Virtual World Utilized in ESL Instruction

My university has a large population of students from China.  Most of these students are struggling with the English language.  These students are often timid about engaging in conversation and socializing because of their minimal exposure to English speaking peers.  After doing research, I found these students are often more comfortable in practicing their English skills in a virtual environment.  Additionally, students would benefit by being connected through the chat feature available through gmail. For many students who are learning English as a second language, a virtual environment and chat will make the transition easier.  There will potentially be less nervousness than would be present with face to face interactions.  Based on research from Knutzen and Kennedy in 2012, “Chat proved to an extremely useful form of interaction for new users: the typing medium allows additional time for second language learners to compose their responses, and the tolerance for misspellings or poor syntax was much higher than for incorrect pronunciations or syntax in the spoken form” (Knutzen and Kennedy).  Since the chat feature provides a large benefit, I looked closely at this feature.  Additionally, I wanted to find an environment where students in the ESL program could learn from students who spoke English as their primary language.  “The immersive virtual environment offers a very good simulation of face-to-face interaction, with its fast-paced small talk and informal language style” (Knutzen and Kennedy).  There were issues with finding an appropriate virtual environment.  The options were either for younger children or they were filled with adult content.  My hope would be to connect English speaking students from my university with our students from China in a virtual world.  I felt the students from China would be more comfortable with their peers versus faculty. I needed an environment that would be appropriate for both groups.  I want the students to engage in conversations about activities on campus, social issues relevant to our university and American traditions/behaviors.  My university does not have the money to develop a virtual world just for our students.  Some universities do this.  Lingnan University in Hong Kong teamed with Texas A&M in a virtual world to assist students from Hong Kong in improving their English (Knutzen and Kennedy).  The administrators of this partnership used Second Life as their virtual environment (  The virtual world can be designed specifically for the needs of the user.  Unfortunately, the users are limited by the templates available on the website.  The use of chat is the first step in building English skills.  Eventually, the ultimate goal remains “the achievement of audio voice communications” (Knutzen and Kennedy).  Additionally, the increased involvement of the instructor is necessary.  In my mind, this should only happen after the students become comfortable with the learning environment.  In some virtual environments, it is possible for students to use their own voices as a means of communication in the virtual world.  As students become more comfortable, this option would be beneficial.  Initially, the instructor should monitor, but not be intrusive.  It is a priority that the students become comfortable in the virtual learning environment..


Knutzen, B., & Kennedy, D. (2012). The Global Classroom Project: Learning a Second Language in a Virtual Environment. Electronic Journal Of E-Learning, 10(1), 90-106.

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3 Responses to Virtual World Utilized in ESL Instruction

  1. Janet Broadbent says:

    Hi Angela – I too would love to create a more ESL adult friendly simulated environment for second language students to interact on a more social level, but still have the chance to learn from first language speakers. A simulated environment does take provide a unique solution to the problem of students reluctance to speak out in public. Along with providing a place where they can practice English at any time, not just in the classroom. Cheers Janet.

  2. rkylekennedy says:

    Hello Angela, I also looked into the advantages of I completely agree that a virtual setting would create a more calming atmosphere for students to be themselves and also provide motivation for language learners to speak out more than they would in a face-to-face setting. I really like your idea of using this virtual setting to connect the international students at your school with its native speakers. Not only does this idea provide pathways for learners to improve their language skills, but it is building bridges among the communities of the campus. My thoughts for using secondlife, were to build a community for my students to come into contact with ESL students from other countries and schools.
    Great Post!

  3. Hi Angela, I also found Second Life as I was researching game based learning. I think it’s a great way to involve all students without putting pressure on those students who are shy and socially awkward. It also allows students with language barriers to participate in a visually enriched platform to increase their speaking vocabulary. I also found that Sim City is releasing an education based format to their popular game. Hopefully as these virtual environments evolve, there will be more options for teachers to adapt the field of play to the needs of their students.

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