Where Have We Come From?
What Has CALL Really Achieved?*

Where Have We Come From?

A tradition of promises:
Claims that have been
made about CALL

Trying to back up the promises

The Research

What Has CALL Really Achieved?

The Bright Side

The Dark Side

Essays and Articles

Additional Resources

Claims that have been made about CALL:

1. Motivation. This may be weakest reason to cite because (1) computers aren't a novelty anymore and (2) we don't have the budget to compete with Hollywood in terms of glitzy graphics and multimedia effects. Nevertheless, some students are motivated by computers, and some will do a grammar or vocabulary exercise more eagerly on a computer than they will on paper.

2. Individualization of learning. Students who learn more slowly can use them for remediation by going over the material more slowly. Students who are ahead of the class can use them to accelerate learning and for enrichment. Programs with branching capability allow each student to work on what s/he needs instead of having everyone lockstepped into the same exercise with exactly the same items.

3. Control over language input. Well-designed CALL software allows the learner to control the language input provided by text, graphics, audio, and video and work with it in segments which s/he can understand.

4. Immediate feedback. Students find out right away when they're on the right track rather than waiting 48+ hours after their homework is corrected. Some types of feedback are more intelligent than others, but even the most unintelligent "no, you're wrong" type can alert students to the fact that they're missing the point. Then they can find a human being to tell them what's wrong.

5. Visual focus. Students often get lost in a sea of small print crowded onto a page. On a computer screen we have the luxury of enlarging text and having only a few words per "page." We can have thousands of "pages," which can be designed to enlarge or higlight exactly what we want to emphasize.

6. Tireless repetition. Computers can keep on dishing out the material and allowing students to hear/see it over and over. Repetition plays an important role in any theory of language learning.

7. "Neutral" medium. The computer doesn't lose patience with students, or get angry, or play favorites. Learners create hypotheses about how the target language works, and the computer can provide a safe environment in which to test these hypotheses.

8. Advantages of hypertext. In a book, words are linked together one after another in a linear fashion. With a computer, text can be linked in a non-linear fashion to explanatory text, to sound, to images, and to video. This power allows learners to bring up multimedia links to enhance their understanding of the target language. By following "hot" links, it allows the reader to create his/her own meaning and organization. The Web is a prime example of the use of hypertext, but hypertext existed in many software programs (such as HyperCard) before the advent of the Web.

9. Writing and revision facilitated by word processing. There is considerable evidence that students write more and revise more when they word-process their texts.

10. Opportunities for task-based learning and collaboration. Games and puzzles create an information gap, giving students a need to communicate with one another. In the constructivist approach to language learning, students create their own meaning by producing newsletters, web pages, computer-based presentations, etc.

11. Link to the Internet. Source of authentic, timely, relevant text in the target language. Opportunities for real communication with native speakers of the target language.

12. Change in relationship between teachers and students. The teacher becomes the facilitator and partner in learning rather than the controlling "schoolmaster."

13. Second language acquisition research. Computers can keep track of what language learners do and provide useful insights into the process.

14. Computer literacy. Students need computer skills to survive in the job market.


Trying to back up the promises

We often engage in the following (all-too-familiar) dialog:

Challenge: "Prove that CALL is effective."
Answer: "Prove that a blackboard and chalk are effective:"
Retort: "Yes, but computers cost a lot more money."
Answer: "Well yes, but they improve the quality of instruction."
Retort: "Prove it!"


The Research

"Effectiveness" or "efficacy" studies in which the use of CALL has been compared with traditional instruction have not shown a significant difference.


Dunkel, P. (1991). The effectiveness research on computer-assisted instruction and computer-assisted
language learning. In P. Dunkel (Ed.), Computer-assisted language learning and testing: Research issues
and practice. New York: Newbury House.

Garrett, N. (1991) Foreword to P. Dunkel (Ed.), Computer-Assisted Language Learning and Testing:
Research Issues and Practice , xii-xvi). New York: Newbury House.

Other references for CALL research at http://edvista.com/claire/callbib.html#res

Problems with the research:

Many variables have contributed to the "messiness" of CALL research. Some of the factors which have contributed to the messiness are

and finally, differences in what people mean by "CALL."


The Bright Side

1. More people now have access to computers and to the Internet.

2. Significant advances in technology have brought increased power, color, audio, video, e-mail and the Web -- all at dramatically lower costs.

