Authentic materials are a valuable resource in the world language classroom. They draw students in by presenting them with real-life samples of language in real communicative contexts, and they promote higher order thinking skills. Since they’re drenched in culture, they can be used for countless instructional purposes.
However, when it comes down to curating authentic materials and exploiting them meaningfully in the classroom, difficulties arise. They can be too complex for most learners in a class, which may end up being detrimental to their motivation and confidence. Besides, searching for material that is just right can be time-consuming for the teacher.
For these reasons, Twitter has many advantages as far as sources go: It’s a means of communication that virtually all learners are familiar with and usually provides a context robust enough to make up for gaps in students’ linguistic or cultural knowledge, even though tweets are short—which is itself another advantage. Plus, it’s free and public. You don’t even have to create an account to be able to browse.
A tweet may also be conducive to reflecting on punctuation conventions, or traits of casual language. Or you can use parts of the text as a model for students to create their own tweets. For example, if a tweet asks a multiple choice question about movies, breakfast foods, or sneaker brands, what answer choices would students give?
Use quotation marks in your search to find relevant strings of words featuring the linguistic item you want to highlight—searching for phrases like “ça te dit de” or “si fuera” yields useful examples. Another strategy I use is to search for a series of keywords together (you don’t need to include the commas): café, petit-déjeuner, tartine; or padecer, paciente, clínica.
3 Easy-to-Prepare Twitter Activities
1. What’s hidden? For this exercise, you’ll select a tweet with an accompanying image. While you’re browsing search results, it’s easy to select only those that have an image.
Cover the image—if you take a screen-capture and paste it on a PowerPoint slide, it’s easy to hide the image by covering it with a colored shape. Have students read the text and quickly sketch or describe in words their best guess about the hidden image.
This is a quick, low-stakes way to assess students’ command of vocabulary. Depending on your students’ proficiency, it can also be a chance to review reading comprehension strategies, encourage making comparisons, or reflect on cultural or language conventions.
2. Sketch what you hear: In this activity, a single student looks at a tweet with an image and describes the image for the class in the target language. The students who aren’t looking at the image have to draw a sketch based on the description.
The first few times I do this activity, I describe the image, but as students get familiar with the activity, they can take over that task. Eventually, this becomes a pair activity in which one student describes an image and the other sketches—this way, students practice both listening and speaking skills.
This activity is particularly valuable because it immerses students in a cognitively demanding activity. They are talking without notes, recalling relevant vocabulary, and thinking about using full sentences and all the interdependent parts that build them, in an activity that does not create much pressure or stress. And monitoring their oral production can help you find or determine grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation difficulties.
Once students are done drawing, the image is displayed on the screen and students can comment on the text. I prompt students to have a discussion analyzing any relevant point featured in the tweet. If the tweet came from a restaurant, a law enforcement agency, or a university, for example, I might ask students what a comparable tweet by a similar institution in the U.S. would look like.
In order to foster diligence and praise effort, I sometimes have students vote for the most accurate sketch. Other times, the student who describes the image chooses their favorite one.
3. Read and comment: An advanced search can help find strings of words in tweets containing relevant grammar or vocabulary items. That way, you can quickly select sequences featuring several authentic examples of the targeted item. These sequences easily provide focused, repeated exposure.
I like to have students read the tweets I put up on the board, and then I ask them to write a comment on a tweet that shows that they have understood it. In lower levels, a simple sentence can be enough. I may encourage advanced students to respond to more than one tweet, or to use a specific structure or vocabulary item (expressions of opinion, expressions of approval or disapproval, questions). Their comments help me assess both reading comprehension and writing.
With intermediate and advanced classes, the sequences I select deal with complex topics like global citizenship or access to health care. Rereading the tweets as a class can be a great chance to prompt students to reflect on the nature of different means of communication, and to emphasize that language users don’t need to understand every single word of a text in order to make sense of it.
As a follow up, students can perform their own searches and find tweets that exemplify a specific language feature.