MET:Computers and Instructional Design in Foreign Languages

From UBC Wiki

This page was originally authored by Mary Becerra, February 2009.

This page has been revised by Carol Chuu, March 2010.
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Computer Assistance and Training


Since the appearance of using computers in teaching foreign languages, people have shifted the focus from pedagogy to technology. Computer technology has been regarded as synonymous with better language pedagogy and more efficient language teaching and learning. However, having the latest language teaching computer technology is not the panacea for language teaching pedagogy. Integrating computer technology efficiently into language teaching requires “a combined knowledge of foreign language pedagogy, teaching experience and some computer literacy” (Bangs & Cantos, 2004, p. 222). Language technologists have been sorting through novel technologies, evaluating various instructional potentials, researching current educational uses, and sharing findings with educators to help design instructional technology that enhances language learning.

Designing Instructional Technology for Language Learning

In order to enhance instruction for foreign languages, it is important to consider a variety of options in designing technology. Furthermore, it is crucial to understand different learning issues, theories of language acquisition, methodologies in foreign language teaching, and questions when designing instruction for foreign language learning via computers. The TELL context seeks to critically expand the use of technology in basic foreign language education, to contribute to instruction in advanced literature and culture courses, and to support ESL education.

Theories of Foreign Language Acquisition

Various theories of foreign language acquisition may provide one rationale for instruction. Monitor Theory (Krashen, 1982) emphasizes the importance of comprehensible linguistic input in the acquisition process. It proposes an initial silent period in which students listen, but do not speak, as a way to promote acquisition. Monitor Theory indicates that a series of activities emphasizing listening comprehension should precede even the most simple production activities.

The Input Processing Model (Lee and Van Patten, 1995) differentiates between input (the language to which the learner is exposed) and intake (the language that actually gets processed by the learner). This model emphasizes the importance of binding the form of a word to its meaning. If used as a rationale, it would indicate that early input activities ought to be simple recognition activities that require students to attend to one important detail and connect form to meaning. Activities would progress from simple to complex along a continuum ranging from recognition to simple one word production to sentence level and discourse level production in a logical order.

Interaction Theory and Sociocultural Theory emphasize the importance of the social aspect of language learning (Doughty, 1987; Long, 1981; Vygotsky, 1978; Lantolf, 1994). Within these frameworks, language is negotiated and socially mediated or assisted. Paraphrasing, requests for repetition, clarification requests, verification checks, and comprehension checks are tools used by the novice learner to achieve proficiency during interaction with an expert speaker. Promoting social interaction through the computer and providing opportunities for the production of both oral and written language that may be negotiated would be indicated in a design organized around these theories. These two theories also imply that the program should be designed so that paired and group-learning opportunities are afforded to the student.

There are some other relevant theories and concepts that have contributed with the process of designing instructional technology for language learning such as:

Foreign Language Teaching Methods

Elluminate Live online meeting for a Mandarin class

Starting from the 19th century, about thirty different kinds of foreign language teaching methods have been developed. These methodologies have been tested and used in teaching more than forty different world languages. The followings are some important second language teaching methods:

Computer Technology as a Language Learning Tool

Like any other piece of equipment (i.e., tape recorder, VCR, blackboard, etc.), computers can be used as a powerful language learning tool in a classroom, an online learning environment as well as a blended learning environment. Windows and Mac computers have useful software, such as word processing, sound and video recording, and movie making programs. These computer programs give students more flexibility and engage them more in learning a new language. They no longer just sit in the classroom, listen to the lecture, take notes, and practice at home. Instead of passively learning, they take more ownership in their own learning. In addition to the computer software, common tools such as spelling check, online dictionary, and online translator can also provide students with valuable self-analysis instruction. Therefore, with the aid of the computer programs, Internet, online resources, and CD-Rom based materials, students become more active and self-directed. Computers provide more distinct advantages over traditional approaches.

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Capital Journal Stanley County high school junior Derek K. uses the Rosetta Stone language-learning software on a Smart Board in his Spanish Class. The button [he] is pressing prompts the computer to say the name of a number in Spanish, and [he] then has to press the picture corresponding to the spoken numeral.

