An Interview with Stephen Krashen

A great interview with Stephen Krashen, widely known for his contribution to theory of second language acquisition. During the interview, Aaron Myers (author of this great blog) asks Krashen questions about his own language learning background; his theories; and his advice for language learners.

Krashen describes the internet’s potential as ‘fantastic’ in terms of the ability it gives us to provide learners with ‘easy stories (…) with pictures and motion and videos’, which he asserts that educators should be producing on a massive scale every single day. However, he believes that the implementation of computers in language learning has actually been counterproductive, with most material produced being aimed at skill-building alone.

Krashen emphasises that the key to successful language learning is access to comprehensible input, but adds that this input also needs to be interesting for the learner. One of the ideas he mentions (which I think would work brilliantly for EFL teachers) is to ask groups of language learners to write stories for a lower level of learners of that same language. Taking English, for example: A teacher asks her class of B2 level students to write stories for her B1 level class; they can only use vocabulary that they are familiar with and should not use dictionaries. Then, the teacher corrects any errors in the stories and these can be uploaded to the internet or provided to the lower level class through shared files. In this way, the B1 class are given access to comprehensible and (hopefully) interesting input; the B2 class are given motivation to produce interesting material; and the teacher is able to motivate, monitor and give feedback to one class while providing the basis for interesting activities for another. (Levels used here are taken from the CEFR)

This is only one way in which we can use computers to provide learners with interesting comprehensible material and, as Krashen points out, educators need to start taking advantage of this ‘fantastic’ potential that computers have to give our learners access to the materials they deserve.

You can visit Stephen Krashen’s website here.


Before Using Moodle, Read this Blog

I came across an interesting blog post today about why all moodle course ‘suck’. I don’t necessarily agree with the extent to which the writer believes that moodle courses fail, but overall the points he makes are well worth taking into consideration.

The writer outlines some really interesting points about the capabilities of Moodle, the reason behind its widespread use among educational institutions and most importantly, the necessity of ample teacher training on this platform in order to maximise the quality of the materials students encounter on Moodle.

He also includes links to video tutorials which demonstrate how to create questionnaires, quizzes and several other activities on Moodle, for any teachers who don’t feel completely confident in this area. Check it out!

A Journey Through CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning)

From the very onset of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL), it became apparent that computers have the potential to greatly enhance the language learning processes of students. The question is: Have they reached this potential yet? Let’s take the journey through the development of CALL and try to find out.

What can computers achieve that teachers can’t?

The drill and practice materials which emerged with Behaviourist CALL between the 1950s and 1970s demonstrated that computers are able to do certain things that humans are not: repeat the same or very similar exercises with a student without experiencing issues such as boredom, frustration or distraction; provide immediate and unbiased feedback; and perhaps most usefully for teachers, allow students to work at their own individual pace.

Excellent. Students can log on to a program and learn vocabulary or complete grammar exercises at their own pace, with their own feedback, without any input from teachers. It sounds ideal. However, as we now know, the repetition of a task until completed perfectly does not necessarily guarantee understanding, nor indeed suggest that the student will be able to produce any of this newly ‘learned’ language in an authentic communicative situation.

So how can we make it more communicative?

Well, it seems that during the Communicative CALL phase of the 1970s-1980s, we tried giving the computer three different roles to play:

Computer as Tutor (Taylor 1980)
Similar to its role during Behaviourist CALL, the computer has the role of possessing (and guarding) the knowledge the student needs until they complete the task. However, in an effort to be more communicative, students are required to interact with activities such as language games, reading exercises and textual reconstruction before the computer confirms the accuracy of their answers, meaning that there is an increase in student participation.

Computer as Stimulus (Taylor & Perez 1989)
Here we see the computer take on a role similar to what teachers were encouraged to at this point in time: one which facilitates learning but does not rigidly control it. The computer presents software to stimulate discussion, investigation of a topic or critical thought, and through it the exploration of language.

Computer as Tool (Brierley & Kemble 1991: Taylor 1980)
The computer is used as a tool in programmes such as word processors and spell checkers, where the learner does not explore language provided by the computer, but is assisted in the use and comprehension of language through the facilities available in this type of software.

So are we there yet?

Communicative CALL is an interesting step in various ways. It is obviously an advance over Behaviourist CALL in that it encourages much more communicative interaction from learners and its activities and approaches to learning are much more varied. However, it could be argued that it was almost a step backwards in terms of what we may have expected from computers. After all, our computers are now doing our shopping, recording our TV programmes, reminding us about the events in our diaries. Why can’t we log in and learn a language without any other external input?

