E-mail Writing Assignments as a Supplementary Activity for CNN Access

Theresa L. Lally(Meiji Gakuin University)


The purpose of this paper is to share how e-mail writing assignments were used as a supplementary activity to Master Course With CNN Access hereafter called CNN Access, with Japanese night school students in an accredited degree-granting university program.

CNN Access is a low-level text and video news program published by The Simul Press, Tokyo, Japan. The text consists of twelve thematic units with language exercises that center around CNN news reports that are edited for specific content. This text was used with 120 second-year Japanese students in a university night school accredited degree-granting program who attended class once a week for 90 minutes. Classes consisted of thirty students, both full and part-time, with an age range from age 18 to 55 years old. Classes were not streamed but consisted of various levels of English ability. Approximately 80% of the students had full-time day jobs and were allowed, within reasonable time limits, to come late to class while the remaining students were full-time university students and were usually punctual about coming to class. The reasons for choosing CNN Access were:

1. to actuate authentic listening using factual news clips
2. to practice hearing and recognizing various forms of English used in news broadcasts
3. to discuss news topics that were reported by CNN news.

CNN Access was found to be efficient for listening, vocabulary, and discussion activities, but inefficient for practicing formal writing exercises. Consequently, supplemental writing assignments were designed for each unit. E-mail was chosen because, after an informal poll was taken in each class, it was found that the majority of students had never used e-mail and the few who had used it in either a business or personal manner but never specifically in an educational context. Most students, except a very few, were receptive to learning how to use e-mail for our purposes. From this discovery and wanting to assay how practical e-mail would be for assigning and submitting written assignments, it was decided by the teacher that these classes would use e-mail to send and receive all writing assignments.

Preparations For Using E-mail

At the beginning of the school year, 98% of the students did not know how to use e-mail. Also, many students could not type and were encouraged to practice using the computer room typing program in their spare time. Students spent the first three classes in April in the computer room learning how to use basic functions of MS Word 6.0 which included the grammar and spelling checker and the universityıs e-mail program, Eudora Pro 3.0. All classes were taught in Japanese by a computer room staff member assisted by the language teacher in English. After these training classes, students were responsible for going to the computer room in their free time to send and receive assignments. No further computer training was given during the school year nor did the students use class time for e-mail correspondence.

Description of E-mail Writing Assignments

Each CNN Access unit had two sections consisting of Report 1 and Report 2 which covered the same topic but with different information. At the end of each unit, an assignment based on either Report 1 or Report 2 was written by the teacher directly into an e-mail message and sent to all students who had a choice of using either the MS Word 6.0 word processing program for writing their assignment and then sending it to the teacher via the Eudora Pro 3.0 program or using the Eudora Pro 3.0 program for both writing and sending the assignment electronically to the teacher. The requirements for each assignment were simple: 1. write on the topic in the e-mail message from the teacher, 2. keep the assignment to less than 500 words, 3. check your grammar and spelling, and 4. submit the paper by the stated deadline, usually the following week. No specific writing method was used, in fact, the assignments were very general, for example, Unit 1 was about startling surprises and students were requested to write about a time that they were scared or unpleasantly surprised. Unit 2 focused on breaking records and students were assigned the task of finding an interesting record from the Guinness Book of World Records, report what they found, and comment on the record. Unit 3 centered around Japanese traditions and students were assigned to send a message describing their favorite festival in Japan...

Management of E-mail Assignments

Eudora Pro 3.0 was the e-mail program used by the teacher for management of e-mail messages and assignments. Student addresses were grouped together and given a nickname. When sending an e-mail assignment, the nickname was chosen from the ³New Message To² window under the ³Message² menu, and the assignment was written directly into the message. It was then sent to all students who were grouped under the chosen nickname. When an assignment was received via e-mail, the teacher read the assignment, returned a short reply to the student, and transferred the assignment and a copy of the reply to the studentıs mailbox within the Eudora program. This process made it very easy to keep track of student messages and responses from the teacher without having to use any hard copies. All writing of e-mail assignments, reading of student assignments, and replying to students was done off-line.


Using e-mail as a way to submit writing assignments had several advantages for both the students and teacher. With regards to the students, because most of them had not previously used e-mail, they appeared excited about learning how to use e-mail and were eager to get their assignments, write them, and submit them to the teacher. Second, in addition to their e-mail assignments, some students, particularly those who had full-time day jobs, started using e-mail as a means to communicate their absences, special needs, or to make suggestions about a topic for discussion. In addition, those who had access to e-mail from their place of employment could send/receive e-mail assignments and other messages about classroom activities which gave them a way to get information about the class when they had to be absent. Third, several students who were shy about speaking in class or participating in discussions seemed to be very expressive in their e-mail writing assignments. Of course, it is not clear if using the traditional way of writing with pen and paper would not have served the same purpose for those shy students, but it was communicated by two such students that because they felt e-mail to be much more private, they felt at liberty to be more descriptive in their use of language.

Next, the advantages for the teacher were as follows. First, it was not necessary to carry around a stack of papers. Second, feedback from the students indicated that the teacherıs comments were easily read and understood. Third, even though learning how to manage mailboxes within the Eudora Pro 3.0 program required some time, it appeared to be much easier to keep track of student assignments using those mailboxes. Fourth, sending messages and assignments to the students was simplified by using the nickname function of Eudora Pro 3.0.

There were, however, some disadvantages for both the students and the teacher. According to the students, their main problem was because the computer room was crowded, they had a difficult time accessing a computer and checking their e-mail assignment message and sending the assignment to the teacher. Next, a very small percentage of students, about 3%, did not want to learn how to use e-mail or the computer. While this may not seem to be a disadvantage, it is difficult to assess what impact that had on those few who were ³out of the e-mail group² which provided discussion opportunities that students who refused to participate in learning e-mail didnıt experience. Those students were allowed to use traditional pen and paper for their assignments, however, the assignments were often late and difficult to read.

There were several disadvantages for the teacher. First, electronic assignments were not mobile and could not be corrected during commuting time unless a laptop was used. Second, using the computer for long periods of time can be detrimental to oneıs health and it was found that very specific computer time management skills be developed in order to be effective in managing a large quantity of e-mail assignments, in this case 120. Third, even though canned replies were used regularly and slightly changed in order to personalize the message for each student, at times responding to students felt like a robotic exercise.


Using e-mail as away to send and receive writing assignments can be an interesting activity for both students and teacher, however, a few suggestions are in order. First, it is recommended that supplementary e-mail assignments be very specific allowing students to practice various forms of writing, for example, writing a business letter requesting information about endangered species in Japan, a how-to essay explaining how to participate in a traditional Japanese festival, or a comparison/contrast essay of favorite movies. Furthermore, a requirement should be that the assignments be completed in the same word processing program used by both teacher and students and sent via attached document through the e-mail program. This would allow the students to use all the word processing editing tools and not get lazy and use only the limited editing tools within an e-mail program, if there are any. Finally, specific stylistic conditions such as margin width, single/double spacing, submitting outlines, etc. should be considered when assigning writing activities. Simple but effective requirements such as these could make using e-mail writing exercises much more effective for everyone.
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