“Like a icebreaking”

This is a record of a conversation I had tonight with my friend, and what I learned from it, and the thoughts that sprang up.

Anne ~ are you sleeping now?
Can I ask you something?
When you are free, please tell me.

I am free now.

Someone wrote down this to me on facebook~
But I can not know that exactly
can you help me ~ ? 


“Monday back to school for me thinking of you much love”
(Curious emoticon)

This took me about five minutes to sort out, mostly spent on deciding how to present the information manageably to him. He’s my friend, so I gave it to him straight* – broken into four chunks: Monday/ back to school for me/ thinking of you/ much love. I typed each chunk and reworded it to make sure he understood.

My friend was able to understand the comment after that and said that the explanation was very helpful, like a icebreaking”. I guess that is what I did for him: break up the text into manageable chunks and put in the punctuation that the original writer left out.

The things that struck me were the authenticity of the situation, the importance of chunking (and the fact that no one ever taught it to my friend), and the role of punctuation in informal writing.


We spend a lot of time talking about authentic texts and how to “bring the world” to our students, if I might borrow the phrase. If I were to bring the above message into the classroom to have my students use for chunking and determining the meaning (and deciding how to respond), it would be an exercise for them, no matter how authentic it was for my friend. Authenticity comes in those teaching moments like the one I just had – where the student brings the “text” – a living (present) situation (or moment). How then do I recreate this in the classroom?


Chunking is important for understanding meaning. Perhaps there are other ways I could have explained, but chunking models something my friend can do for himself next time. What surprises me is that he has been studying English most of his life, has lived overseas, has a lot of English L1 friends, and no one ever taught him this. Then again, how often have I brought this into my own classroom? This is something I will try to teach explicitly in the future.


When people write informally – in tweets, on Facebook, in notes and chats to friends – we tend to write the way we would speak (well, I do at least). I think speech contains punctuation. When writing lacks punctuation where it would be necessary in speech (as in the message my friend received), there could be several reasons. One might be to convey speed and breathlessness, as if to say “I’m writing this to you in a hurry.” Or perhaps the writer thought it would be more dramatic without punctuation. Or perhaps the writer was being lazy. Whatever the reason, it is clear that the writer was not keeping his audience in mind. An interesting question (for me) is To what extent is punctuation in informal writing necessary for comprehension of the text by the L2 English user?

The end of the story:

My friend and I decided it was a very sweet and positive message that was left on his Facebook page. There was just one question left – in my friend’s words: “but problem is I do not know who he is!”

*If he were a student, I would have made him try to break it into chunks and guess at the meanings first. Note to self: present this authentic** text as an exercise to a class.
**Counter-arguments on my opinion of “authenticity” are of course welcome.

I am grateful for my friend’s question, the teaching moment, and the chance to share my thoughts on it here. I am interested in your thoughts as well! Thanks for stopping by and reading.

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  • Rose Bard  On January 29, 2013 at 12:41 am

    Hi Anne, good to be back full time online and find your new post.

    You certainly brought something to my attention when comes to decoding messages. I’ll surely take your questions for reflection.


    • livinglearning  On January 31, 2013 at 12:17 am

      Welcome back, Rose, and thanks for reading! I’m glad there was something to catch your attention. I’m still reflecting on my questions too. Reading these comments and hearing other people’s opinions really helps me think more deeply.

  • Ava Fruin  On January 29, 2013 at 3:56 am

    I love these moments, thanks for sharing this one, it put a smile on my face. Its a great idea to teach chunking explicitly, this may be a skill that we assume students have because we do it so naturally, but if no one teaches it it may go unused. as for the question about authenticity, i love your point that even if you brought this facebook message into class, it would only be authentic for the one person to whom it applies, and for everyone else it would be just a task. what if everyone brought in a message or text or confusing speech to share and decode as a group? or would this just be opening up a huge can of worms? hmm
    anyways, great post!

    • livinglearning  On January 31, 2013 at 12:24 am

      Thank you Ava. I have been told that Korean students learn chunking as a reading skill, but clearly no one taught it to my friend. Thank you so much for your thoughts on authenticity. I like the idea of asking the students to bring their confusion to class and work it out together. But the can of worms…. I can just imagine! A couple weeks ago one of my friends said, “I proposed to *** the other day.” (By proposed, he meant asked out.) When I put my eyes back in my head, I asked him what happened and he said, “She just broke with her boyfriend four days ago. She wants to wait. Now I can’t see her eyes.” Imagine bringing that to class. Especially if they’re in the same class.