The answer, I think, is that we can’t learn language through computer programmes alone because as they stand, they do not represent the unpredictable, authentic-conversation-producing humans with whom learners will ultimately be communicating. Perhaps, with the advancement of artificial intelligence, they will have this functionality in the future. Until then, it seems, we shall have to be content with using the computer as a tool to complement and enhance the role of language teachers, rather than endeavouring to replace then.

So where are we now? Integrative CALL

Since the dawn of hypermedia, we have been able to begin to integrate listening and speaking, rather than just reading and writing, into CALL. This makes for a much more authentic language learning experience comparable to language exposure in the real world. It also allows for software which can implement a variety of different kinds of tasks as well as a variety of different language aims. Contexts can be created which are representative of real-life situations and learners can interact with the virtual environment in which they find themselves, altering the level and the types of interactions, for example.

However, as explained very succinctly by Warschauer (1996), this software is still lacking in certain ways:
A program (…) should ideally be able to understand a user’s spoken input and evaluate it not just for correctness but also for appropriateness. It should be able to diagnose a student’s problems with pronunciation, syntax, or usage and then intelligently decide among a range of options (e.g. repeating, paraphrasing, slowing down, correcting, or directing the student to background explanations).

This may seem a tall order for computers and, as Warschauer acknowledges, will take extreme advances in Artificial Intelligence to achieve. On the other hand, something which is not out of our reach is the ability, provided by widespread access to the internet, for learners to communicate with other speakers of the target language from any location at any time. This can come in the form of informal chats, longer detailed e-mails, document sharing, video calls, video sharing and many other forms. Learners, in theory, are finding that they can be exclusively responsible for their own learning, find their own tools, stimuli and if they so wish, teachers across the world.

Therefore, in our current climate, the computer has now taken on the role of a more communicative space rather than a tutor, tool or stimulus. We are simultaneously exploring its potential and discovering its limitations. Until the revolution of A.I. which, who knows, may just be around the corner, it seems that we will continue to develop under the Integrative CALL heading, hopefully developing new and engaging ways to use CALL to inspire language learners worldwide.

Introducing Technology to Teaching: The 5 Fatal Errors

This is an excellent little video which aims to advertise the software PowToon, used to create animated cartoons like the one you see in the video.  However, it actually demonstrates quite accurately and humorously the problems that can arise when the use of technology in the classroom doesn’t go according to plan!

It features a teacher who is clearly attempting to introduce technology into his teaching for the first time, a concept so alien to the students that they initially believe that it is some sort of trick.  Here are the errors he makes and how they can be avoided in a real classroom!

Fatal Error 1: Introducing the technology before the task.

Early in the video, we see every teacher’s nightmare come to pass: the students seize the opportunity of contacting their friends via social media in the classroom instead of using it for the task at hand.  However, as the unprepared teacher acknowledges, he could have avoided this distraction by immediately presenting them with an engaging task before introducing the technology itself.

Fatal Error 2: Failure to familiarise yourself with the technology before teaching. 

Next we see that the teacher is guilty of his students’ crime; he is seen checking the baseball scores, while presumably his class has descended into facebook-fuelled chaos.  He then fails to come to a student’s aid when she asks him for assistance in using a piece of software.  It is clear from his response that he does not know the answer to her question; again, he is not adequately prepared for the technology being used in his lesson and is unable to facilitate the students’ learning.  There is always the danger for teachers that their students will be better versed in the use of software than they are, and with it comes the fear that the student will become the teacher.  This is all the more reason to experiment with the technology yourself before you attempt to use it in the classroom.  Any problem your students encounter will almost certainly have been encountered by you the previous day and you will be better prepared to help them.  But hey, if the students can teach you a thing or two, that’s fine too.

Fatal Errors 3, 4 and 5: Assuming the technology is a substitute for the teacher, that it is self-explanatory, and that it will keep the students engaged all by itself.

