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Reflections On Learning CALL

The following is a paper written by Rebecca Rose Orton on her CALL training and experience. Rebecca volunteers at the English Language Institute (ELI) at Gallaudet University, in Washington, DC.

The following is a paper written by Rebecca Rose Orton on her CALL training and experience. Rebecca works at the English Language Institute (ELI) at Gallaudet University, in Washington, DC.

Memoirs of My CALL Training and Experience
By Rebecca Rose Orton

Introduction

Because of my bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s degree in linguistics, I wanted to find something that blended the two fields into one specialty. I thought computer assisted language learning (CALL) was one such specialty among others. I wanted to do something related to CALL for a living. For example, I wanted to work as a coordinator of a computer lab equipped with software designed for ESL students. My state of mind then in the early 2000’s was that there wasn’t a whole lot of teaching involved in a position like this.

My first Language Lab class at the English Language Institute at Gallaudet University in 2001 matched my expectations. I only did what I would call “tutoring” in this class. I helped the students who raised their hands because they had a question about a Tense Buster exercise or a problem with the computer. I was justified in my thinking at that time for a couple of reasons as exemplified by these quotes below.

Until recently, technology has driven pedagogy, at first because of its limitations and now because of the increasing availability and speed of computers and the expansion of the internet as a multimedia tool (Hanson-Smith, 2001, p. 112).
Where technology is deployed to its best advantage, we should see teachers’ roles become that of guide and mentor, encouraging students to take charge of their own learning, helping them to learn at their own pace (Hanson-Smith, 2001, p. 113).

Teaching Experience

My two years of experience in 2009-2010 teaching the Language Lab classes again at the same institute indicated otherwise. Even though I conducted the language lab classes the same way I did before, I ended up being treated like other ESL instructors. Instead of just being a tutor that was available for students in the language lab classes, I did the work that a teacher was expected to perform. I created midterms and finals. I tracked the performance of students on Tense Buster exercises. I conducted pretests and posttests. I submitted progress reports, rubrics, and grades. I attended meetings along with the other ELI staff. Even my official title was ESL Trainer. I also did a Learning Assessment Planning report comparing the before and after rubrics and seeing if there were any improvements.

It was difficult for me to accept that I was a teacher and not just a tutor because I could not control the students during class. My classroom management skills needed improvement if I was to become a full-fledged teacher in the truest sense of the word. Even though others encouraged me to teach and expected me to take up teaching positions, I never intended to be a teacher and felt that my calling was elsewhere.

My Evolution

I remember thinking that I wouldn’t mind teaching text-based online classes but I didn’t know where these opportunities were. I wanted to work with computers and languages. This desire evolved into my providing embedded IT support and administrative writing for the ELI. I was then promoted to being the accreditation specialist for the English Language Institute in January 2011 and worked on accreditation documents until my contract ran out in August, 2011.

Today, I understand that best practices in CALL have evolved beyond simple tutoring and actually incorporate teaching.

A description of best practices in CALL must include an understanding of how typical classroom activities can be enhanced electronically. Taking the most basic example, as a tool for drill and practice in the four skills (reading, speaking, writing, and listening), grammar, and vocabulary, the computer has repeatedly demonstrated its usefulness as a patient and obedient taskmaster. Instant feedback to students can be provided for every answer, correct or incorrect. Some instructors teach themselves enough about electronic authoring to create their own tailored interactive drills and tests, either software- or internet-based (Hanson-Smith, 2001, p. 109-110).

Below I discuss what I have learned throughout my training and teaching experience about computer assisted language learning.

Original Language Lab Class

In the 2001 ELI Language Lab classes, students focused on Tensebuster grammar drills for the entire semester. I helped the students in each language lab class if they had problems with the software or with their computer while another instructor gave the midterms and the finals. The students complained that it was boring.

Mindlines

The Mindlines games were the only other software package available and it wasn’t an integral part of the classes. If it had been, it might have motivated the students some more.

