CALL, the Internet, and the foreign language teacher
The weekly column
Article 50, February 2001
CALL, the Internet, and the foreign language teacher
By Rolf Palmberg
Department of Teacher Education
Abo Akademi University
The purpose of this paper is to suggest ways in which CALL and Internet methodology can be linked in with ordinary foreign-language classroom work in order to motivate the learners to learn what the teacher wants them to learn. This is especially important in classroom situations where the language to be learned (the target language) has the status of a foreign language rather than a second language, and where the individual interests of the learners, rather than their communicative needs as such, often determine what they actually learn.
Planning a CALL/Internet-based teaching unit
The teacher’s role, first of all, is to choose a CALL program or an online Internet activity (from now on collectively referred to as ‘computer program’ or just ‘program’) that can fulfil the teaching goals aimed at during the teaching unit and that is – hopefully – interesting from the learners’ point of view. The selected program must also be pedagogically meaningful, whether used for purposes of oral communication, vocabulary development, or as a starting point for more ambitious learning projects.
Next, the teacher must plan the teaching unit in detail. In addition to the computer session proper (the “hands-on” phase), CALL has traditionally involved one or several pre-computer phases as well as one or several post-computer phases. The length and character of these phases can and do vary depending on the number of lessons included in the teaching unit, the general teaching goals of the teaching unit, the content of the syllabus, the proficiency level of the learners, and the time that the teacher has assigned to each of the four language skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. The same methodology applies in principle also to Internet-based teaching units.
(a) pre-computer work
During the pre-computer phase the teacher typically explains the outline and purpose of the program to be used (especially if it is new to the learners) and also introduces the topic in question in the same way that s/he would an ordinary foreign language lesson. A simple way of doing this is to write a key word (for example the name of the topic) on the blackboard and ask the learners individually to write down all content words relating to the key word that they come to think of. After a minute or two, the learners are requested to form pairs or small groups and to share their word lists with each other. The teacher can then revise and/or pre-teach relevant vocabulary items together with any necessary set phrases and/or grammar points needed by the learners for the computer and post-computer phases.
(b) computer work
Depending on the selected program and the focus of the teaching unit, the computer phase can in principle involve any kind of learner activity. There is, however, an important point to be kept in mind: even if the selected program seemingly presents the learning task, checks learner input and provides feedback, the control exercised by the learners within the boundaries set by the program must still be supervised (and occasionally restricted) by the teacher. It is always the teacher’s responsible to plan the computer session to suit his or her teaching situation as it cannot be automatically assumed that a computer program knows what is expected from the learners for example in terms of language skills to be practised (in the same way that a reading passage given to learners cannot know whether they are expected to translate the text, find all adjectives or cross out every nth word). In addition to such instructions the teacher must also inform the learners about any supplementary tasks to be performed during this phase (such as note-taking or filling in worksheets).
When planning the teaching unit the teacher must also take into consideration the fact that some computer programs are obviously better suited for practising specific language skills than others. Simulations, for example, are valuable tools for oral communication in a foreign language since they generally provide the learners with something meaningful and interesting to talk about. Being excellent substitutes for a wide range of useful, real-life activities (such as booking a trip and checking in at a hotel) they increase learner motivation and at the same time offer authentic language practice involving learner decisions based on data from realistic situations.
If the learners are requested to search for specific information on the Internet, it is the teacher’s responsibility to provide them with clear working instructions (such as what to find, where and how to find it, and what to do with it once they have found it). Whenever possible, the teacher should select a topic that has current relevance to events that relate to the learners’ interests or environment, and also take into account the fact that finding information on the Internet often requires different types of reading skills from the learners, such as skimming (is the text worth going into?) and scanning (looking for specific facts). Moreover, s/he must remember that it is generally not enough that the selected reading tasks concentrate on the learners’ understanding of the plain sense of what is said in a text (an ability which Neville Grant has termed “plain sense reading”). The tasks given should rather draw on the learners’ ability to make inferences from what is said in the text (“deductive reading”), or better still, their ability to relate the reading passages to their own knowledge and experience (“projective reading”).