A “CALL” for Common Sense*

Claire Bradin Siskin 
University of Pittsburgh



I. Definitions and assumptions
II. Options
III. Assessing the options
IV. Suggestions
V. Conclusion

VI. References

I. 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 expertise.

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.

Back to the overview

II. Options

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 Hot Potatoes 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 strategies.

In summary, I have mentioned the following options:

  authentic websites digital video presentation software
  blogging drill software simulations and games
  chat rooms electronic references surfing the Web
  concordances e-mail text reconstruction
  constructivist projects MOOs wikis
  digital audio online courses word processing

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.

Back to the overview

III. 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 are reduced.

  • 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 them?)
  • 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.

Back to the overview

IV. Suggestions

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 mailing lists.
  • 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 at once.
  • 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 to them!
  • 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. So relax!

Back to the overview

V. Conclusion

Hubbard (2001) refers to the possible roles of the teacher in CALL. He lists these roles that that teachers can fill:

As researchers
As consumers of CALL software
As directors, helping students
As managers of CMC
As software or web developers
As coaches
As CALL experts, helping other teachers
As CALL professionals

adapted from Hubbard (2001)

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!

Back to the overview


Blake, R. (2001). What language professionals need to know about technology. ADFL Bulletin, 32, 3, 93-99.

Bradin, C. (1999). Instructional aspects of software evaluation. In J. Egbert & E. Hanson-Smith (Eds.) CALL Environments: Research, Practice, and Critical Issues. Alexandria: TESOL, 442-458.

Bradin Siskin, C. (1998). Word Processing-based Activities for a Language Class. http://www.edvista.com/claire/wp.html

_____. (2003). Authoring in CALL. http://www.edvista.com/claire/author.html

Davis, R. Randall's ESL Cyber Listening Lab. http://www.esl-lab.com

Decoo, Wilfried. (1994). In defence of drill and practice in CALL: A reevaluation of fundamental strategies. In J. Thompson and G. Chesters (Eds.), Computers & Education, 23, 1/2, 151-158.

Digital Divide Network. http://www.digitaldivide.net/

Hot Potatoes. Authoring software produced by Half-Baked Software. http://web.uvic.ca/hrd/hotpot/.

Hubbard, P. (1992) A methodological framework for CALL courseware development. In M. Pennington, & Stevens, V. (Eds.), Computers in applied linguistics: An international perspective. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters, Ltd, 39-76.

_____. (1996). Elements of CALL methodology: Development, devaluation, and implementation. In Pennington, M. (Ed.) The Power of CALL. Houston, TX: Athelstan, 15-32.

_____. (2001) Linguistics and the Teaching of English as a Second/Foreign Language: CALL Mini-Course. http://www.stanford.edu/class/ling289/CALL1.htm

Hubbard, P. and Bradin Siskin, C. (2003). Another Look at Tutorial CALL." Paper presented at the WorldCALL Conference, Banff. http://www.edvista.com/claire/pres/tutorial2003/index.html

______. (2004) Another look at tutorial CALL. ReCALL Journal, Vol 16, 2, 448-461.

Kelly, C. Interesting Things for ESL Students. http://www.manythings.org/

Rézeau, J. (1997) The learner, the teacher, and the machine: Golden triangle or Bermuda triangle? Paper presented at EUROCALL 1997. http://www.uhb.fr/campus/joseph.rezeau/articles/dublin/Dublin97.htm

Richmond, I. (1999). Is your CALL connected? Dedicated software vs. integrated CALL. In Cameron, K. (Ed.), CALL: Media, Design, and Applications. The Netherlands: Swets and Zeitlinger, 296-314.

Stevens, V. (1992) Humanism and CALL: A coming of age. In M. Pennington, & Stevens, V. (Eds.), Computers in applied linguistics: An international perspective. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters, Ltd, 11-38.

*Plenary address for the 3rd Annual Conference, English Language Teachers' Association (ELTA), Belgrade, May 6, 2005

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