What Is Computer-assisted Language Learning and How Does It Work?
If you’re a teacher like me, you know how hard it is to get students off their smartphones and paying attention to the lesson.
As you watch them get absorbed in their devices, you might wonder if they’re actually learning anything from you!
Luckily, there’s a way to incorporate that same technology distracting your students into your classroom environment.
Not only that, but you can also use it to help them learn better—and that’s where Computer-assisted Language Learning (CALL) comes in.
- What Is Computer-assisted Learning?
- Applications of CAL for Language Learning
- Advantages of Computer-assisted Language Learning
- Disadvantages of Computer-assisted Language Learning
What Is Computer-assisted Learning?
Before you can decide whether Computer-assisted Learning (CAL) should be your new teaching methodology, let’s take a look at what CAL is.
Computer-assisted Learning encompasses a lot of different technologies and ideas. The Intense School, which focuses on computer and information technology, summarizes it simply as “the use of electronic devices/computers to provide educational instruction and to learn.”
More broadly, CAL includes the use of electronics such as CD and MP3 players (or record players in the 1960s), DVD players, tablets, smartphones and television. These tools can help better illustrate a point the teacher is trying to make or heighten engagement among students.
CAL also includes online courses and supplemental course materials used in colleges, homeschooling and distance learning. Basically, any type of technology that can be used to learn most likely falls beneath the CAL umbrella.
Applications of CAL for Language Learning
While the use of CAL can be useful in any classroom, it’s especially beneficial in language learning contexts.
In fact, it’s so effective that it gets its own acronym! CALL (Computer-assisted Language Learning) is quickly becoming a preferred teaching tool among foreign language instructors.
Here are some examples of how CALL can help students learn languages:
- Visual Learning: Using the internet, you can easily search for pictures of fruits, animals or colors so your students see what you mean and have an image to associate with the word you’re describing. You can also use a program like FluentU to demonstrate how words or grammar are used by native speakers. FluentU showcases videos where languages are used naturally, complete with interactive subtitles your students can use to look up the meaning of a word, example sentences, tips on how to use it, etc.
- Listening Practice: Listening practice is a vital part of learning any language. CALL helps with this by allowing you to, say, play interactive audio designed for English learners. Not only will your students listen to the language being used naturally, but they’ll also pick up on pronunciation. They can then emulate the speakers and find their own voice in their new tongue.
- Tests: Using CALL technology, you can create your own test and have your students use the class computers to take it. You can also find exam materials on the internet and use those in your lessons. And with programs like Duolingo, Memrise and Brainscape, there’s only a tiny time gap between teaching and testing, since students get near-instantaneous feedback from these.
- Games: Games are perhaps one of the best ways to use CALL in the classroom. Language students (especially young ones) love playing computer games or doing puzzles in their target language. To them, it doesn’t feel like learning—it feels like having fun. They won’t even realize they’re getting smarter as they try to get to the next level or solve a tough crossword!
- Online Courses: CALL can include online courses. These courses can be taken on one’s own time at home, possibly as a part of a full college course load. They can also be taken as a supplement to a classroom-based language course. There are hundreds of free and paid language courses online, and many of them can be extremely effective.
- Communication with Native Speakers: One of the most important contributions technology has to language learning is that it has given learners access to native speakers. Technologies like italki and Skype allow language learners to work with native speakers, tutors or teachers half a world away.
Advantages of Computer-assisted Language Learning
Caters to the Individual
With CAL, each student can go at their own pace and study in their own time. Computer lessons or games normally adapt to the individual based on their own progress, not on a set standard, so each student is able to have a more personalized experience. Also, differences in learning styles, language skills desired, pacing and learning schedules can be easily accommodated.
For example, students can create a free account on major language learning sites like Busuu and Babbel. They can decide how much time they want to put in and when they want to access these apps. There’s no calendar for classes where they’ll be marked absent when they don’t show up. There are also no classmates, group lectures or choruses of students repeating after the teacher.
Promotes Active Interaction and Use of Target Language
It’s fine to sit in class, repeat words and make verb charts. However, true learning comes when that knowledge is used in a real situation (or, at least, something close to or replicates a real situation). Students who actively use the language they’re trying to learn are more likely to remember certain words or phrases.
