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Using technology to reform English language learning

| October 14, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Lance Knowles

Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) and the internet are changing radically how students learn English.

Much English learning content can now be accessed for free online. However, leaving students to learn in this way can be ineffective and inappropriate. It’s important not only to provide English learning activities and practice, but to sequence these activities in a systematic learning path. Student activities also need to be tested and monitored.

Addressing roadblocks to effective learning

One major problem in many countries is the lack of competent teachers. When asked to use technology, teachers may comply – but often without a clear idea of how best to do it. As a consequence, technology-based activities are often unrelated to classroom activities and are relegated to a supplementary role, even when in many situations they could provide much of the core syllabus, especially for learners with low proficiency.

At DynEd, we have been involved in training tens of thousands of teachers. Such training not only addresses the language inadequacies of many teachers, but also aims to improve language teaching skills – including lesson planning in relation to computer-based practice – and class management. Using technology for teacher training is cost-effective and long-lasting, because each teacher has an impact on so many students.

Another challenge has been to reduce the gap between rich and poor schools, and to reach out to rural environments. With prices down and infrastructures much improved in some areas, opportunities now exist because technology can provide schools with the best language models and exercises, along with teacher support. Current 21st century technology can also address the issues of monitoring and assessing learning activities, as well as fundamental problems in traditional language learning methodologies that have so poorly served students and teachers.

The traditional approach

In most classrooms around the world, language teaching has been knowledge-based and teacher-centered. The teacher delivers the content while students get very little practice. The focus is on text, rules, vocabulary and inefficient, short-term memorisation. In the worst case, translation plays a major role, so very little English is used in the classroom.

In the traditional classroom, students seldom speak and little attention is paid to effective sequencing and review. In many cases, the focus has been more on keeping the students engaged and entertained, or ‘teaching the material’ as knowledge rather than on using the material to facilitate language processing as an acquired skill. A major reason for the poor success rate, in my view, is an over-reliance on and an inappropriate use of text. From a language learning point of view, text has many drawbacks, and these are seldom recognised. First, reading a language isn’t the same as speaking it. In order to read, text must first be decoded before language processing can occur. Even when a student can decode a text and read a passage aloud, there is no guarantee that comprehension is taking place. Second, text is spatial: there is time to think and remember – to think about the meaning of words.

In contrast, oral skills are temporal. Time pressure requires that language processing be done quickly, with little time for conscious analysis and recall. Oral language passes through the brain just once. It must therefore be processed under time pressure in the working memory, which requires that language input patterns be automatically recognised and ‘chunked’. The use of text does little to develop this automatic chunking ability, which is based on pattern recognition. In general, students who learn through a text-based approach are slow to develop the language automaticity necessary to become fluent.

As a result, vast numbers of students who study English lose interest, and are unable to progress to the point where they can either use English to learn other subjects or use other subject content to learn English. As students fall behind, they lose confidence and are prone to give up – which is a huge cost not only to them, but also to their community.

The 21st century blended approach

Today’s technology allows for a transformation in the language learning environment. Interactive, multimedia lessons can now provide much more effective language input and language practice than textbooks. Activities can be individualised and learner anxiety can be reduced. Moreover, the classroom can provide what computers cannot – the human element where the language models come to life and are extended in a personal and social context.

Instead of using textbooks and text as the primary means to introduce language, visuals and oral language input can be delivered and interacted with directly by the computer. Cognitive load can be better managed in a multimedia presentation than in a textbook. As a result, the traditional page-based presentation with an over-abundance of text and visuals can be replaced with more focused, iconic displays that are better synchronised with the language models.

With appropriate visual and contextual support, students can repeat and practice the oral language, similar to how their first language was acquired, with little or no text support at first. The brain’s natural learning mechanisms can be more effectively used. In this new approach, text, instead of being the lead skill, reverts to an important, but supporting role. This allows for language automaticity to develop more quickly, resulting in less boredom, quicker fluency and more confidence.

It also allows for learner-centred activities in the classroom that can work, because students have done the requisite practice to be able to carry out the tasks. In programmes where this blended model has been used in controlled studies, student failure rates have been reduced by as much as 50%, and students in experimental groups have scored significantly higher than control groups – in all four skills areas. Motivation and learner autonomy have also improved. These studies are ongoing, but the evidence is encouraging. Of course, language learning also depends on the level and sequencing of the language input. Language models need to be at a suitable level of comprehensibility, and this is where placement and ongoing testing are essential.

A good records management system can also analyse the study data to identify students who are practicing in inefficient ways, so that early intervention is possible. Our Intelligent Tutor tool, for example, combs through the details of each student’s learning activities and summarises the results, so that teachers can identify which students need additional coaching and can provide specific suggestions about how the class and individual students within the class might improve their practice strategies. This can be a big time-saver for overworked teachers who deal with large numbers of students.

Teacher training the critical factor In our experience, the blended model can reduce languagelearning time significantly, depending primarily on the following variables:

  1. Scheduling of practice sessions for optimum frequency and duration.
  2. Quality and design of practice sessions, supported by coaching, feedback and suitable learning tasks.
  3. Sequencing of content and an appropriate mix of skills, so that the strategic support elements of language are developed in a well-designed learning path.
  4. Classroom sessions that provide extension and personalisation of the language models, including all four skills.
  5. Suitable technical infrastructure and support.

Once a suitable infrastructure is in place, teacher training is generally the most important factor in the success or failure of a programme. In the blended model, where practice is emphasised more than ever, students need to be coached and monitored. The quality and design of practice sessions must be supported by coaching and feedback, and this is most effective when provided by a teacher who knows what differentiates effective practice from inefficient practice.

With technology, listening and speaking skills – the temporal skills – can take the lead in language learning, building a foundation for reading and writing – the spatial skills. The ‘reading first’ approach, which has dominated for too long, runs counter to how languages are learned naturally. With proper use of technology, however, the sequence can be corrected and students can attain their target levels in a much shorter time.

Lance Knowles is President and Head of Courseware Development at DynEd International ( He has pioneered the development and use of CALL for more than 25 years. His innovative learning theory, Recursive Hierarchical Recognition (RHR), is based on cognitive neuroscience, and DynEd’s award-winning programmes are used by millions of students around the world. This article appears here with his kind permission.

Reference: 1. Knowles, L. (2008) ‘Mind Blocks’, Language Magazine, August 2008.

Category: e-Education, Spring 2011

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