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Computer Use in the ESL Classroom

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The following feature provides a discussion of tips and basic strategies for using a computer effectively in an ESL class setting.

Computers should be used as a language learning tool - just as any other piece of equipment (i.e., tape recorder, VCR, blackboard, etc.). It is important the computer NOT become the center of attention of the lesson. There are situations when activities at the computer can become the center of attention, however these situations should be avoided and left to students to decide when, and if, they want to utilize such activities (in self-access).

Computers as a Language Learning Tool

For some tasks, computers can provide distinct advantages over more traditional approaches. The use of a computer for listening exercises often provides not only sound, but also visual input providing students with more contextual clues. Students interacting with a computer are also using motor skills as well, which can have a strong reinforcing effect on the learning process by connecting physical actions (clicking, typing) with desired results. Students are also allowed more control over their own learning process as they make the decisions when to repeat questions, exercises and sequences based on their own progress.

Probably the strongest argument for the use of the computer in the classroom environment is that of student self-pacing. Especially in the field of pronunciation, students can employ a computer to record themselves to compare their pronunciation to a target pronunciation. This can be repeated endlessly until a student is satisfied with his/her result. These pronunciation exercises are often combined with visual aids (such as intonation graphs) to help the student recognise how his/her pronunciation compares to the target pronunciation. Common tools such as spell checking can also provide the student with valuable self-analysis instruction.

Finally, with the aid of the Internet and CD-Rom based materials, teachers can quickly access documents addressing individual student needs. This is especially effective when teaching English for Specific Purposes such as Business English. An example would be white papers put up on a company web-site discussing certain technologies in English that students are currently employing. Another example is glossaries provided for specific business sectors (port, banking, insurance, etc.). Using these materials, the teacher can often provide content addressing specific student needs, thereby improving motivation and effectiveness.

Making the student comfortable with the technology

Admittedly, the computer can be an overwhelming and imposing instrument to students and teachers. The complexity of the computer - not to mention the overwhelming choice of possibilities - can put students and teachers off as they lose time grappling with how to use the computer. There are a few basic principles that should be followed in order to help the student (and teacher) feel more at home using the computer.

  • The computer should always be turned on, booted, and the program loaded (preferably the exercise chosen) before the class begins. In this manner, students focus on doing the task at hand rather than getting to the point where they can do the task.
  • Students who are not comfortable using computers should be placed with students who are. These students should not be forced to use the mouse or type at the keyboard. As they become more familiar with the technology, they will often begin to play a more active role - even if they don't, the ability to use the computer is not the issue.
  • Students more comfortable with the computer should be strongly discouraged from using other resources available in the program itself, or in other programs. These students should be encouraged to explore these resources on their own by taking advantage of self-access programs.
  • Use of the computer should be phased in; instead of introducing a complex series of exercises to be done for a lesson, teachers should begin by doing a limited amount of work with the computer (i.e. one listening exercise followed by an interactive quiz).
Example Lesson

Programme: Accent Coach by Language Connect

Level: Intermediate to Upper Intermediate

The purpose of the lesson is to focus on how intonation affects understanding and production. A typical lesson could begin by asking students various questions using different intonations to receive various responses based on a sentence written on the board.

Example:

  • When did Tom drink five cups of coffee?
    Tom drank five cups of coffee this morning.
  • Who drank five cups of coffee this morning?
    Tom drank five cups of coffee this morning.
  • How many cups of coffee did Tom drink this morning?
    Tom drank five cups of coffee this morning.

Students inductively learn the importance of intonation in this exercise. This can be followed by a discussion of the importance of intonation and the difference it can make in understanding.

At this point the computers (which have been turned on, program loaded and starting point chosen) can be employed to practice this by using the any one of a number of intonation lessons provided by Accent Coach by Language Connect.

As a follow up to this exercise, students can be given a standard response and a variety of questions to be asked for that response. Students can practice responding with the correct intonation. The teacher can walk about the room controlling the students' responses.

This exercise can be further improved by adding the recording element provided by the computer. By recording the voice students can compare their pronunciation with a target pronunciation.

I hope this short discussion can lead to further discussion of the effective use of a computer in an ESL learning situation in our forum.

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