An Invitation to CALL

Foundations of Computer-Assisted Language Learning

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An Invitation to CALL

Unit 4: 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?

In the 20th Anniversary Issue of Language Learning & Technology (June, 2016), Robert Blake provides a valuable review of some key developments in the four skills for CALL, framing it under the umbrella of task-based language teaching. He notes that isolating each of the four-skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) in practice is no longer as relevant as it was historically, given contemporary views of integrated language development and multi-modal expression. However, the content and commentary that the article provides remain valuable for curricula incorporating technology, regardless of whether they isolate or integrate those skills:


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 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. Some have links to external websites (commonly called portals), some have only their own material, and some have both, 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.

An example of a course website for one of my recent listening classes is at  The notes have both links and examples of listening assignments.  Good sites for authentic videos are,, and Authentic podcasts for listening can be found at among other sites. There are also a number of useful dedicated ESL listening sites: three well-established ones 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 audio discussion applications like or by simply attaching sound files to email. Using the video message feature of Skype, WhatsApp, or Facebook Messenger serves the same purpose. There has also been interest in having students produce and publish audio or video podcasts. For synchronous speaking practice, there are sites for tandem learning such as, which can connect language exchange partners through Skype. A list of a number of other language exchange sites can be found at Duolingo also has an option for users to find speaking partners. Technology devices can be a catalyst as well as the tool for speaking: having students share a device in groups of two or more can 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 because the computer cannot really respond intelligently to the speaker's input, although "intelligent" assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google may be of some value in speaking practice if a learner's accent is transparent to their speech recognition systems. A program I helped author that used speech recognition and branching dialogues for speaking and listening practice was TRACITalk: The Mystery (CPI, 1997), an example of a participatory drama: see for a discussion.

Perhaps the most widely used indirect method for supporting speaking is simply to listen to conversational dialogues on disk or the web or through apps, using the dialogues as models for interactions in common situations. It has also been suggested by practitioners as well as researchers (e.g., Payne & Whitney, 2002) that using text-based chat supports the development of speaking skills indirectly due to the synchronous and informal nature of chat. Another potential, but relatively undeveloped area is the use of "chatbots" that incorporate keyword analysis to provide a simulated interaction: see for an 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. Given the increasing popularity of electronic readers such as Amazon's Kindle (, with its ability, for example, to link to an electronic dictionary, the tools used for reading are likely to become richer supports for language learning.

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.

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: see 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.

It should be noted, however, that ASR scoring is often not the same as a native speaker or pronunciation teacher would give: sometimes a native speaker will even be marked low. Also problems with the quality of the microphone, environmental noise, electronic or mechanical noise from the computer, and input settings for the microphone can all affect the accuracy of speech recognition, and certain sounds are more accurately recognized than others.

There are a number of commercial CD-ROMs for teaching pronunciation, though increasingly these appear as web-based downloads or apps. These are generally superior to the text and tape alternatives because of the ease of recording and repetition, as well as forms of feedback. There are also some commercial and teacher-produced sites with pronunciation instruction. Among the more comprehensive is Rachel's English:


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 MIT hosts a website for the Cultura Project, supporting development of cultural understanding and connecting students from different cultures to one another


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.


Payne, J. S., & Whitney, P. J. (2002). Developing L2 oral proficiency through synchronous CMC: Output, working memory, and interlanguage development. CALICO Journal 20.1.

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Last modified: February 10, 2020 by Phil Hubbard