3. CALL is now more widespread. A growing number of language educators recognize the acronym "CALL," and a wide variety of CALL software is now available.

4. CALL is a recognized academic field. It is now possible to earn a master's degree in CALL at several universities. See the EuroCALL list of Postgraduate Courses in CALL & TELL at http://www.eurocall-languages.org/resources/courses.html

5. In the job market, there is a demand for "language techies." These may be called "CALL specialists" or "CALL coordinators" or "language lab directors" or "language technology specialists." In addition, many job advertisements for language teachers now request experience with technology.

6. There is now a wide variety of CALL authoring tools.

7. Many students now expect/demand to use technology in their courses.

8. Threads of commonality between SLA and CALL are appearing. Some of these are


The Dark Side

1. Computers are still very limited in terms of the role they can play in language learning.

2. Some CALL software isn't pedagogically sound.

3. CALL-related work often isn't respected or recognized.

4. We don't know very much about what language learners are actually doing with computers.

5. The market for CALL software is very small. As a result, the software doesn't always keep up with changes in hardware and sometimes will not run on new hardware.

6. Many faculty still aren't trained to use CALL.

7. Computer specialists often don't have the necessary background or expertise to deal with CALL. In general, the distinction between "knowledge of computers" and "knowledge of CALL" is poorly understood.

8. There are enormous management issues involved in implementing CALL.

9. Some CALL enthusiasts embark on the "Quest for the Perfect Authoring System." Since the perfect system doesn't exist, a lot of energy is wasted.

10. As technology develops from mainframe to microcomputer to videodisk to CD-ROM to DVD to the Web , there are "stampedes" to the newer technology -- sometimes just for the sake of novelty without consideration of which technology would be most appropriate for a given situation.

11. There is a tendency to use multimedia for its own sake without appropriate design or consideration of how it may be used to best effect.



Essays and Articles

Bennett, Frederick. Why Computers Are Ineffective Today. http://www.concentric.net/~faben1/section3.shtml

Chen, Judy. CALL is not a Hammer and not Every Teaching Problem is a Nail! http://www.aitech.ac.jp/~iteslj/Articles/Chen-CALL.html

Chun, Dorothy, and Jan Plass. Research on Text Comprehension in Multimedia Environments.

Eastment, David. Technology-Enhanced Language Learning: Hype or Gold Mine? http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/town/square/ei11/tell.htm

Ehrmann, Stephen. Asking the Right Question: What Does Research Tell Us About Technology and Higher Learning? http://www.learner.org/edtech/rscheval/rightquestion.html

Ehrmann, Stephen. The Bad Option And The Good Option. http://net.educause.edu/apps/er/review/reviewArticles/30541.html

McArthur, David, and Mathew Lews. Untangling the Web: Applications of the Internet and Other Information Technologies to Higher Learning. http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR975/

McCullen, Caroline. Making a Difference (Rebuttal to "The Computer Delusion"). http://www.ncsu.edu/meridian/jan98/feat_5/difference.html

Oppenheimer, Todd. The Computer Delusion. http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/97jul/computer.htm

Ortega, Lourdes. Processes and Outcomes in Networked Classroom Interaction: Defining the Research Agenda for L2 Computer-Assisted Classroom Discussion. http://llt.msu.edu/vol1num1/ortega/

Ruth, Stephen. Getting Real About Technology-Based Learning: The Medium is NOT the Message. http://net.educause.edu/apps/er/review/reviewarticles/32532.html

Twigg, Carol. Is Technology a Silver Bullet? http://net.educause.edu/apps/er/review/reviewArticles/31228.html

Twigg, Carol. Academic Productivity: The Case for Instructional Software. http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/html/nli0002.html

"Why Technology?" by EDUCOM Review Staff. http://net.educause.edu/apps/er/review/reviewarticles/31324.html

Additional Resources

Levy, Michael. (1997). Computer-Assisted Language Learning: Context and Conceptualization. Oxford: Clarendon.


*This page accompanies a session, "Where Have We Come From? What Has CALL Really Achieved?" presented by Peter Liddell and Claire Bradin Siskin at the IALL '99 Conference at the University of Maryland

Copyright 1999 Claire Bradin Siskin. Permission is granted to copy and distribute this text for educational non-profit use only. This text may not be mirrored (copied onto another website) without my permission.

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Last modified April 14, 2009