The advantage computers have over human teachers is that they need input to run. That means they’re inherently interactive. Interactive means that when you click or tap on something, the computer responds. There’s enough flexibility built into the technology so that what happens in the lesson is largely up to the student.
Further, the students can choose which topics to study, which ones to skip and which ones to tackle first. If they want to click forward or backward, the computer obliges their commands.
Lets Students See Their Progress
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 room in the world for students to practice. Language practice can be done 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.
Also, every time students solve a puzzle or get to the next level in a game or online course, they feel as if they’re doing well, which keeps them engaged in the lessons. The computer or app will automatically generate results for them, which can motivate them to keep going and help them zero in on areas of improvement.
Breaks Down Complex Topics into Smaller Pieces
Sometimes it’s tough for teachers to break down complex topics because they don’t know the best way to go about it. Computer games and lessons, on the other hand, can break down lesson materials into bite-sized chunks that can be learned and retained more easily.
Further, CALL is free of subjective biases and is designed to 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.
Helps Reinforce Lessons Without Being Repetitive
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, they can use multimedia lessons offered in CALL instead of pasting cut-outs and visual aids on the board.
Also, CALL doesn’t have the limitations humans do. For example, a teacher can only repeat the lessons so many times. But repetition is key if no child in the class is to be left behind. CALL apps, videos and programs can be run and rerun as many times as necessary without diminishing returns. That means students can review and study the lessons long after the teacher has gone home.
Is Interesting and Engaging
Let’s be real: A bored student isn’t a good one. While there are students who don’t mind hour-long lectures, others may require more stimulation to stay involved and actively learning. CAL is perfect for this because it offers many ways for each student to engage and stay interested in the topic at hand.
For example, applications like Language Nut support four language skills—listening, reading, writing, speaking—and has an immersive interface. With it, students can sing songs, play games, listen to stories and remember vocabulary.
Disadvantages of Computer-assisted Language Learning
Can Be Expensive
Cost is perhaps the biggest barrier to using CAL in the classroom. Computers, electronic devices and software are expensive. As such, having a computer for each student is just not a realistic goal for some classrooms.
One way to get around this is to let the students use their own computers or smartphones for their language lessons. However, not all of them have access to these devices. They may also not be comfortable with the idea of using the same devices they use to ping friends about the next weekend getaway to study the intricacies of Spanish conjugation.
Can Be Difficult for Teachers to Implement
Any time electronics become involved in something, it gets more complicated (at least initially). Some teachers may have to learn how to use computers or smartphones themselves before they can have their students use them, and that training can take up a lot of precious time.
Aside from learning the hardware, you also have to learn how to work the software. You must not only check what features it has, but also check if there are any bugs (defects) that might get in the way of your students making the most of that software.
Activities May Not Always Fit the Teacher’s Goals
When using third-party programs, videos or lessons, it can be hard to find one that exactly fits your needs or teaching style.
There are going to be times when an online quiz doesn’t have the exact words you want to test for. It may be that the video you’re watching doesn’t use every part of speech you need to highlight. Teachers have to find a way to integrate CAL into their lessons without letting it dictate the material to be learned, and sometimes finding that balance can be tough.
Also, you have to double-check the material presented by the CALL technology before you use it in the classroom. The last thing you want is an awkward situation where you have to correct an inaccurate fact in a language app, leading students to wonder why you let them use it in the first place.
Can Lead to Isolation Among Students
Imagine a classroom full of students, each at their own computer, not looking at each other and only interacting with the computer in front of them. Socializing is an important part of language use, and humans learn new things about language from interacting with each other. In other words, students need other students to help them learn, and CAL can get in the way of this.
Still, CAL can be an incredible teaching resource when integrated into the classroom. By using it to supplement your curriculum rather than dictate it, CAL can transform the ways students learn languages—or anything else, for that matter!
In the end, it’s up to each individual teacher to decide whether computer-assisted language learning is right for their lessons. As long as the pros and cons are evaluated fairly, the use of computers in the classroom can be a great way to utilize new technology and enhance the language learning experience.