Teachers on CALL: What Educators Must Know About Computer Assisted Language Learning

Today, I bring you the whole bag. The whole kit and caboodle.

Of language teaching tools, that is.

If you’re looking for a language teaching tool that works just as hard as you do, never gets tired and makes the whole teaching and learning experience loads more vivid and fun, then you already know you’re going to need a computer at some point.

Technology is powerful, and it has a uniquely strong way of grabbing attention, finding a relevant footing and really tuning students in to their language lessons.

But do you know exactly how to use this powerful technology that results in maximum benefit for you and your students?

Keep reading because in this post we talk about the phenomenon of Computer Assisted Language Learning and how it has fundamentally changed the way we teach a second language.

A Brief History of CALL

Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) is the general term for the range of processes and activities that employ computers in the teaching and learning of a new langauge.

In the history of CALL we can see the confluence of the latest technology as well as the most widely accepted language theories of the day.

The history of CALL is often divided into three phases:

  1. Structural CALL
  2. Communicative CALL
  3. Integrative CALL

Starting in the ’50s and developing through the ’70s, we have what’s called Structural/Behaviorist CALL by Warschauer. This marked the era of Stimulus and Response. The computer prompts the student with a question (stimulus) and the student gives an answer (response) by filling in the blanks or choosing from a given set of choices.

The methods du jour were the Grammar-Translation and Audiolingual methods. Language was seen as made up of discrete units, and these units were considered to be closely interconnected and interacting according to a predictable and explainable set of rules (grammar). Teachers taught the different rules of grammar and repetitively drilled their classes on different ways the rules can be correctly applied.

Computers at this stage were mainly utilized as devices that could present stimuli repetitively in exactly the same manner without ever getting tired. An example of this are the “listen-and-repeat” programs running in language labs at that time.

In the ’80s and ’90s came Communicative CALL. The Communicative Approach to language teaching came into being as a reaction to the Grammar-Translation and Audiolingual methods. This time, instead of teaching the language—its rules, syntax, phonemes and morphemes—teachers found ways to provide opportunities for students to actually use the language. They gave students tasks that can only be completed by using language. Communication and interaction were important.

And because such technology always comes in service of the language paradigm of the day, computers were used to reflect these ideas. Language drills were increasingly placed in the context of a communicative task—like programs that feature some cartoon character where students help him find his way home. Computer programs were designed to gauge comprehension with drills like paced reading and sentence reconstruction.

And developments in computer technology didn’t just affect the “testing” part of CALL. It really made teaching language more vivid. For example, the continued development in computer capabilities has resulted into crisper audio and video. So in addition to the drill formats, students can learn by watching videos of how native speakers actually interact. They can see how language is used in different situations, like in meeting a new person or asking for directions. Computers have given language learners a more vivid idea of what language is beyond the subject-verb agreements and the endless list of vocabulary words to be memorized.

The next phase of CALL is the Integrative Phase (which has reigned from 2000 onwards). First came the drills of the structural approach, then followed the skills in the communicative approach. Critics of the second phase say that the skills taught may be limited to the number and types of situations that may be presented to students. (We are not asking for directions or ordering food at the restaurant the whole time.)

There needs to be an integration of the (general language) knowledge presented in the first phase as well as the communicative skills of the second phase. So we have the integrative phase which blended the virtues of the previous decades into a technology that, for its part, has found its stride.

The development of the internet and hypermedia that can integrate, video and audio streaming, graphic-interactive content and virtual worlds, have redefined how learning is done. With today’s technology, you can develop speaking, listening, reading and writing skills concurrently and in the comfort of one’s private space and schedule.

And that, briefly, is how CALL has developed over the years.

What technology can do to redefine the concepts of teaching and learning language will be up for grabs for the next game changer.

Advantages: The 2 I’s of CALL


One of the advantages of CALL, in its present form, is the ability to cater to individual differences. Differences in learning styles, language skills desired, pacing and learning schedules can be easily accommodated.

It used to be that computer programs deliver a one-size-fits-all, cookie cutter material that can only be accessed after signing your university’s computer lab log book. Today, learning a language has not only been democratized, it has been individualized.

what is computer assisted language learning

For example, you create a free account in any of the major language learning sites like Busuu and Babbel and you start your own learning journey without interference from others. There are no classmates, no group lectures and no chorus of students repeating after teacher.

You decide how much time you want to put in and when you want to access it. There’s no calendar for classes where you’ll be marked absent when you don’t show up.

what is computer assisted language learning

You can access the materials anytime and anywhere you want. Actually, one way of looking at the history of CALL is by noticing how technology has individualized language learning. The university’s mainframes and language labs used to have a monopoly on some clunky software. Then came the PC in the 90s and were computers found a home in practically every home. Today, with mobile technology, language learning can be had on the go, while sitting on the bus, while waiting in line at the Apple store or even while taking a shower.


