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A Survey of Unanswered Questions in CALL: Background

Computers are increasingly working their way  into the lives of language teachers and learners. Whether backed by research or not, people are going to use computers to help them teach and learn languages. As a field, CALL has the potential to aid computer-using teachers and students by pointing them in the direction of more effective implementations and away from less effective ones. While a certain amount of this can reasonably be done by looking at the face value of descriptions of content, applications, and practice research has a critical role to play as well.

CALL research is difficult. It is in principle more diverse than language learning research itself, since it is informed not only by the disciplines that underlie instructed second language acquisition theory and practice, but also by those of computer science, instructional design and human-computer interaction. It is further influenced by constantly evolving technology and by shifts in the technical sophistication of the users. This diversity results in a field whose research agenda is diffuse and whose results are often difficult to interpret and generalize. Navigating this field is especially difficult for newcomers (both graduate students and professional researchers) and for those coming into CALL from peripheral fields such as education, psychology, linguistics, computer science, and so on. Understanding what constitutes useful research questions is obviously important.

There a number of  ways to identify interesting and plausible research questions. Thinking helps, as does reviewing existing research in edited volumes and journals such as CALICO Journal, CALL Journal, ReCALL, IALLT Journal, and especially the free online journal Language Learning and Technology. Looking to language learning theory for applications to research is another useful method, and insuring that hypotheses to be tested have some basis in theory whenever possible is also important, a point that is central to Chapelle (2001).

Another route into CALL research is to see what CALL professionals consider important. This can be done by inference through reviewing patterns of previous research, but there are also a few sources of suggested research questions.  For example, Dunkel (1991) offers lists of both current questions (p. 8) and future ones (p. 26). Egbert & Hanson-Smith (1999) provide the richest collection of proposed research questions: there are lists at the end of each of the eight major sections of their edited volume. Chapelle (2001, p. 68) presents a list of evaluative questions that make it possible to judge empirically the degree to which proposed CALL tasks are consistent with some established findings in SLA theory.

The current project is also built on the considered opinions of CALL professionals. In this case, a survey was sent to 120 of them, asking each to identify a single unanswered research question in the field. The following two research questions were addressed:

  1. What do CALL professionals collectively want to know? Are there general trends?

  2. Are there any clear differences among researchers, developers, and practitioners?

However, the primary motivation for the survey was to collect the questions themselves and make them available online. The survey was sent out in early July 2002 and submissions for the initial study were accepted until August 14, yielding a total of 64 usable responses. Several surveys that arrived after that date appear on this site but are not part of the statistics in the following sections. The results were presented at the 10th International CALL Conference in Antwerp on August 19.

The following section (Survey & Respondents) presents the survey itself and some demographics of the 64 respondents. The final section (Results & Discussion) gives a few of the trends that emerged and some tentative interpretations.


Chapelle, C. (2001). Computer Applications in Second Language Acquisition: Foundations for Teaching, Testing, and Research. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Dunkel, P. (ed.) (1991). Computer Assisted Language Learning and Testing: Research Issues and Practice. New York: Newbury House/Harper Collins.

Egbert, J. & Hanson-Smith, E. (ed.) (1999). CALL Environments: Research, Practice, and Critical Issues. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.