Word Processing

Word processing programs can be used effectively with ESL literacy learners. Word processors, which allow relatively easy revision and the sharing of texts, facilitate a process approach to writing. With the use of word processing programs, students place emphasis on choosing meaningful topics and producing multiple drafts. They can also write collaboratively in pairs or in groups. A variety of grammar and style checker programs (in addition to the spelling checkers and thesauri available with most word processors) can help intermediate and advanced language learners to analyze and correct their own writing, both individually and cooperatively. Most commonly used word processing programs include Microsoft Word, Microsoft Works, WordPerfect, and OpenOffice. We can even find web-based word processing services, which let learners work on documents anywhere they want as long as there is an internet connection. For example, Google Docs allow people to create and share their work online.

Sound Recording

The use of computers for listening exercises provides not only sound, but also visual input giving students more contextual clues. Students have more control over their own learning process as they make the decisions when to repeat questions, exercises and sequences based on their own progress. Especially in the field of pronunciation, students can employ a computer to record themselves to compare their pronunciation to a target pronunciation. This can be repeated endlessly until a student is satisfied with his/her result. These pronunciation exercises are often combined with visual aids such as intonation graphs to help the student recognize how his/her pronunciation compares to the target pronunciation.

One of the challenges students face in learning a foreign language is not having the opportunity to speak and use the language. In order to be fluent in a language, students need to practice speaking on a regular basis. Sound recording programs allow students to record their speaking and save it as an audio file. The sound recording programs that come with the computers are Sound Recorder for Windows and GarageBand for Mac. We can also find free sound recording programs online, such as Audacity. These sound recording programs can enhance students’ listening and speaking skills.

Video Making

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Using Xtranormal to make a movie online

Computers have video making programs that can be used to create interactive movies to engage students in learning a foreign language. Video making programs, such as Windows Movie Maker and iMovie, can easily import images or video clips from digital camera or camcorder to computer. Educators can make video clips to teach students pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and cultures. Especially for Asian languages, teachers can create video clips showing students how to write characters following a correct stroke order. The video clips made by the educators can be used repeatedly. Students watch video clips again and again until they have mastered the required language skills. Students can also make video clips to demonstrate what the have learned from a foreign language. When making a video clip, students can also record their voice to the computer and type subtitles in the video, which will enhance their speaking and writing skills. There are also some free movie making programs, such as Jing Project, Moviestorm, and Xtranormal, that can create interactive movies online.

Online Tutorial and Video Conference

Online tutorial and video conference are often used in an online or a blended learning environment to offer students extra support. Students can schedule an online appointment with teachers beforehand. Teachers can also set up online office hours, so students can ask questions online and get immediate response. Microphones are required in online tutorials or conferences. Web cameras are optional depending on the students’ comfort level. For students taking online language courses, they not only develop a close connection with the teacher, but also have a chance to meet and chat with their classmates online, which builds an online learning community. Teachers can also give a lecture online using Elluminate Live, which allows students to upload a PowerPoint slideshow and record the lesson for students who cannot attend the online sessions. Here are some of the popular online communication applications:

Language Learning Software and Online Resources

Language learning software, such as Rosetta Stone and Tell Me More, provides lessons and exercises to enhance students’ listening, speaking, reading and writing skills. Students learn a foreign language at their own pace. They move to the next level once they have completed the required tasks.

There are also online language resources that support students in learning foreign languages. Some of these resources are free. These resources provide not only problem-solving exercises or simulation games that enhance both language and literacy acquisition, but also cultural and historical notes of foreign languages that make learning more interesting.

Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL)

Please also refer to the Wiki topic: Computer-Assisted Language Learning

In recent years, advances in computer technology have motivated teachers to reassess the computer and consider it a valuable part of daily foreign language learning. Innovative software programs, authoring capabilities, compact disk technology, and elaborate computer networks are providing teachers with new methods of incorporating culture, grammar, and real language use in the classroom while students gain access to audio, visual, and textual information about the language and the culture of its speakers.

There are three main components in the computer-assisted language learning (CALL) environment: the learner, the teacher, and the computer. While they are complementary to each other, each component has its own characteristics and stories of roles they play and how those roles have changed in the CALL classroom. For the integration of CALL into a specific language teaching environment, it is critical to look at the ways in which these components work as a team and how they contribute to the implementation of CALL activities.