Beyond naked drills and exercises, teachers find that grammar and vocabulary games can be very motivating for learners in twos or threes around one computer screen (Hanson-Smith, 2001, p. 111).

The MindLines games from Clarity (which offers Elementary, Lower Intermediate, and Intermediate ESL levels) can be played with two people on one computer.

English Language Lab Reinstatement

When I had an opportunity to reinstate this language lab class in 2009, it was based on the original format of the 2001 ELI Language Lab class. When I taught the English Language Lab from 2009 to 2010 at the English Language Institute at Gallaudet, I followed the same, simple grammar practice format, but added other software packages and Internet exercises that were mostly suitable for deaf ESL students in an effort to alleviate boredom. I used a book Tips for Teaching with CALL; Practical Approaches to Computer-Assisted Language Learning to find the best ESL software and Internet resources. It talks about the 8 in 1 English Dictionary from Pronunciation Power, which is offered in 8 languages, including Arabic. The ELI bought this software for the language lab along with Introductory English with its parts of speech color codes.

WordSmart Challenge and the ACT Test

This book also talks about an online vocabulary game called the WordSmart Challenge (http://www.wordsmart.com/wsc_g/index2.php). I found that this game was challenging for intermediate ESL students but very useful in indicating where the student stood in terms of ACT test readiness. If a student was able to achieve an “ACT” score of at least 14 in the game, he or she is most likely ready to apply for undergraduate admission to Gallaudet University. It also helped me to see if a student was misplaced into a lower level of ESL.

Microworlds

Another book, CALL Essentials; Principals and Practice in CALL Classrooms talks about web-based micro-worlds and gave an example Secrets of Lost Empires from the PBS television channel series where these types of interactive simulations can be found on their companion website. The simulations offer tasks that a viewer can perform to learn more about the content, such as finding out how much the Moai megaliths from Easter Island weigh.

When a colleague and I went to the national TESOL conference in Boston in March 2010, I visited a booth that offered a micro-worlds type of demo called “English Extras in Business with A, An, and The.” Their website says the following about this software: “This fun ESL software game takes you inside an imaginary American company to hire employees. If you learn the articles, you’ll win a big management job in San Francisco!” (Rehearsal Technology Corporation, 2011).

Deaf students tend to struggle with articles because ASL does not have articles as part of its language. This demo was highly visual, interactive, and entertaining for the language lab students, but sometimes presented an audio-based spiel that was useless for deaf students and it was difficult to skip over this interactive section.

As a result of working on this Module Five of the ICAL CALL certificate, I learned about Second Life by Linden Research, Inc., which is another type of microworld based on three-dimensional avatars and scenery. Second Life has some ESL schools and it is possible that the English Language Institute at Gallaudet University would set up shop there in the future if Second Life becomes as popular as Facebook. In the meantime, ELI students could participate in Second Life with a teacher during a CALL class and interact with the teacher and their classmates via text chat. They would be doing a glorified form of Electronic Networks for Interaction (ENFI).

The Use of CALL in Class

In 2010, I continued to search for more software packages and Internet resources. I was doing this in the belief that the deaf ELI students would benefit from my self-taught expertise in CALL programs and websites that I had found so far. If the materials were already at their fingertips, they didn’t need to spend fruitless hours searching for appropriate programs and websites that would help them improve their English skills and appeal to their visual needs.

While the variety of media (e.g. video, sound, animation, text, graphics) appears to a wide range of learning and teaching styles, organising the plethora of data is a significant task, especially for students just beginning to learn a language… As internet access expands and learners seek sites that match their personal interest, teachers will need increasingly to help them structure their learning to best take advantage of these language resources (Hanson-Smith, 2001, p. 112).

However, I learned otherwise. The ELI students were complaining that all they were doing was feeding in answers in a way similar to data entry work. I figured that no real comprehension and negotiating of meaning were occurring during the language lab classes. I attributed this to two things. First, the students did not understand the words on the screen and they were mechanically copying whatever the instant feedback indicated was the correct answer. Second, the students were not making an effort to learn the vocabulary presented to them on the computer screen. I could see some students actively switching windows to look up words in their favorite online translation dictionary, but not all of the students were doing this. They were not becoming independent learners, which was a desired outcome.