The teacher introduces the project the students will be completing: a project which sounds extremely interesting and is met with approving exclamations from the class.  However, just when their energy is high and their interest is aroused, he leaves the students to work out how to use the technology for themselves.  It isn’t long before they start producing questions about what the technology does and how they can use it, but the teacher does not have any answers and wishes the students to ‘teach themselves’ how to do it.  He has assumed that the computer is a substitute for the teacher when in fact it is a useful tool present to complement the teacher.  The sudden switch in the motivation and attitude of the students after this response is frustrating to behold, even in a short animation advert such as this because it resonates, I’m sure, with any teacher who has failed to keep their students engaged or who has turned up to a lesson unprepared.  They continue asking questions and begin worrying about their incompetency and complaining about the quality of the task.

By making these errors, the teacher has taken a brilliant concept, a good software package and some pretty well motivated students with access to technology, and turned the lesson into a complete flop.  This video, in my opinion, illustrates perfectly that technology can be a brilliant addition to any lesson, but is not by any means a substitute for the teacher or an excuse for the teacher to take a back seat.  Just because your students have access to technology and you have a brilliant idea, does not mean that your lesson will be a success.  Teachers need to educate themselves, get involved with the technology and make themselves available at every step so that, if they are needed, they can help students to use the technology in the correct way in order to enhance their learning experience.

‘It is the teacher, not the technology, who determines the quality of the learning that takes place in the classroom.” Richards and Renandya (2002: 361)

Hilarious Quotes about Technology (and what they mean for EFL teachers)

Over the years, people have said some questionable things about technology and how it has, will, or should affect the world we live in. Some of which we can look back on and laugh in disbelief:

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”Western Union internal memo, 1876.

“While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially, I consider it an impossibility; a development of which we need not waste little time in dreaming.”Lee DeForest, inventor, 1926.

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

These predictions, and many like them, are easy to laugh at with the benefit of hindsight.  I can almost guarantee that anyone reading this blog is in possession of at least one of each of the technologies disregarded above by perfectly intelligent figures. Not only that, but I bet that your telephone also has the functionality of a computer, and your computer (or laptop or tablet) has the functionality of a television. The technology we possess is developing, overlapping and integrating into our society at such speed that it is difficult to believe that anyone ever lived without it.

It is so important that as educators, we do not underestimate the speed and the power with which technology infiltrates and will continue to infiltrate our daily lives.  We cannot possibly conceive the technological advances that will occur in the coming decades, but one thing is for certain: it will continue to advance.  We must keep up.

As teachers, we owe it to our students to teach them language through the mediums in which they will actually be using it. So your students can hand-write a postcard, a diary entry, a letter – all useful skills, of course. But can they write e-mails? Can they text? Do they know the difference between the language used for texting, e-mailing and instant messenger? Can they word process? What about the QUERTY keyboard? Are they familiar with it or is it going to take them half an hour to fill in a simple job application?

What about you? Do you think you’re keeping up, or are your teaching methods going to be obsolete in 10 years time?

Here’s a more recent quote from someone who is better informed:

“Teaching in the Internet age means we must teach tomorrow’s skills today.” – Jennifer Fleming

Teaching tomorrow’s skills today means that first we, as teachers, must learn tomorrow’s skills today and then use them in our teaching.  Otherwise, we are knowingly preventing our students from communicating in the technological world in which they live.

For some more inspirational quotes about technology in education, check out this blog post.

Reviewing Apps for Schools – A Good Read

I’ve come across a great little blog today called Schoolyard Apps.

It reviews different apps for use in education and provides suggestions on worthwhile activities each app can be used for.  The writer is a reading teacher in a school in Wisconsin, where she is impressed daily by the tremendous use of technology to facilitate classroom learning.

I recommend having a read!

Update the Way You Think about Technology in Teaching

Educational Technology is ‘any device available to teachers for use in instructing students in a more efficient and stimulating manner than the sole use of the teacher’s voice.’ – Larry Cuban

An interesting and engaging talk by Greg Toppo, in which he promotes an alternative way of thinking about the use in technology in the classroom.  He deals mainly with education in the USA, but his message is applicable on a worldwide scale. He makes clever use of quotes from the past in which people made sceptical comments and predictions about ‘technologies’ of their generation, such as paper and ballpoint pens, to demonstrate the ever-evolving technology in our society and the prompt adaptations to our thinking and teaching that we must make to keep up.

It is unfortunate that Toppo was clearly pushed for time during this presentation, as some points which could have been further expanded were rushed (as was his powerpoint presentation) but the overall point he aims to convey is extremely relevant.

This presentation was given at a TED (Technology, Education and Design) conference, where great minds are encouraged to come together to share new and inspiring ways of thinking.