“CALL” for Common Sense*
University of Pittsburgh
Definitions and assumptions
III. Assessing the options
Definitions and assumptions
In this talk, I will refer
to the acronym "CALL," or computer-assisted language
learning. In Europe this is sometimes referred to as "ICT,"
or information and communications technology.
For the purpose of this discussion, we will assume that CALL is
a "good thing," even though we realize that it isn't
always used in ways that benefit language learners optimally.
I confess that I consider myself to be an advocate or “cheerleader”
for CALL, and that my not-so-hidden agenda is to get language
instructors to use CALL. But I must admit (with reluctance!) that
sometimes CALL doesn't work very well. In order for CALL to succeed,
teachers and learners must have the appropriate hardware, software,
and infrastructure. Everything has to work properly, and institutional
lab policies must allow for success.
The term "digital
divide" is often used to describe the "haves"
and "have nots" in terms of hardware, software, Internet
connectivity, and technical expertise. This "divide"
is variously described as a division based on factors such as
income, age, level of education, gender, or race. I believe that
in education yet another type of digital divide exists at all
levels of education. The state-of-the-art technology tends to
be found in the science and business departments, while liberal
arts and language departments are the "have nots" since
they have less access to hardware, software, and technological
Having visited scores of CALL labs in the last 20 years, I can
say that the problems in these labs are numerous and that they
present serious challenges for both students and teachers. We
often hear that lack of training for teachers is an impediment
to the success of CALL, and there is now a certain awareness on
the part of administrators that some teacher training is necessary.
However, after instructors are trained, they are all too often
expected to use CALL in less-than-desirable circumstances. Using
computers for language learning involves special needs, and many
administrators and IT managers have an inadequate understanding
of what those special needs are.
The vicious circle: We second language instructors
may have a very clear idea of what our pedagogical objectives
are, and if we have training in the use of CALL, we may be aware
of how computers can help to meet our objectives. But we still
may be unaware of exactly what hardware, software, and technical
support are required, and we may be unable to articulate these
needs. Therefore, we often do not request what we need. Since
we may make no requests or may make inadequate requests, we are
likely to receive nothing at all. In those cases where computers
are purchased for us, "outsiders" (those who are not
specialists in language pedagogy) may make these decisions for
us. The likely result is that the hardware and software provided
will not be a good fit for the needs of language learning. In
those cases where the configuration isn't a good fit, we will
not be able to use it to best advantage, and we may not use it
at all. If we don't use the technology or if we use it in less
than optimal ways, as a profession, we may "look bad"
to outsiders. The negative stereotype of language teachers may
be perpetuated, and the next time equipment is purchased, we are
not consulted once again, and the unfortunate cycle is repeated.
For some years, I have been engaged in a campaign to ensure that
our voices are heard with respect to achieving conditions under
which CALL can flourish.
to the overview
A plethora of options: CALL succeeds the best
when teachers have a voice in the decision-making process. Clearly,
they will be able to make appropriate choices only when they know
what the options are. Part of the difficulty is that language
teachers are now faced with a long and ever-growing list of options
when it comes to CALL. I will summarize some of the options that
are currently available.
Internet and CMC. The Internet has been a major
force both in popularizing the general use of computers and
in emphasizing their utility in language learning. The World
Wide Web gives us and our students access to rich resources
in the form of authentic materials, which may include text,
pictures, audio and video files. The Web also offers instructional
sites and online courses. Computer-mediated communication (CMC)
is facilitated through e-mail, discussion boards, video teleconferences,
MOOs, chat rooms, blogs and wikis.
Project-based learning. Through constructivist
projects, students use the target language to create their own
meaning and unique messages. Computers provide powerful tools
to enhance these projects through word processing and presentation
software. The students' messages may be in the form of multimedia
portfolios including digital audio and video recordings, or
they may be published as websites. In any case, the experience
of constructing the language while communicating with other
language learners may be as important as the final product.
Tutorial CALL: Many early uses of CALL were
tutorial in nature. Although tutorial CALL is sometimes maligned
as drill or “drill and kill,” it is more kindly
referred to as “language practice software" and has
defenders in Hubbard and Bradin Siskin (2004),
Decoo (1994), and others. It has been found useful in many situations
and is still alive and well in the form of standalone courseware,
instructional websites, and online courses. Programs such as
have provided user-friendly ways for teachers to create tutorial
materials and make them available via the Internet. The ESL
Cyber Listening Lab and Interesting
Things for ESL Students are examples of valuable instructional
resources on the Web.
Concordances. Concordancing software offers
a tool for lexical analysis. Language learners discover patterns
of use in the target language as they search corpora (bodies
of electronic text) for examples of authentic use rather than
depending on prescriptive rules of grammar. Students can use
concordances to explore collocations and their meaning in context,
and instructors can use them to find real-life examples and
to create exercises based on authentic language.
Electronic references. Electronic references,
which may be CD- or DVD-ROM-based or Web-based, are useful tools
to facilitate the study of vocabulary and text. These go far
beyond the capability of printed text since they may include
hypertext links to related text, audio files to serve as pronunciation
guides, graphics for clarification, and animated or video clips
for further illustration.