Class Placement Issue

I later learned from Dr. Steven Nover, a famed deaf linguist, that perhaps the issue was the automatic placement of intermediate students into a language lab class that was too challenging for them, even though the software packages and exercises had explicit labels indicating that particular levels were designed for intermediate ESL students. Dr. Steven Nover indicated that the Deaf students in the intermediate level needed the foundation that the basic level language lab class provided. In retrospect, the students may have lost motivation as well.

Soo (1999) links motivation and CALL learning styles: if a teaching style does not match students’ learning styles to some degree, instruction may be perceived as boring or incomprehensible, and students are less motivated (Hanson-Smith, 2001, p. 109).

Class Pacing

I had also determined recently that it was better to control the pacing of the class so that the students only focused on one set of exercises within a CALL program, instead of going helter-skelter over various exercises available in the CALL program. Some students missed critical exercises and other students were too slow on the first exercise they tried out.

Some programs also allow students to proceed as fast as desired through a curriculum roughly tailored to their individual strengths and weaknesses. However, the transfer of knowledge and skills though an instructional delivery system, – even with its advantages over a human teacher – does not always match the needs of the language learner, who must ultimately interact, negotiate meaning, and communicate with others in various output modes and for various purposes well beyond the acquisition of specific facts (Hanson-Smith, 2001, p. 110).

Conclusion

My final take on computer assisted language learning is that although my teaching experiences were distressing to my self-esteem, the CALL training that I received through ICAL has made me more aware of myself and my limitations. I am able to look back and accept that I have made mistakes.

References

American TESOL Institute. (n.d.). ESLCA – Certificate in ESL with a focus on CALL. Retrieved in 2010.
Clarity English Language Consultants Ltd. (2011). Tense Buster. Retrieved October 22, 2011 from http://clarityenglish.com/program/tensebuster.php.
 
English Computerized Learning Inc. (Pronunciation Power). (2011). 8 In 1 English Dictionary. Retrieved October 22, 2011 from http://www.englishlearning.com/products/8-in-1-english-dictionary/
 
English Computerized Learning Inc. (Pronunciation Power). (2011). Introductory Grammar and Vocabulary with Color Key. Retrieved October 22, 2011 from http://www.englishlearning.com/products/introductory-grammar-and-vocabulary/
 
Hanson-Smith, E. M. (2001). Computer-assisted Language Learning. In R Carter & D Nunan (eds.), The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pg 107-113.
ICAL. (2010). The ICAL CALL Certificate. Retrieved October 22, 2011 from http://www.icalweb.com/cms/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=5&Itemid=296
 
Linden Research, Inc. (2012). Second Life; Your World. Your Imagination. Retrieved July 8, 2012 from http://www.secondlife.com/
 
Orton, Rebecca. (2011, November). The Original Impetus to Learn English Online: The ENFI Project at Gallaudet University. Retrieved July 8, 2012 from http://www.geocities.ws/rebaorton/TESOLThesis.htm
 
PBS.org. (2000, November) NOVA Online; Secrets of Lost Empires; Easter Island; How Big Were They? Retrieved October 21, 2011 from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/lostempires/easter/bigwave.html.
 
Rehearsal Technology Corporation (2011). English Extras in Business. Retrieved October 21, 2011 from http://www.englishextras.com/English_articles_software.html.
 
Soo, K.S. (1999). Theory and research: Learning styles, motivation, and the CALL classroom. In E. Hanson-Smith (ed.) CALL Environments: Research, Practice, and Critical Issues. Alexandria, VA: TESOL, pg 289-301.
WordSmart Corporation. (2011). WordSmart Challenge. Retrieved October 21, 2011 from http://www.wordsmart.com/wordgames/#

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