Sunday, April 1, 2007

What is CALL: Computer Assisted Language and Literacy

In Seattle recently, where I was attending the annual TESOL Conference, it happened time and time again. The first time was at Phil Hubbard's presentation in the CALL Academic session ("CALL Research Determines Effective CALL Practices: Misconception or Myth?" An academic session is a colloquium sponsored by an interest section in TESOL at which the stronger members of the Interest Section inform the membership at large about recent developments in some aspect of the interest section's field of interest.

Perhaps I should point out that I helped start the CALL Interest Section (CALL-IS, in TESOL back in 1982-1983 (Stevens, 2003), so I'm not the most obvious person to be questioning use of that acronym, which is well understood in the field of ESL/EFL to stand for "computer-assisted language learning." But during Phil's presentation someone asked him what another of the acronyms he used meant (CMC, computer mediated communication). Up went my hand and when Phil called on me I asked him, "What about that other acronym you used, what was it ..?" I pretended to ponder a second. "Oh, yes, CALL -- what does THAT mean?"

In his presentation (slide 9 at the URL above) Phil had made the point that "Many research subjects are probably novices to CALL, may lack technical skills, and are untrained, undirected, and studied only during their initial experience. Thus, our research base in CALL is skewed." I was wondering why this should be the case, and if it mattered whether students were familiar with "CALL" - and this is what begged the question, what exactly is CALL? Prior experience would matter if the subjects were unfamiliar with computers, but if the subjects were reasonably 'literate' in use of computers, then they would have familiarity with how computer software can be expected to work, and then it would be a question of interface; that is, the independent variable in the research would be how well the interface was designed, whether it followed a pattern of intuitive use by literate users, not whether or not CALL was effective. An analogous case would be to ask whether libraries were effective by setting 'books' as an independent variable and ignoring what it was about those books that appealed to and communicated with readers.

Also, why would "CALL" presuppose that students used software designed for a certain purpose, and not software that they were already familiar with? For example, if a program were meant to teach them a certain grammar point, what if that program used Google searches to ferret out insights regarding that grammar point, or a 'CALL' program (a learning management system perhaps?) that directed them to Google in the course of their study of that grammar point? Or if students were using common Web 2.0 tools to 'assist' their learning of a language, then would unfamiliarity with the software be an issue?

Phil did not specifically indicate in his presentation what studies he was referring to, but his references point to at least two meta-analyses of a respectable range of CALL-oriented journals from the years 2000-2005. I was unable in the online references given to hone in on the instances that corroborated his finding that many research studies on CALL used subjects who were unfamiliar with the software under study. Thus I was unable to determine whether 'novice to CALL' implied 'novice in use of computers'. And if this was a concern in past studies how rapidly is this consideration evaporating as an issue when a widely expressed concern of digital immigrant teachers nowadays is the challenge posed by the steadily improving computer skills of a new wave of digital native students? (Prensky, 2001)

Phil and I have known each other for some time and he knows both my sense of humor and my serious side, so to his credit, and considering I had obliquely challenged the subject of his talk, he took the question in stride and entertained a short dialog wherein he attempted to define the term and I got to indicate why I asked this seemingly most obvious of questions.

Phil said something to the effect that he took the term to mean any form of language learning in which a computer is used. The impetus for my question was how perceptions of this term have changed over time, granted general agreement with Phil's definition. A quarter century ago, when the CALL Interest Section was formed, there were not so many things that CALL could mean. Twenty-five years ago, before computers started permeating almost every electronic device we use nowadays, you almost had to be sitting in front of a large box clearly identified as a computer in order to be using one. These days, computers drive many common devices such as mobile telephones and CD-ROM and DVD players, but I wasn't quibbling over where the computer was so much as how it was used.

In the early days of "CALL" there were also fewer options in how computers might be used with students. Many of the first efforts of CALL development saw practitioners, when they had the opportunity to make use of computers in their curricula, transfer drill and practice into computer-based format on the assumption that if drill and kill was good for language learning, as was assumed at the time, then overkill was better, and computers could serve to keep students engaged long after the teacher had flagged. Another learning model in vogue at the time, programmed instruction or mastery learning, also seemed appropriate to a computer-based medium, in the context of what was originally called CAI, or computer assisted instruction. It was only later that the I for instruction became L for learning, a subtle but significant shift in perspective on the computer's role in the learning process as opposed to its place in the instructional algorithm. In these early days, another strong metaphor -- tutor, tool, tutee (Taylor, 1980) -- suggested how computers might be used in discovery learning, and a book chapter I prepared toward the end of last century focused on humanistic uses of computers as opposed to behaviorist ones (Stevens, 1992), which had been a preponderant supposition in the earliest models.

