An Invitation to CALL

Foundations of Computer-Assisted Language Learning

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An Invitation to CALL

Unit 1: Introduction to Computer-Assisted Language Learning.


CALL is the acronym for computer-assisted language learning. Although, as we will see below, the field or significant parts of it sometimes go by other names, CALL seems to be the most widely accepted generic term. In this foundation course, CALL will be used in a broad sense to refer to any endeavor involving the computers and associated technologies of all types--desktops, laptops, tablets, smart phones, mp3 players, interactive whiteboards, etc.--in some significant way in language teaching and learning.

There are a number of ways to conceptualize field of CALL, but one useful way, especially for those just entering the field, is to divide computer use according to the functional roles of tutor and tool, concepts popularized for CALL by Levy (1997).  A vocabulary flashcard program or set of online grammar exercises would represent tutor uses, where the computer in some way has a teaching function.  A language learning activity involving social media, an email program, or a web search engine like Google would represent tool uses, where the computer has no overt teaching function. A third and increasingly important area not covered by Levy is digital resources: texts, audio recordings, and videos or other multimedia objects readily available on the web or through dedicated apps. These provide language content for learners to support reading and listening skills as well as provide a window into the target language cultures. They can also provide material to support interactive discussions. Online gaming platforms like World of Warcraft can simultaneously involve language resources and interactivity.

This distinction is sometimes reflected in an unfortunate division in CALL between those who see the computer primarily as a machine for delivering interactive language learning and practice material--the computer as tutor--and those who see it mainly as a means for learners to experience the authentic language and communication opportunities and enhancements afforded by computers--the computer as tool. Because most early CALL applications were tutorial and tool uses arguably dominate now, it is easy to think of CALL as evolving, leaving tutorial CALL as something of a dinosaur.

In reality, all aspects of CALL have continued to develop, and in this course, we do not attempt to rate one as being more important or useful than the other. In fact, it is possible, even preferable, to recognize these not as opposing philosophies but as end points along the same sort of language teaching continuum, analogous to the one that balances teacher-fronted and group work in a classroom. In other words, effective language learning can include elements of both. Consequently, in this introductory course, I will try to strike a balance between them so that you are better prepared to recognize the potential advantages of using neither, one, or both for a given teaching situation.


 This field has gone by a number of different names as groups of practitioners have attempted to promote their own views and philosophies, in some cases in an attempt to distance the field from tutorial CALL, which is sometimes regarded as incompatible with interactionist and social constructivist approaches to language teaching. The list below is representative but not exhaustive.

While acknowledging the existence of these alternative labels, for the purposes of this course we will call CALL "CALL". One reason is because CALL as a label for the field may have more traction in university settings because of its association with the term computer in departments of computer science and computer engineering. There, the concept of computer encompasses the full range of digital devices and the networks that connect them, as well as the great variety of software including mobile apps.


CALL began in the 1960s with mainframe-based drill and practice materials, especially those based on the University of Illinois' PLATO system. It remained an insignificant alternative for  language learning outside of a few universities until the spread of the microcomputer into educational settings in the early 1980s. Early programs were written by teacher-developers on Apple II, IBM PC, and BBC computers, and were often distributed for free. Commercial programs, when available, were usually quite expensive but were generally more stable and technically sophisticated (though not as innovative). There was some work done with interactive laser disks during this time which provided the foundations for multimedia. The traditional language labs began to be replaced with dedicated computer labs for language learning, a trend that continues today.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, the Apple Macintosh replaced the Apple II in many educational settings in the US and became an immediate favorite among teacher-developers because of the support of HyperCard, a powerful but easy-to-use authoring program. The Mac had built-in sound, making it easier to work with than PCs, which had incompatible proprietary boards competing with one another. Early Macs (and HyperCard) did not support color, however, so commercial programs continued to appear for PCs. The PC market was also dominant in most countries outside the US because the machines could be obtained much more cheaply than Macs.  Reasonably-priced authoring programs became available for PCs, and with the development of the Windows operating system for PCs and standardization of sound formats, the distinction between PC and Mac became less critical.

During this period, the use of the computer as a tool increased, especially as teachers developed innovative techniques for using email and word processors became integrated into writing classes. Some teachers helped students develop their own HyperCard projects or ones in similar applications developed for the PC, such as ToolBook. It was observed that building collaborative projects around the computer and using computer mediated communication (CMC) activities had a strong effect on some students' motivations and seemed to make it easier for shy students to become involved. Some teachers built assignments around student interactions in multi-user domains (MUDs and MOOs), types of enriched chat environments.

Two major changes came starting in the mid-1990s. One was the dramatic increase in commercial multimedia for language learning as CD-ROMs became standard in home computers. The other was the development of the world wide web. Because of the web and increased access to the Internet in general, the past has seen a major shift toward tool uses, and many newcomers to CALL define the field almost entirely in those terms. Increasingly, CALL is being integrated into language learning activities both in and out of class.

