The Use of Computer-assisted Language Learning

Posted: December 20, 2010 in CALL related teaching

Ask not what computers can do for language teaching; instead, ask what you can do for language teaching using computers
Takako Kawabata
Aichi Gakuin University
With the development of user-friendly computers and software and the rapid reduction in their prices in the last decade, the use of computers has become widespread and has expanded in homes, offices, and schools. In the 21st century, everyone is required to use computers to some extent to function in our society.
In Japan, in an educational context, audio language labs are gradually being replaced by computer centers with internet connections and university local area networks (LANs). With the introduction of computer-assisted learning (CAL) and the financial aids provided by the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture (Monbukagakusho), which aims to internationalize the education offered and researches conducted in Japanese universities, the implementation of computers at universities would be extended further in the future.
With regard to the use of computers in language teaching and learning, teachers and researchers have been testing and developing ways to implement computers in their teaching context since the 1960s when computers were first introduced as part of language teaching. However, many language teachers continue to be uncertain about the manner in which they can effectively use computers in the educational context. Since we are at the transition stage where we are moving from simply “using computers” to “using computers effectively” in our classroom, let us discuss what language teachers can do to assist the development of learners’ language acquisition using computer-assisted language learning (CALL) in our current teaching context.
Warshauer (1996) categorized the development of CALL into three main phases—behavioristic CALL, communicative CALL, and integrative CALL—which were the result of advancements in computer technology and changes in outlook toward language teaching.
CALL in the past
“Behavioristic CALL” was implemented in the 1960s and ’70s and was based on the behaviorist theories of learning, which included drill and practice. At this juncture, the use of computers and software in language teaching was, as Taylor (1980) describes, the “computer as a tutor.” One of the best known systems of its type was the PLATO system that included central computers and terminals and performed tasks such as vocabulary drills, grammar explanations and drills, and translation tests (Ahmad, Corbett, Rogers, & Sussex, 1985).
The next phase, i.e., the “communicative CALL,” introduced in the 1970s and ’80s was the result of a communicative approach, which was one of the mainstream methods in second/foreign language teaching at that time. Since this approach emphasized the process of communication and highlighted the use of the target language in real settings, the programs that appeared in this period featured practice in a non-drill format. Software that had not been specifically designed for CALL was also employed for writing practice. This type of application in CALL is the so-called “computer as a tool” (Brieley & Kemble, 1991).
CALL at present
Currently, we are at the “integrative CALL” stage, which is a result of the expansion of technological advancements such as multimedia technology and the Internet. These two innovations allow the learners to access a more authentic learning environment. As we know, multimedia enables one to integrate four skills, and the Internet provides opportunities to interact in an English language environment 24 hours a day. Although the scope of CALL has widened in the last 40 years, it is not yet a perfect solution for teaching/learning all aspects of a language. The quality of programs has not yet reached the level of assessing the users’ natural spoken language or the appropriateness of use in the context of the situation.
Implementation of CALL in literacy development
Since computers and software have not yet met the requirements in our educational context, it may appear plausible to await the advancement of technology; however, we should think about what the teachers can do to assist language learning using the equipment currently available? The use of computers in the context of foreign language teaching continues to offer a great deal of potential to support students’ literacy needs inside and outside the classroom. If we use computers in more interactive ways, they could be of great assistance in developing the learners’ language acquisition.
One potential use of computers in the classroom might be their use as a tool for monitoring. Since there are approximately 40 students in each classroom in Japanese schools and universities, it is difficult to monitor each student in a large classroom. First, the teacher could display a text using a projector and use it for the purpose of modeling or demonstrating. The students could then be asked to answer some comprehension questions and send their answers to the teacher’s computer. In this manner, computers could be introduced as a tool to confirm the learners’ understanding of a text. If a software capable of assessing learners’ literacy skills were developed, it would significantly assist teachers in conducting their classes.
The other potential use of computers might be in teaching students of different proficiency levels in the same classroom. Software such as that used for the test of English as a foreign language (TOEFL) computer-based test modifies questions according to the test-taker’s responses. By implementing this type of software, students of a more advanced level could study further, while learners who require more support could stay and practice at the same level or study easier materials.
Computers can also be used as an exercise tool in the classroom or as a self-study tool before and after the class or at home. Each student can use a computer for drilling activities anytime and anywhere, at his/her own pace, without the teacher’s supervision. Students who have difficulty attending school due to geographical reasons or adult learners who do not have sufficient time to attend lessons might benefit from the use of computers and software. With regard to further literacy development, students could use computers for studying unfamiliar words, highlighting important words in a passage, and drawing arrows to show lexical chains in the text to recognize how the latter achieves its coherence. Still and moving pictures might also be used to assist the learners’ reading comprehension. Further, Japanese students living in non-English speaking environments would benefit greatly from the Internet, which provides opportunities to access materials written in English, since these students might have difficulty accessing authentic English texts.
Although computers have considerable potential in language teaching, the teacher’s role in the classroom continues to be very important since technology has not yet reached a level where it can be relied upon solely. Therefore, it would be better to implement software as a supplementary teaching tool along with the teacher’s input.
CALL in the future
The role of computers in language teaching has significantly changed in the past 40 years from merely “drill and exercises” to a somewhat “authentic communication” tool. This leads to the question of what the next generation of CALL will be? Underwood (1989) termed it as “intelligent CALL,” which involves the use of computers and programs with a certain level of intelligence. However, it might take a long time for “intelligent CALL” to be put into practice.
As pointed out by Warschauer (1996), “The effectiveness of CALL cannot reside in the medium itself but only in how it is put to use” (p. 6). Thus, my fellow teachers, ask not what computers can do for language teaching; instead, ask what you can do for language teaching using computers.
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