  • eflnotes  On January 29, 2013 at 6:23 am

    hi anne,

    could it also be a lack of context? since your friend does not know who the message is from?

    would they have been able to chunk it if they knew who the sender is? also to what extent does you friend have experience of using facebook to communicate?

    in a twitter chat recently i came across this corpus of twitter messages: http://www.ark.cs.cmu.edu/TweetNLP/cluster_viewer.html

    certainly there is a lack of punctuation and although a lot of the phrases look familiar meanings still need to arise from message as a whole. and also from long the receiver of the message has been communicating in twitter (in this example say).

    for my self with regard to punctuation, in a lot of electronic communciations, i rarely use uppercase letters. i think this is out of sheer laziness!


    • livinglearning  On January 31, 2013 at 12:37 am

      Hi Mura,
      Yes, context is definitely important and something I didn’t mention. Thank you so much for the questions. It is so much more to think about. Thanks also for the link – that’s such a cool resource. To be honest, I still get caught out on Twitter on occasion just from either a phrase my English doesn’t use (“get stuck in”) or an abbreviation I’ve never seen before (tl/dr) and even sometimes a hashtag that #istoolonganddoesntcapitaliseinitialletters.
      I’m thinking now that in this sense, chunking might still be more of a bottom-up skill than top-down. When it comes to punctuation, though, even on twitter we use it where it aids clarity. Hmm…. #exceptyoucantuseitinhashtags

  • eflnotes  On January 29, 2013 at 6:25 am

    ek a few typos in above message, main one is /..and also from HOW long the receiver of the message has been …./

  • Rose Bard  On January 29, 2013 at 8:03 pm

    That is why I am in love with you guys. 🙂 Mura just expanded the reflection with her thoughts. More food for thought.

    Couple of times on Twitter I had to ask the sender to explain what he/she meant with that X message. Lack of context or not knowing the sender makes sense, or not knowing the sender well could be why I didn’t get the message so well.

    • livinglearning  On January 31, 2013 at 12:44 am

      Thanks for coming back, Rose. It’s really interesting to hear your perspective. This sort of conversation is the real beauty of blogging.
      Twitter, especially, is a medium that needs to be learned, more even than chat-speak. I also find that my students are less likely to pick up typos and auto-correct them – something I do naturally.
      When I send messages to my friend, I tailor them to him. I think that’s not just because he’s a L2 speaker but maybe that’s something we do naturally when we communicate – as part of keeping our audience in mind.

  • kevchanwow  On January 31, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    What a fantastic comment thread. I read the post last night and have been mulling over the idea of “authentic” material for a few hours. Anne, you mention that perhaps, “Authenticity comes in those teaching moments like the one I just had – where the student brings the “text” – a living (present) situation (or moment).” I think this is a very interesting way to define authentic. As opposed to the material itself, authenticity rests within the learner and a desire to extract meaning in which they are personally invested. It’s not a question of learning the language, or picking up a new vocabulary word. It’s about one step in a communictive process. I very much like this take on authenticity. If we then take this idea and put it on a continuum, one side being materials which do not arouse a sense of personal investment and a focus to extract meaning (perhaps we could see discreet, simply worded example sentences of a specific grammar point as this side of the sontinuum) all the way to the other extreme (a personalized message such as the one your friend received), it becomes clear that authenticity isn’t necessarily good or bad, but serves different purposes to meet different learner needs. I also think it provides a nice tweak to most people’s ideas of authenticity. If a student is reading, personalizing, and loving a story in a graded reader and is wrestling with the text to discover a personal meaning, then I would guess that in that situation a graded reader would be quite authentic.

    The question of authentic texts in class then becomes a question of how to set up a situation where students react to a text with a sense of personalized need to extract meaning in order to continue on with a dialogue. There’s no real way to control how a student is going to react to a text. But I’m thinking that hooking students into Facebook or Twitter, or creating a class blog (or having students comment on other class blogs in other countries) is one way of helping to nurture that feeling of an ongoing dialogue and a sense of personal connection. I’d also guess that allowing for choice in the classroom, of letting students read or listen to bits of a few texts and then chose, would also go a long way towards instilling this sense of connectedness.