The first decade of the 21st century saw a continuation of all the previous areas along with the growth of language learning applications and activities for mobile devices, especially mobile phones (MALL), the spread of Web 2.0 ( and social media, and experimentation with language learning in virtual worlds. Increasingly, CALL was being integrated into language learning activities both in and out of class. In particular, streaming video services like Youtube made it possible to have access to an incredible supply of free, authentic spoken-language and cultural material. In the 2010s we have witnessed the incredible spread of smartphones and their apps into our lives, rapid expansion of streaming media, video CMC through Skype and many other applications, ubiquitous computing (including wearables, like watches), gamification, and increasing normalization, the last referring to a state where we're so used to technology we may stop thinking about it as creatively. The range of options continues to grow at a much faster pace than our understanding of them.

In 2009, I published a four-volume edited set, Computer Assisted Language Learning: Critical Concepts in Linguistics (Routledge), an anthology of 74 key articles covering the whole field of CALL. The introductory chapter, available at, provides a more detailed overview of how the field developed through the late-2000s.


Second anguage acquisition research and language teaching methodology today often involve technology as part of the context. At the core of CALL is the idea that this technology mediation is not neutral.

This figure from Levy & Hubbard (2005) shows how the learner interacts through the "computer" in the broadest sense with teachers, peers, others, and materials in the pursuit of language learning objectives. Among other things, this mediation can involve

Archiving & indexing
Time control

These can and often do change the nature of the interaction, as when machine translation or speech recognition (speech transformed to text) is available.


The basic reason for doing CALL is to make language teaching or learning "better". But what does that mean? Here are some ways in which CALL can impact the learning process.

These have been the goals of CALL since the beginning (along with making the teacher's life better). It has become clear in reecent years, though, that another reason for integrating technology into language learning is because when the teaching is done, learners will become users of the language and technology is likely to be the mediator of their language use as well. Thus, teaching with technology is an example of authenticity, not just an add-on to the classroom.



CALL comes in many varieties. many of these are discussed in the units that follow, but for now, here is a taste of the sort of topics covered in recent academic journals and other scholarly resources attempting to build our understanding of how technology mediates second language learning and use.

These applications and others are discussed throughout the course.


Teachers interested in using technology can get involved in a number of different ways, which can be seen as different teacher roles.

Mike Levy and I (Hubbard & Levy, 2006) have taken this idea of role and developed it further it to try to delineate the field for the purposes of CALL teacher education. Specifically, we distinguish two types of roles for individuals engaged in CALL: institutional and functional. Institutional roles include classroom teachers, both pre- and in-service, specialists of various kinds (language lab managers, language skill area specialists, etc.), and professionals (those whose career centers on CALL). Functional roles include practitioners, developers, researchers, and trainers. This will be covered in more detail in Unit 7.


In late 2008 TESOL International Association (formerly Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages: published the TESOL Technology Standards Framework, the first set of technology standards aimed specifically at teachers and learners of English, but readily extendable to other languages. I was one of six members of the writing team that drafted those standards.

The Standards are meant to serve a number of purposes, including the following:  

Users of this course are encouraged to become familiar with the teacher standards in particular and to use them as guides in setting targets throughout this course and beyond. The Standards Framework has now been made available for free by TESOL at See Unit 7 for more information. It is highly recommended that you begin this course by reviewing the Standards and evaluating your current CALL proficiency with respect to them. See the performance indicators starting on p. 29 of the framework document.


I had two calls a few years ago that stuck in my mind: one from someone interested in knowing about best practices and cutting-edge apps and another from someone trying to collect support for the idea that online learning was not effective for language learning. The calls represented the range between those who almost blindly accept the notion that new technology automatically equates with better learning and those that continue insisting that technology across the board gives a degraded learning experience. The key concept is this: technology mediates between learners and teachers, peers, others (including native speakers), and a vast array of digital text, audio, and video materials. It is understanding the nature of that mediation and how learners react to it that defines this field. As we will see in Unit 7, both teachers and learners will profit from knowledge and skill training in this area.

In the next unit, we will be discussing evaluation of software, materials, and tasks for CALL, along with some brief notes on development and implementation.


There have been many CALL books, especially edited volumes, written in the past 30 years and the number has increased noticeably since the turn of the century. Here is a sample of some relatively recent ones worth looking at, but there are many more.


CALL has been around as a professional specialization since the early 1980s. There are a number of professional organizations devoted to CALL around the world, dedicated national and international conferences,  and refereed academic journals, such as those below.


TESOL CALL Interest Section Annotated Software List,  (by Deborah Healey & Norm Johnson)
ICT4LT. See An excellent set of modules giving in-depth coverage to the field of CALL, though increasingly dated.
Claire Bradin Siskin's Edvista Site A number of useful CALL resources for teachers
For fun: Ohio University's Holodeck at;


1. Try learning a new language through web-based or mobile app software for an hour or two and reflect on your experience.

See comments on these and alternatives at

2. Download the free version of the TESOL Technology Standards Framework at Starting on p. 29, use the performance indicators to help rate your self in terms of meeting the Teacher Standards. 


Hubbard, Philip & Levy, Mike (2006). "The Scope of CALL Education" in Hubbard, Philip & Levy, Mike (eds.) Teacher Education in CALL. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hubbard, Philip (Ed.) (2009). Computer Assisted Language Learning: Critical Concepts in Linguistics. London: Routledge.

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