend telling your students to clarify in the blog’s title or subtitle that it’s a language learning experiment, so readers should be aware that all language will not be perfect. Finally, you should strongly consider having your students make pseudonyms for their blogs. Just because it’s public, that doesn’t mean that everybody should know exactly who is writing.
Encouragement and Motivation
Moving forward, you will find that sharing work with others can be a significant source of encouragement and motivation for MLEs. Receiving praise or constructive feedback can bolster a learner's confidence and drive them to continue honing their language abilities. Moreover, the act of sharing their thoughts with a wider audience can provide a sense of accomplishment that fuels the desire to keep learning and improving.
Connecting With Other Language Learners
Blogging offers MLEs the chance to connect with other learners who share similar experiences and challenges. The truth is that most people will not magically find your students’ blogs, so you can start by building a classroom community and making sure all classmates have links to each others’ blogs. Students will find that engaging with other language learners can create a sense of belonging and contribute to a more enjoyable learning journey. If you want more, consider making an agreement with your colleagues that you will visit and comment on their students’ blogs, and, in exchange, they will visit yours. If you want to be extra sneaky, you can keep this a secret from your students so they aren’t aware of who is commenting on their work. Yet another option is to share links to blog posts with your professional learning network. Not everybody will go to every post, but you might get the occasional outside voice chiming in!
Leveraging Modern Tools for Language Learning: Medium and Substack
As mentioned earlier, platforms like Medium and Substack offer a great space for ESL students to publish their writing, interact with readers, and learn from fellow language learners. While both Medium and Substack have monetization options, I encourage you to have your students skip all of that and focus in on the educational value instead. Let’s take a brief look at these platforms and how they can be valuable for ESL students:
Medium is easy to use and allows users to create and share articles on a wide range of topics. The platform is robust, but looks simple, allowing students to focus on their writing. It allows for commenting on the side, and also has a cool “Share Draft” feature that you could use with students who are still shy about pushing their language out to the world without at least a once over by the teacher. By following tags related to language learning, students can discover relevant articles, share their own work, and engage in discussions with like-minded individuals.
Originally designed as a platform for email newsletters, Substack has expanded to include blogging functionality as well and may grow even more popular with the release of Notes, a kind of Twitter alternative. Here, users can create their own publications, share articles, and even begin microblogging if they’re so inclined. For MLEs, Substack may offer a weaker community-building opportunity, but as many of the users of Substack are professional journalists, higher level students may find value in not only writing, but reading the work of those who have perfected the craft of writing.
Blogging offers immense value for MLEs, both in terms of language development and the access to and feedback from an instant audience. By leveraging modern platforms like Medium and Substack, learners can develop their English language skills, receive authentic feedback, connect with fellow language learners, and develop an online presence.
Though technology is often focused on the shiny new toys, it’s worth remembering that the classics rarely go out of style. While many may have considered blogging dead in the face of social media videos and heart buttons, the truth is that people are still out there writing and connecting with each other all over the place. Consider giving your students the opportunity to build their skills through tried and true edtech, even if it’s not the tech everyone’s talking about.