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Computer assisted language learning

Computer assisted language learning (CALL) is a method of teaching and learning languages by means of computer software specially designed to be used in the classroom. CALL came up in the 1980s in the wake of the computer revolution, which eventually also led to the availability of PCs in schools.

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At the outset, the methodological discussion triggered by educationalists and practitioners soon focused on the possible advantages and disadvantages of CALL over traditional teaching methods. In the days before the popularisation of the Internet and the commercialization of self-study programs all material to be used by learners had to be provided by the teacher, and it became one of the tenets that each teacher who wanted to make use of the new technology should be able to write their own programs for classroom use. However, this idea was soon abandoned in favour of professionally written programs.

London-based Wida Software were one of the first to offer such programs. Typical software of the first generation of CALL included Matchmaster (where students have to match two sentence halves or anything else that belongs together); Choicemaster (the classic multiple choice test format); Gapmaster (for gapped texts); Textmixer (which jumbles lines within a poem or sentences within a paragraph); Wordstore (a learner's own private vocabulary database, complete with a definition and an example sentence in which the word to be learned is used in a context); or Storyboard (where a short text is blotted out completely and has to be restored from scratch).

The early versions of these language programs were extremely small: For example, the whole Wida package could be stored on one 5" floppy disk with 360 kB of storage space. Sound effects were limited to the occasional beep if a wrong answer had been entered, and the use of a mouse was not enabled. However, the educational value of these programs was high because they ideally consisted of a student and a teacher version. The latter included an authoring program, where the individual teacher was encouraged to type in their own texts (rather than make do with the example texts provided by the manufacturers) which then would be jumbled, gapped, blotted out, or whatever. This way teachers were put in a position to cater for their classes' individual needs much better.

Other CALL activities in the early days of computer use in schools included working with text editors, which, it was hoped, would revolutionize text production assignments by enabling language learners to continually revise and have peer reviewed what they are writing before printing out the final version of their composition.

Methodological considerations

Fascinated by the new technology, many users within the school environment focused on technical issues, at the same time neglecting pedagogical questions and not realising that an innovative methodology was required to satisfactorily integrate the use of computers in language classes. One point of criticism which could easily be refuted was the claim that, within a class, each student should be able to work alone at a terminal so as not to be disturbed by their classmates. It was found out that using computers in language classes could, as a side effect, promote team work among students and, if planned well, might also encourage them to use the target language to communicate in front of their PCs, thus increasing the time they spend practising their oral skills.

Generally, it turned out that methodology was always lagging behind the software that had recently been put on the market.

The current situation

Today, the term CALL is rarely used. In many contexts, it has been replaced by TELL (Technology enhanced language learning), this way recognizing the massive use of CD-ROMs, the Internet and multimedia in classroom situations (see also E-learning).

Further reading

  • Scott Windeatt, David Hardisty & David Eastment: The Internet (Resource Books for Teachers, ed. Alan Maley) (OUP, 2000) (ISBN 0194372235)

External links

  • TELL & CALL magazine (http://www.e-lisa.at/magazine/tellcall/01_03.asp) (partly in German)
  • The WIDA website (http://www.wida.co.uk/) (including updates on most of their original programs, now called The Authoring Suite)

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