    OK, quite a ramble here. Thanks for the post and much to think on.


    • livinglearning  On February 18, 2013 at 7:35 pm

      Hi Kevin,
      Apologies for the appallingly late reply. I had left it to think about and didn’t find my way back until Alex (below) mentioned it again today. I like what you have to say about authenticity. I’m not sure that interest and motivation are all that are required to make a text authentic; I think that the personal connection and *need* are essential.
      Today one of my students told me at lunch time that he’d brought coffee supplies from his shop. He manages a chain of coffee shops in his hometown and he says his nickname is “Cafe King”. He brought the coffee into class and did a demonstration for me and the students about the proper way to prepare coffee, where the coffee comes from, why you should never reuse the filter and why fresh beans are the best. He made us all coffee and asked us for feedback on his English. And here’s the important part: I never assigned a presentation. This was all his own idea and he produced the most authentic lesson I’ve had all month just by bringing his work to school with him. Classroom magic.

  • breathyvowel  On February 18, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Hey Anne,

    I’ve had this down for a comment for ages, but only now am I getting the chance to catch up. This is probably a good thing as there have been some awesome comments since then.

    Like Kevin, I very much enjoy your positioning of authenticity as a learner-centred concept. As to how to bring it into classrooms? That’s the tricky part. I’d suggest that most of the authenticity comes from a need to use English for the purpose of maintaining friendships etc, which has sprung out of a lifetime of developing them naturally. Is it possible to do that in classrooms? Possibly, if you consider something like what John is doing by hooking up his students with other learners, but is that really authentic in the sense that your friend is using English? I’d suggest not (though this is not to suggest it’s not valuable).

    I think then, as teachers, if we want to aim for this kind of authenticity then we should be providing as many opportunities as possible for authentic interactions either with people of texts (as Kevin suggests above). However, part of this authenticity is the choice of what to say, and also not to say anything at all, which probably isn’t pedagogically practical.

    As for chunking, I’m interested in how you would go about teaching it. I understand teaching chunks, and collocations, but to chunk the above surely requires knowledge of the chunks “back to school”, “thinking of you” and “much love”. If you didn’t know these chunks, what kind of strategy would you use for sorting them out?

    I think that’s about it. Time for my overdue appointment with the hairdresser.



    • livinglearning  On February 18, 2013 at 7:51 pm

      Thanks, Alex, for reading and taking time to comment. As I replied to Kevin, above, part of what I’m trying to say about authenticity is that it seems to be more likely when it’s brought by the students themselves.

      I have a student who has hooked herself up with other English speakers (via a penpal website) and I consider her experience there to be authentic simply because she chose it and is maintaining it herself. She asks me for help and advice occasionally, but every time I’VE tried to hook her up with other learners (including Kevin’s students’ blog) it hasn’t worked out.

      I am starting to think that the only way I’m going to get authenticity in the classroom is if I provide the space for it to occur – the willingness to set my plan aside for an impromptu coffee demonstration or the atmosphere/ comfort level for students to bring in their own materials. My faith in textbooks is really diminishing these days as my students keep interrupting them to talk about “real things”.

      As for chunking, I have no idea how to teach them to sort out unfamiliar chunks. I guess I’d have to start by having them guess. They’re high enough level to do that. Or perhaps give them the words and have them make as many complete sentences using those words as possible with the caveat that they can’t add more than three other words to each sentence and they can’t change the order of the words given. No idea if it’d work, but whatever the results they’ll probably be interesting. What would you do?

      • breathyvowel  On March 3, 2013 at 9:33 pm

        Honestly I don’t have many ideas, but perhaps for something like this giving students a text with all punctuation and capital letters removed, and have them try to figure out what goes with what. That’s about the best I’ve got 🙂


  • By Weekly round up 01/02/2012 | ELTSquared.co.uk on February 2, 2013 at 12:31 am

    […] us how even high level students can stumble over “simple” sentences in her post “Like an icebreaking” (And she gave us some practical actions […]

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