(A special thank you to Tony Jenniss from CS des Chênes for sharing this experience with us!)

If I needed to come up with one universal to the experience of the ESL teacher, I think the collective groan a group of students produces when you tell them that they need to write a text would be my first choice. But what if I told you there is a way for students to ask – no, beg! – to write?

In 2014, Professor Susan Parks, from Université Laval, introduced me to the concept of tandem learning. The idea is simple: match two groups of students, each learning a second language (L2), to the other’s first language (L1), and ask them to communicate with each other to help each other learn their target L2. This communication can take the form of email, voice messages or live video chatting. Professor Park’s enthusiasm about the method convinced me to give it a try and I was not disappointed.

After some effort (more on that later), I managed to find a like-minded French second language teacher and we set the project in motion. This teacher and I had agreed on a few things: students were to write emails in their L2, the topics for the emails were selected in advance, the students would help their partners by using their knowledge of their L1 to correct a few L2 mistakes (maximum three per email). Teachers had to monitor and support their students in their writing effort, but not too much. The objective, after all, was for students to see how well they could communicate on their own using their L2.

The effect on my students was dramatic. They regularly checked their email and became excited when their pen pal replied. They became insistent about going to the computer lab to write, and some of them did not wait at all but would start corresponding at home, writing several messages per week! My students also became more aware of their L1 grammar rules and would sometimes go beyond what I required of them in terms of grammatical explanation in order to help their partners. Others became more sympathetic to the difficulties of understanding a text written by L2 learners, which (hopefully) made them revise their own texts more carefully before handing them in to me. From my perspective, it made evaluating my students’ writing competency a breeze, as I allowed my students to submit one or two of their emails (their choice) for evaluation. Obviously, these texts were not all I used for evaluation purposes, but it did make my life a little bit easier while forcing my students to take a more critical look at their own writing.

While I was surprised by these results, Professor Parks was not. Research on tandem learning corroborates my own experience.

Now, if you are an experienced teacher, you have probably guessed that the experience I have just described seems just too good to be true, and you would be right – to an extent. Using tandem learning in our classes is not without difficulties. Setting aside the technical issues like having a reliable internet connection and access to computers (which can be difficult on its own) the main challenges would be to find a teacher who understands the project, and to find a reliable platform which to use for emails or videos. The teacher I partnered with in my story? She retired the year after, and I could not find someone to replace her; not anyone as motivated or interested in the project anyway. The platform I used that allowed me to monitor and record emails for evaluation purposes? It was taken down a few years later after the company that hosted it was sold. Depressing, right?


But do not despair! Professor Parks and her wonderful team have created a platform that allows you to find a partner, and to use its functionalities to email and video chat. Best of all, it is free! What we need now is motivated, passionate teachers like you (and your students!). So visit https://tandem.ulaval.ca/ , watch the video tutorials and spread the word. Together, we can make our students love writing and make our L2 lessons more relevant than ever!


Tony Jenniss
ESL Specialist
École secondaire La Poudrière
Commission scolaire des Chênes