In terms of research activities, the links between CALL and second language classroom research have been reinforced (Chapelle, 1996, 1997; Conrad, 1996). In this respect, Doughty (1987) emphasizes the importance of classroom data in CALL contexts, and Johnson (1991) proposes to expand CALL research to social interactional environments of the classroom. Empirical research into CALL classroom practice would help researchers understand the environmental aspects of CALL activities, particularly the elements of the CALL classroom.

Computer-Assisted Language Learning Components

Figure 1 shows a simple model of these elements and their interactions in the CALL classroom where a target language is taught.

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Figure 1. A model of the three main components in the CALL classroom (Son, 2000)

1. The computer

In respect of CALL materials, the most obvious category of CALL software can be courseware or computer-based lesson materials (Lian, 1991). Advances in computer technology have given CALL users a variety of options for choosing hardware and software. In order to place CALL in context, it is necessary for the teacher to choose software programs appropriate for their teaching situations. In the selection of the software programs, system requirements for running the programs should be checked in advance. In the case of computer mediated communication (CMC), which can be considered as an expansion of CALL activities, on-line tools on each side should be identified and arranged for the communication. This implies that computer hardware and software always have to come together to make CALL work.

2. The learner

It is the learner who can best perceive how CALL works for his/her learning. Jamieson and Chapelle (1988) discuss five learner variables that should be taken into account in the assessment of CALL effectiveness: age, background, ability, cognitive style and affect. Because these characteristics of learners can affect learning processes in CALL, teachers need to know the learners well and respond to the learners' needs and attitudes toward CALL properly. In the implementation of CALL lessons, the learner's familiarity with the computer should also be identified so that meaningful activities can be given to the learner. Considering that there will be more and more learners who are comfortable with using the computer and show positive attitudes toward computer-based activities, teachers are requested to familiarize themselves with the computer and take on the responsibility for their own professional development in CALL environments.

3. The teacher

The roles of the teacher commonly found in the language classroom are tutor, guide or facilitator. In addition to these roles, the teacher in CALL needs to act as a CALL observer, designer, implementer, evaluator or manager. CALL observers observe recent CALL activities, identify the types of CALL materials and build basic skills to deal with CALL. Teachers who are directly involved in the design, implementation or evaluation of CALL can be called CALL developers on the basis of the idea of categorizing CALL software development in three modules which I refer to as design, implementation, and evaluation. CALL designers create their own computer applications by practising and utilizing programming languages or authoring tools with instructional design approaches; CALL implementers use CALL software which matches with students or teachers' needs in the classroom and develop teaching methods for CALL practice; and CALL evaluators make comments on CALL materials, approaches or courses with evaluation criteria. When teachers supervise the overall use of CALL, they become managers who guide other teachers to the world of CALL, facilitate CALL in self-access or classroom settings, and manage CALL resources for learning and teaching purposes (Son, 1997, 2000).

Computer-Assisted Language Learning Environments

Computers are not only used in a face-to-face classroom setting to enhance language learning, but also used to support students in online learning and blending learning environments.

  • Face-to-Face Learning Environment is so called “traditional classroom setting”, where instructors take more leadership in the class. There are more physical, verbal, and social interactions in this setting.
  • Online Learning Environment is also called “distributed learning” or “e-learning” environment where students and teachers meet and interact in a virtual class. Teachers post course materials and assignments online. Students usually study at their own pace. They are required to participate in online discussions to interact with their classmates.
  • Blended Learning Environment is a combination of the face-to-face and online learning models where students and teachers meet each other in real life as well as interact with each other online. Blended learning environment overcomes the challenges the online learners face and has the advantage of the face-to-face classroom setting. For more information, please refer to the wiki entry Blended Learning in a Second Language Environment.

Stop Motion Video

Countering the disadvantages of computer technology in foreign language learning -- Stop Motion Video created by Meghan Gallant, January, 2017.

Stop Motion Video References

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Stop Motion Image Sources

Wordpress icon [Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Stop Motion Background Music


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