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TitleBridging Activities: Bringing the World into the Language Classroom

Steven L. Thorne currently holds faculty appointments in the Department of World Languages and Literatures at Portland State University (USA) and secondarily in the Department of Applied Linguistics at the University of Groningen (the Netherlands). His interests and research include cultural-historical and usage-based approaches to language development, language use and learning in social media and online gaming environments, and theoretical investigations of language, communication, and development.

People learn all the time – increasing their capacity to function autonomously as well as productively in groups and developing ways to present themselves competently and contingently across diverse activity setting. Formalized educational activity, of course, is a powerful contributor to second and foreign language (L2) learning, but so too are lived experiences in less explicitly structured environments. Processes variably described as informal learning, apprenticeship, language socialization, and becoming a particular kind of person over historical time (e.g., Lave & Wenger, 1991), may include explicit instruction, but also encompass a wide array of participation in non-instructed culturally organized activity. The question is – how can we enhance engagement and better incorporate student-relevant language-culture materials in instructed L2 setting?

As a response to this challenge, my colleague Jon Reinhardt and I have developed a pedagogical model, called bridging activities, for systematically incorporating digital vernacular texts into L2 education (e.g., Thorne & Reinhardt, 2008; Reinhardt & Thorne, 2011). Grounded in principles of language awareness and the concept of multiliteracies (e.g., New London Group, 1996), bridging activities bring together students’ digital communication interests with instructor guidance to explore grammatical, functional, and pragmatic dimensions of living language use. The immediate instructional objective is to strengthen the relations between language practices developed within both instruc­tional L2 settings and the plurilingual world available on the Internet. The superordinate goal is to foster critical awareness of the recurrent patterns, core linguistic assets, and functional organization of a wide range of communicative practices relating to both digital and print literacy conventions (Thorne, 2013).

Participation in Internet-based communities (for example, social media, online gaming, synchronous text chat, instant messaging, and topical web sites, to name a few) has the potential to propel language learners beyond the confines of the institutional identity of ‘student’ by fraying the boundaries separating language study from social life, student from player, and information consumer from knowledge contributor (Sykes, Oskoz & Thorne, 2008; Thorne, Black, & Sykes, 2009). In many new media contexts, from literary sites like fan fiction communities to language-mediated coordination among players in an online game, specific language competencies develop in interaction within particular written language genres (e.g., fan fiction, online discussion forums) and interactional scenarios (e.g., online multiplayer gaming, Youtube commentaries).

Incorporating bridging activities into the foreign language syllabus involves the integration of learning objectives that promote the development of language awareness in application to various contemporary (and to students, high stakes) communication media. Key to a pedagogical application of the model is student selection of Internet/new media literacy texts and/or environments, which ensures that the texts will be relevant to the kinds of communicative practices students either already are, or want to become, engaged in for interpersonal, recreational, and professional purposes.

A pedagogical application of the bridging activities model would include a 3-phase cycle of activities centered on 1) observation and collection, 2) guided exploration and analysis, and 3) creation and participation. Observation activities involve students developing an awareness of their own Internet and digital media preferences, the sites and activities they engage in regularly, and ultimately the search for and collection of relevant texts (or media) for these areas of interest in the language/culture that they are studying. Guided exploration and analysis activities lead students to notice and critically examine the specific linguistic resources and social-interactional features of the observed and collected texts. In creation and participation activities, students join the Internet communities they have chosen and participate in communication, game play, curating a social media presence, and/or text creation, which (hopefully!) eventually lead to new observations and analyses.

An integrated project that incorporates this 3-phase cycle might have students begin by building a portfolio of texts they have collected, perhaps in a blog or wiki/googledoc format with weekly or monthly entries, and to annotate the entries with reflective commentary. The instructor-guided analysis activities could take the form of in-class discussion of the language used in various social media, websites, gaming environments, remixing/fan fiction texts, and Youtube videos students have chosen and collected (a side benefit is that teachers often get to learn new things too!). Possible questions for guided exploration and analysis could include:

  • Are there lexical, phrasal, rhetorical, and/or text-convention features that stand out in the data you analyze?
  • What sorts of communicative (pragmatic) functions are common? For example, do you see instances of soliciting help, providing instruction, reprimanding and apologizing, sharing of information, introductions/greeting and leave-taking rituals, soft and hard types of argumentation, etc.? List out specific examples, learn them, and incorporate them into your own developing linguistic repertoire.
  • What linguistic resources do community insiders frequently use? Assemble a list of words, phrases, emoticons, and stylistic features that might help students become an accepted member of the online discourse community they have chosen to investigate and participate in.

Another analysis activity might have students compare and contrast texts within one linguistic community (e.g. two popular blogs in Spanish), across linguistic communities (e.g. a discussion forum in Chinese with one in English), or within one social community (e.g. a selection of different text types associated with a particular fan group, movie or video game, or forms of commentary appearing on social media sites). The more general language proficiency goals of the model include:

  • To improve understanding of both conventional and Internet-mediated text genres, emphasizing the concept that specific linguistic choices are associated with desired and successful social-communicative actions.
  • To raise awareness of genre specificity (why certain text types work well for specific purposes) and context-appropriate language use.
  • To build linguistic, communicative, and analytic skills that enable lifelong learning in the support of participation in existing and future genres of plurilingual and transcultural language use.
  • To bridge from classroom instruction toward relevance to students’ communicative lives outside of school.
  • To increase student agency in relation to the choice, content and stylistic specifics of the texts contributing to the language learning process.

The above description of the bridging activities approach attempts to balance the resources and performance potentials of Internet generation youth with the analytic traditions and pedagogical frameworks that instructed foreign language education provide. To be clear, the bridging activities approach is designed to enhance engagement and relevance through the incorporation of students’ digital-vernacular expertise, experience, and/or curiosity, coupled together with instructor guidance to better understand linguistic and expressive action, interactional features, grammar, and genre. The ultimate goal is to foster critical awareness of the anatomy and functional organization of a wide range of communicative practices relating to both digital and conventional textual conventions. Our experience is that this approach has been beneficial for both students and instructors alike -- enjoy!


Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

New London Group (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92.

Reinhardt, J., & Thorne, S. L. (2011). Beyond comparisons: Frameworks for developing digital L2 literacies. In Arnold, N., & Ducate, L. (Eds.), Calling on CALL: From theory and research to new directions in foreign language teaching, 2nd edition (pp. 257-280). San Marcos, TX: CALICO.

Sykes, J., Oskoz, A., & Thorne, S. L. (2008). Web 2.0, synthetic immersive environments, and mobile resources for language education. CALICO Journal, 25(3), 528-546.

Thorne, S. L. (2013). Digital literacies. In M. Hawkins (Ed.), Framing languages and literacies: Socially situated views and perspectives (pp. 192-218). New York: Routledge.

Thorne, S. L., Black, R. W., & Sykes, J. (2009). Second language use, socialization, and learning in Internet interest communities and online games. Modern Language Journal, 93, 802-821.

Thorne, S. L. & Reinhardt, J. (2008). “Bridging activities,” new media literacies and advanced foreign language proficiency. CALICO Journal, 25(3), 558-572.

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