An Invitation to CALL

Foundations of Computer-Assisted Language Learning

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Unit 5: CALL and Language Skills


Skills-oriented language teaching remains a common approach for classes as well as for self-learning, and computer-assisted language learning is no exception. In this unit, we look at how both tool and tutor software can be used to support specific skills. In particular, we will look at some websites that focus on these skill areas. Many of these are for free, but like everything else that's free on the web, the sites need to be looked at carefully for their pedagogical value. Once you understand what they do, try to judge their fit to your potential students and your own teaching approach. You can also use them to get ideas for your own future CALL materials development.The questions you should be trying to answer are the following:

  1. What have teachers/developers done to teach the skill areas using computers?
  2. To what extent does what they've done actually enhance learning?
  3. And most important, how can you use these resources to support your students' learning objectives?

A good set of links for all skills can be found at the Ohio Program of Intensive English site: Also, there are online language proficiency tests available, such as those by World English:


Because of the enormous number of English teachers and learners, there are quite a few multi-skill collections for ESL.,A few, such as by the Kelly brothers ( and are mostly labors of love for students and colleagues around the world; often, however, these are commercial, aimed at getting "eyeballs" for advertisers. Some of these are divided by skills and have examples of web-based materials: see for example or or just type "ESL" plus the skill you're interested in into Google. Collections for other commonly taught languages can be found in a similar way. One type of collection is a portal, which is a website that has a large number of links to other websites, such as


Listening is potentially one of the most promising areas for CALL development. This is because multimedia computing has everything standard audio and video have with the addition of a variety of meaning technologies such as text support, hyperlinked glossaries, and even translations.  Listening activities typically involve presentations followed by comprehension questions--some also include full or partial dictations.  One type of presentation specific to CALL is the punctuated presentation, in which the flow is interrupted at intervals to ask questions along the way. This in theory encourages more focused attention and allows a learner to get a check on understanding early in the activity. This technique was popularized in products by DynEd beginning around 1990. Surprisingly few multimedia programs have followed their example.

Examples of course website for two of my recent listening classes are at and The notes have both links and examples of listening assignments.  An overview of listening on the web from a 2003 TESOL colloquium is available at Note that the list there includes a number of sites where you can find authentic audio or video materials supported by text. A good one for English for academic purposes is Uncommon Knowledge, featuring interviews and panel discussions with public policy experts (note: only the ones before 2006 have the text).

There are a number of useful dedicated ESL listening sites: three of my favorites are,, and


In terms of direct practice of speaking, recent developments on the web have allowed for voice chat sites which make it possible for learners and teachers to interact through the Internet in distance education courses.  Asynchronous speaking practice is possible through, using Internet voice mail, or simply attaching sound files to email. There has also been interest recently in having students produce and publish podcasts. Many believe that putting students in front of a computer in groups of two or more will get them talking about the computer task and improve speaking fluency, although research has not always borne this out: like many other CALL activities, it depends on the students' readiness and motivation. For tutorial CALL, practicing speaking has always been tricky. Auralog's TellMeMore,  is an example of a program which allow some limited conversation simulation that gives something of the experience through the use of speech recognition software. Most programs simply rely on voice recording, with the learner simply recording a line from a dialogue and then comparing it with the native sample.

It has been suggested by many practitioners that using text-based chat supports the development of speaking skills indirectly due to the synchronous and informal nature of chat:. The most widely used indirect method for practicing speaking is simply to listen to conversational dialogues on disk or the web. See, for example,


In the early days of CALL, reading software was designed to improve skills in order to transfer them to paper materials. More recently, reading in digital form is becoming more and more common.

Most CALL reading instruction, first on disk and later on the web, has involved the use of meaning technologies. These include dedicated applications, such as hypertext glossaries, translations, and notes (on grammar, usage, culture), put together by developers for particular texts and generic applications such as electronic dictionaries, encyclopedias, translation systems like Google's A number of studies have shown an advantage for comprehension and vocabulary acquisition when reading materials are supported by multimedia glossaries, and both native speaker and language learner texts exist with voice enhancement (text to speech) texts and dynamically illustrated material.

Here are some other ways CALL can be used to support reading


Writing was revolutionized for everyone with word processing, and the addition of spell checkers has been quite helpful. Grammar and style checkers are much less useful to date, and using a thesaurus can be counterproductive if students aren't trained in their limitations. Writing has also been a common skill taught as a course through distance education using the Internet. 

Some other ways computers enhance writing instruction include the following.

Some other ways computers enhance writing instruction include the following.

With respect to the last point, writing publication opportunities are readily available through Wikis and Blogs. Wikis are webpages that can be easily modified by multiple users (see, for example, Wikipedia: and are particularly good for collaborative projects, while blogs (weblogs) are online journals that individual students or groups can publish and allow others to leave comments on: see


Grammar practice was perhaps the earliest use of CALL. Today grammar work is largely focused on the following:


Pronunciation work is generally of three types.

In fact, the Rosetta Stone site ( provides a good opportunity to explore all three types of pronunciation support, currently in their demo of Turkish. The sample lessons allow you to see intonation tracking as well as get a machine score of the closeness of your pronunciation to a native norm. It should be noted, however, that this scoring is not the same as a native speaker would give: sometimes a native speaker will even be marked low. There is a problem sometimes with the quality of the microphone, environmental noise, electronic or mechanical noise from the computer, and input settings for the microphone that can all effect the accuracy of speech recognition.

There are a number of commercial CD-ROMs for teaching pronunciation. These are generally superior to the text and tape alternatives. An example is Pronunciation in American English, There are also some useful sites with pronunciation support: one example is


Vocabulary activities have been around since the early days of CALL in the form of electronic flashcards (linking L2 word to L1 translation or L2 word to L2 definition). Other common CALL implementations for vocabulary include the following.

An outstanding site for vocabulary teaching and research tools is Tom Cobb's Compleat Lexical Tutor:


Obviously, this is a huge area for foreign language teaching, where authentic cultural material is readily accessible through the web. There are many ways to use the authentic material found on websites to support cultural learning. YouTube,, is a particularly useful application for this purpose with intermediate and advanced students, see Links specifically for teaching culture can be found at   To review a proposed pedagogical framework for culture and technologies, see Levy (2007) at


Select one skill area that particularly interests you. After reviewing some of the sources mentioned above, find several other web sources on your own and review them for their potential to integrate into or supplement your class activities.


Last modified: February 11, 2010, by Phil Hubbard