CALL has come so far along that it can virtually replace an actual teacher asking the class, “So, what do you guys think? What do you want to do next?”

what is computer assisted language learning

Well, not all teachers want input from their students. The advantage computers have is that they do need an input in order to run. That means they’re inherently interactive. Over the decades, the complexity of this interaction has been increasing. From the simple stimulus-response in early computers where students are practically passive learners, we now have CALL actually “learning” and “remembering” student preferences. From a simple text presentation, we now have gamified graphics like Mindsnacks.

The individualized nature of CALL has led to the second “I.” Interactive means that when you click on something, the computer responds. There’s enough flexibility built into the technology so that what happens in the lesson is largely up to you. Do you want to take it in this or that direction? Not only can the students choose which topics to study, skip or which ones to tackle first, they can click also forward and backward, and the computer obliges their commands.

The interactive nature of today’s CALL ensures that learning is always a two-way street. Students do have a say in what they want to learn. CALL is dynamic, not static. Robust not rigid.

How Is CALL Used?

To Teach

CALL applications can be used by teachers as technology partners in running their classrooms from the initial intro of language concepts to the giving of electronic homework. Students are using computers in practically every other aspect of their lives anyway, from locating the nearest coffee shop to shopping for new shoes. So why not throw learning a new language to the mix?

CALL, in addition to integrating technology in the learning process, also helps solve classic teacher problems like capturing student attention, maintaining student interest, holding focus and increasing engagement. Teachers can benefit from the great variety of interactive activities, games, songs and stories that make language learning not only painless but also fun.

what is computer assisted language learning

Applications like the award-winning Language Nut was developed for this very purpose and looks to be a complete solution and curriculum partner for language teachers. (It was developed, after all, by former language teachers.) It supports four language skills—listening, reading, writing, speaking—and has an immersive interface that’s easily addictive. In the world of Language Nut, you sing songs, play games, listen to stories and remember vocabulary all the way to fluency.

To Reinforce

CALL can also be used to reinforce a teacher’s classroom lessons and activities. When educators need help in making lessons more vivid and when they need the concepts to come alive, instead of pasting cut-outs and visual aids on the board they can make use of multimedia lessons offered in CALL.

CALL doesn’t have the physical limitations that cap humans. That’s why it can bridge the gap when human endurance and consistency need a boost. For example, a teacher can only repeat the lessons so many times. But repetition is key if no child in class is to be left behind. CALL apps, videos and programs can be run and rerun as many times as necessary, without fatigue and diminishing returns, and irrespective of geography or time. That means students can review and study the lessons long after the teacher has gone home and sound asleep.

To Test

There will probably never be a substitute for a teacher or a native speaker to determine whether a student has actually become fluent with the language, but CALL has become very good at assessing competency with subsets of a language. For example, it can easily determine if a student has mastered specific topics, like grammar and vocabulary.

But beyond simple testing really, CALL has been able to integrate both teaching and testing in a single stroke of a mouse. With programs like Duolingo, Memrise and Brainscape, there’s very little time gap between teaching and testing, or rather, very little difference between teaching and testing at all.

For example, in a simple translation exercise, the French word for smile (sourire) might be presented in a slide or flashcard with pics and an audio feed. With a simple click of the “next” button, a user might immediately be shown a slide that testing “What is French for smile?” This encourages the learner to recognize the word and produce the word in different contexts.

CALL is free of subjective biases and can faithfully follow a predetermined set of algorithms. That is, if a user shows mastery over certain topics or words then the program proceeds to other more difficult material. If they don’t have this knowledge ingrained yet, then it repeats the material until it has determined that the user has exhibited sufficient knowledge of the subject. In a way, the program tells the student, “Hey, you haven’t really learned this word yet, so I’m going to present it a couple more times so you can have it saved in your long-term memory.”

To Practice

CALL can be used even when classes are out and in the teacher’s absence. Language learning technology in its present form is student-initiated and student-centered, giving all the time and all the room in the world for students to practice. Language practice can be had in the privacy of one’s room and at a moment’s notice. And the kicker is that students get to do all this without fear of being negatively judged by others.

And of course, CALL practice is equal parts learning and fun as exemplified by Mindsnacks—a gamified approach to language learning. For example, it has a game called Dam Builder where you shift wooden logs around so that, in the end, you’re able to pair corresponding words/phrases.

But probably one of the most important contribution technology has to language learning is that it has given learners access to the native speakers. Technologies like italki and Skype took language learners from hammering at the language alone, to working with native speakers, tutors or teachers sitting in their own rooms half a world away. In the past, this kind of practice could only be had by flying across oceans.


CALL makes everything that much easier. From the teaching, reinforcing, testing and practicing, CALL presents itself as a capable and consistent partner to both teacher and student. It changed the way languages are being tamed.

But for all its virtues, there’s one thing that will always remain in the human province. Motivation. The zeal to learn a new language will always be alien to technology. Technology can’t manufacture drive out of thin air, for it’s fashioned into the inner recesses of the human spirit.

It takes a teacher like you to kindle such fire. It takes someone like you to spark wonder into the minds of your wards. And that’s why, for all CALL’s awesome potential, the greatest teacher of all, and for all time, will always be…a teacher.

Learn how to use these CALL options and get your students on the path to success!

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