Text reconstruction. Text reconstruction software
is also referred to as “text manipulation” or “total
deletion” software. This genre present students with an
opportunity to use prediction skills, recall vocabulary, and
apply metalinguistic knowledge of structure as they type in
text and receive confirmation (or lack thereof) that it is correct.
Simulations. Computer-based simulations and
games provide opportunities for students to discuss, work through,
and solve problems that change constantly just as situations
do in real life. These provide endless possibilities for language
immersion, recycling of language, and practice of rhetorical
In summary, I have mentioned the following options:
||simulations and games
||surfing the Web
Are all of these options “CALL?” I believe that
indeed all of them are forms of CALL since they all involve the
use of computers in ways that assist language learning. However,
the sheer number of options can be overwhelming and bewildering
to newcomers in the field.
to the overview
Assessing the options
Which options to choose? I believe that it is
extremely important for the classroom teacher to be involved in
the process of picking the options. In CALL, experience in language
teaching and knowledge of the needs of our own students count
far more than experience with computers! As language professionals,
we need to ask the hard questions as we decide which options will
work best in our particular situation.
Here are some questions that I would ask before adopting any
option in CALL:
- What access to computers do my students and I have?
- Do I have the necessary software/browsers, or can I get them?
Will it be possible for me to have them installed?
- Are the computers powerful enough to handle the software or
websites that I would like to use?
- Is my Internet connection fast enough/reliable enough to do
what I want to do?
- Is the room layout conducive to the desired activity?
As an example, many CALL labs have a layout like this one:
In such a configuration, there is not enough space between
the computers for students and teachers to move about the room,
and opportunities for collaboration among students and learners
- Is there a projector in the room? (Can I get a projector?
If not, can I do without one?)
- Will I need speakers? (Can I get them? If not, can I do without
- Do my students and I have access to the necessary additional
tools to carry out the activity? The tools might include headsets,
microphones, printers, scanners, webcams, and CD burners
- How will files be managed and stored? Some possibilities for
distributing files are e-mail, course management systems (CMSs),
servers, thumb (USB) drives, and CD burners.
- Will the policies at my institution permit me to implement
this option? (If not, how can I change them??)
- Will I have time to learn how to use the software or set up
the websites or develop the materials – depending on what
is required for the option? (If not, who can help me? the students?)
- Is there adequate trained staff to make everything work? Such
employees may be called "tech support person," "computer
lab coordinator," "server administrator," "instructional
technology specialist," "multimedia designer,"
"webmaster,” or “lab assistant,” but
they are essential to the success of CALL.
to the overview
I recommend that you educate yourselves on the options so that
you know what they are and what they can do. Don’t try to
use all of them or change your way of teaching completely. In
your classrooms, you probably already use one or more of the following
tools: a blackboard, printed handouts, maps, pictures, an overhead
projector, audiocassette tapes, CD players, videotape or DVD players.
The point is that you don’t use all of these tools on the
same day! In a similar fashion, CALL does not have to take over
the learning process; instead, the various options in CALL where
appropriate, may simply be added to the repertoire of tools that
are already available to us.
I offer the following advice to language teachers who want to
be successful in their implementation of CALL.
- Learn as much as you can about computers and CALL. You can
do this through professional conferences such as ELTA, workshops,
and face-to-face and online courses. In addition, a wealth of
information is available on the World Wide Web and various electronic
- Ask what the particular software or website does, not what
it doesn’t do, and don’t expect it to do everything.
- Don’t believe all the extravagant claims made by software
sales representatives and website developers.
- Don’t join every technology stampede. New tools are
constantly becoming available, but some of the older ones may
be just as effective pedagogically and may actually work better
in your situation.
- Add options gradually, and don’t try to do everything
- Talk to your colleagues and learn from their experiences.
We're all learning how to use these new tools, and no one has
all the answers.
- Attend technology planning committee meetings at your school
or campus so that language professionals will have a voice in
decision-making about how CALL is implemented.
- Learn how to communicate with your technical staff. Learn
enough acronyms and technical jargon so that your conversations
can be meaningful. It’s just like learning any other language
or culture, and it’s something that all language professionals
can master. You can catch more flies with honey, so be nice
- If you can’t get the hardware and software that you
want, use what you have. Beware of techno-snobbery! Techno-snobbery
is the attitude expressed by “My machine is better, bigger,
faster, has more memory, and besides, I got a better deal!”
Any computer is virtually obsolete on the day that you buy it
since something better and faster is already being designed,
so someone else will always have a “better” machine.
to the overview
Hubbard (2001) refers to the possible roles of the teacher in
CALL. He lists these roles that that teachers can fill:
As consumers of CALL software
As directors, helping students
As managers of CMC
As software or web developers
As CALL experts, helping other teachers
As CALL professionals
adapted from Hubbard
When we adopt CALL, as language educators, we must exercise
these roles seriously and responsibly. We should use the type(s)
of CALL that work best for us. Above all, we should trust our
own instincts as language teachers!
to the overview
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Davis, R. Randall's
ESL Cyber Listening Lab. http://www.esl-lab.com
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