It has taken time for the common perception of CALL to be something other than software you plug students into. Perhaps the first widely-used CALL program that wasn't specifically designed as a CALL program was the word processor, one of the 'tools' presaged in Taylor's book. This one tool
enabled teachers to once and for all put into practice components of the writing process they had well into the late 90's been inflicting on students by having them copy out drafts longhand. The second such universally used computer-based tool to radically assist language learning was the browser. Here again, the tool was not designed specifically for language learning, but it was of invaluable use in providing unlimited access to authentic native examples of target language on topics of interest to the learners (not contrived or selected by their teachers). Since then examples of such tools have proliferated: search engines, egroups, translators, online reference works, instant messengers, VOIP tools, blogs, vlogs, and wikis, MOOs and MUVEs, learning and content management systems, social networking spaces such as Elgg, MySpace, Orgut, and Facebook ... the list goes on and on.

Thousands of such tools have now proliferated in the online environment. Most are available for free, and many fall under the category of Web 2.0, which means they provide space online where student can interact with each other by acting not only as recipients of information downloaded from the Internet, but creators, sharers, and collaborators as well, of content written to mutually accessible free Web spaces. The impact on language learning of this singular development is to my mind no less than astounding, and it is what I have in mind when I imagine students engaged in
computer-assisting language learning.

At the conference in Seattle I sat through many presentations in which I found myself asking the same question, often out loud - what does the presenter mean by CALL? I get the feeling that despite the fact that we are all surely using a healthy range of tools just mentioned, the use of the term CALL seems to be somehow associated with shrink wrapped software still in evidence in the publisher's area of the convention center. People are still asking, what can I buy there to apply in my institution so that I can sit my students down (sit and get, as Wesley Fryer calls it) and have them learn a language within the parameters the programmer has laid out for them? My answer would be none of this. Sure, buy copies of a wide range of software and assemble a library that will give teachers activities for occasional variety and ideas for future development, but use the tools that abound for free on the Internet to help students learn in real, authentic, communicative settings.

It could be that the research base Phil was referring to is skewed toward studies involving software of the programmed variety. What is required is a research base where digital natives are more and more the subjects in the study, and the tools that are considered as "CALL" are the items of software that those digital natives use in the course of their daily lives, not software brought in for the purpose of a study, that might have interface design flaws, and might not particularly interest subjects whose use of software is normally predicated on their perception of whether becoming proficient in that software will help them to function in future contexts where that software might apply.

I finally came to John Madden's presentation, "Designing CALL Training 2.0," whose abstract was: "What should training in computer-assisted language learning (CALL) offer prospective teachers? A new teacher trainer reflects upon his experiences trying to create a CALL course by first experimenting with CALL training in the existing curriculum." It struck me that in his presentation, where John alluded to skills teachers would need to utilize CALL, he was grappling not so much with CALL issues but with literacy ones. And the second thing that struck me is that perhaps we should re-design our perception of CALL itself through a slight-handed CIA (change in acronym). When it came my turn to ask again the inevitable question, I proposed something along these lines:

CALL: Computer Assisted Language and Literacy (shall we assume the learning is understood by now?)

There were some nods in the room, not all of them from people grappling with sleep deprivation 4 days into the conference. Perhaps the phrase will stick? Comments?


Prensky, Marc. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon 9,
5. Retrieved March 14, 2007 from:,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf#search=%22prensky%22digital%20native%22%22.

Stevens, V. (2003). How CALL-IS began. Prepared at the request of Chris Sauer, CALL-IS Newsletter Editor, May 2003. Appeared in an email sent to all CALL-IS members in Fall 2003 via the TESOL organization.

Stevens, Vance. 1992. Humanism and CALL: A coming of age. In Pennington, Martha, and Vance Stevens (Eds.). Computers in applied linguistics: An international perspective. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters, pp. 11-38.

Taylor, R.P. (Ed.). (1980) The Computer in the School: Tutor, Tool, Tutee, New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.


Sean said...

Just thought I'd let you know, your RSS feed is one gigantic multi-paragraph link. But here it looks fine, not sure why.

Vance Stevens said...

thanks, i'll subscribe to my own feed and see if I can work out what the problem is. Probably has something to do with composing in html and pasting in the blogger html editor.

Thanks for letting me know, V

bellal said...

Dear Vance
I d like to know (you an expert in CALL)what could be the possible criteria for a learning situation to take into consideration when dealing technical english online course. How shall I decide which activities to choose for 1st year engineer student having "english" as a second language
thanx in advance

Vance Stevens said...

Hi Mohammed, I do work at an Engineering college with Arabic national EFL students, and I have been involved in ESP for years and years, but this question is a huge one, and not easily answered in a small comment. I suggest using Google to get at your answer, or join lists like TESL-L to start dialoging with others in a similar situation as yours. Good luck! Vance

cheap computers said...

I think instructors need to be more proactive in harassing new technologies for learning by bringing them into the classroom conversation.

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