Teaching approaches: computer assisted language learning

Posted: December 20, 2010 in CALL related teaching

By Tim Bowen
In terms of the wider picture of language teaching and learning, it is sometimes easy to forget that computers have been available as a resource in language teaching for little more than twenty years. During this relatively short time, there has been a dramatic change in the number of options open to language teachers and learners. Initially, computers were mainly used as sophisticated typewriters, allowing learners to write and to correct and amend easily and effectively. Some basic interactive software was available in the early years, but this was generally restricted to the type of exercise found in grammar practice books with the added feature of a sound to indicate a correct or incorrect answer.
The real advance in the use of computers in language teaching came with the transition from floppy-disc to compact discs (CDs) as the basic form of software, the proliferation of e-mail as a means of communication and, most importantly, with the arrival of the Internet as a widely available resource. Today there is a vast array of language teaching material available on CD ROM or DVD, ranging from self-study materials to supplement published course-books, to ESP-based courses and culture-based materials. Many learners of English have access to e-mail and the Internet at home as well as at school and this presents teachers with a range of useful options in terms of setting writing tasks, communicating with learners by e-mail, giving learners research tasks and setting up project work based on researching the Internet. Where previously such tasks would have involved a great deal of letter writing on the part of both teacher and learners, on the one hand, and a potentially time-consuming visit to the local library on the other, they can now be accomplished quickly and easily without the learner ever having to leave his or her PC.
Although many learners seem to be much more familiar with the use of computers than a lot of teachers appear to be, there is still plenty of scope for some input in class related to computers. Basic terminology is a good starting point and a useful exercise may be the pronunciation of e-mail and internet addresses, such as jbloggs@newmail.com or http://www.onestopenglish.com. Similarly, there may be some value in teaching the meta-language of word processing (e.g. copy, cut, paste, insert), writing e-mails (e.g. reply, forward, delete) and surfing the Internet (e.g. search, link, key-word and so on). Many UK language schools are now responding to the specific needs of learners and offering computer-based options leading to word-processing qualifications such as the UK-based CLAIT, validated by the RSA, and the American MOUS qualification, validated by Microsoft. In both cases certificates are offered for different levels of competence from basic user to proficient user and both practice activities and examinations are offered “on-line”.
In terms of practical classroom activities to exploit the Internet, if teachers have access to several Internet-linked computers for use with their classes, there are numerous possibilities. Learners can fill-in on-line questionnaires, research specific topics, prepare presentations using on-line information, graphs and diagrams, find the answers to questions set by the teacher, do interactive grammar, vocabulary and even pronunciation exercises, read and summarize the latest news, and contribute to on-line discussions and debates. With technology advancing at breakneck speed, it sometimes seems difficult for teachers to keep up but remaining informed is crucial. Our learners may already be several steps ahead in this area and to retain credibility we need to be familiar with the latest developments in computer technology and to be able to integrate computers confidently into our everyday classroom practice.

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