Guidelines for Technology-Based Language Learning
For those charged with supervising the development of a new language course, choosing a technology-based language course for their students, or selecting language learning materials, it is important to identify the features of a course or materials that best support language learning. This article outlines key features of a quality language-learning environment. These features can be used as a guide for new course development, assessing a technology-based language course, and choosing language course materials that will meet the goals of language coordinators, instructors and learners. The article is thus of relevance to language program supervisors, instructors, students, and those funding and supporting language programs.
The language that a learner reads, hears in class, or hears in conversation affects how quickly and how well a language is learned. Quality language courses and materials surround learners with language that is most useful to their language learning. Students learn best when the language they hear and read is just beyond their current abilities in the language. Learners should be able to understand the language they are exposed to, but should also come across new vocabulary and structures so they can expand their knowledge of the language.
One way to assure that students are exposed to rich and meaningful language is for students to work with a variety of materials. Students should have experience with different written and spoken styles. For example, students can read texts from a variety of sources such as newspapers, maps, restaurant menus, academic texts, and scientific reports. When listening to language, learners can listen to conversations, news reports, academic lectures, or popular music and can listen to speakers of differing dialects of the language. Exposing learners to a variety of different types of language styles and purposes is key. Many educators feel that using authentic materials in class (materials such as news articles, restaurant menus, etc. that were prepared for native speakers and have not been modified for language learners) is the most appropriate for language learning. Authentic materials are a great way to provide learners with realistic, challenging language and are a good choice as long as the material is not beyond the abilities of the learner.
Quality language courses and materials can help make language more understandable to students by providing exercises and activities to support what they read and hear. Activities before, during, and after a reading or listening passage help the learner make sense of the material.
Students who are interested in improving their overall proficiency in a foreign language also need to study and practice all aspects of the foreign language and not restrict themselves to the study of one area such as grammar. Learners need instruction and practice in all the skill areas such as reading, writing, speaking and listening. Additionally, courses and materials can offer instruction and practice in other language areas such as vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. Improved proficiency is most likely to come from courses and materials that provide a balanced approach to a variety of language areas.
Students need to have plenty of opportunity to use the language for real and significant purposes both in and out of class. Simply studying the language from a textbook and memorizing vocabulary and verb conjugations is not enough. Students cannot produce the language if they do not have the opportunity to freely practice its use. Quality language courses and materials provide students with opportunities to practice producing the language through speaking and writing the language. Students also need guidance as they learn how to use the language appropriately, following culturally appropriate customs when interacting with people in the new culture. Thus, students should receive instruction in effective communication in the foreign language and also be asked to practice using the language in realistic, communicative contexts.
Students also need to spend learning time engaged in extended conversations with other speakers of the foreign language. Interaction in the foreign language has many important benefits and, thus, is a critical and necessary component of any language course. First, interaction allows students to practice new vocabulary, grammar structures, and appropriate use of the language in a realistic environment. Second, interaction helps make the language that students hear and read meaningful. It is difficult for a teacher, a textbook, or other learning materials to surround learners with language that is perfectly suited to be just beyond the proficiency of each learner. One of the best ways to receive language that is tailored to a learner’s particular language level is to engage in a conversation with another speaker of the language. As a learner engages in a conversation, she or he is invested in the discussion and must work to understand what the other person is saying in order to continue participating in that discussion. If at some point in the conversation there is a breakdown in communication, the speaker must rephrase what she or he said in order to make the language more understandable--thus, adjusting the language so it is most meaningful (and useful) to the conversation partner. It is during these breakdowns in communication that learners become acutely aware of areas of their language (pronunciation, grammar errors, vocabulary, errors in conversational etiquette, etc.) that are preventing effective communication and, thus, need improvement. Communication breakdowns during interaction draw learners’ attention to important aspects of the language that they need to attend to. This situation shows the learner what they need to learn in an extremely effective way.
Thus, it is not useful for the learner to focus her or his language study exclusively on grammar rules to the exclusion of other important aspects of the language such as reading, writing, speaking, listening, vocabulary, and language use. However, it is nonetheless important for any language course to have some component in the course or materials that addresses grammar explicitly. Learners need to have an opportunity to be made aware of and practice grammar forms that are relevant to their current uses of the language. In other words, rather than be presented with a "rule of the day," learners need to focus their attention on grammar rules that are relevant to their particular stage of learning. This is best done through grammar study that is part of an integrated language course or set of materials.
Effective language learning takes place when grammar study is integrated with interesting topics, themes, or tasks. In this way, the language that students are learning is connected to some meaningful purpose. Many of us remember the silly things we had to say in our language class, making sentences such as "What color is the goat?" "I like caviar, do you like caviar? Let’s eat caviar." Language exercises such as these are created for the sole purpose of manipulating language rules but lack any meaningful communicative purpose. Language study and practice that integrates language forms with meaningful uses of the language are not only more practical and interesting, but are also more effective for language learning. A significant portion of a quality language course or materials consists of real-world tasks, cultural content, or other topics or themes. Not only does this help students learn to use the language for real and significant purposes, but has the added benefit of providing students with valuable cultural information.
Additionally, language learners need information about how well they are doing in order to advance in their knowledge of the language. Learners need to know if their pronunciation, sentence formation, vocabulary choices, etc. are appropriate. Quality language courses and materials provide sufficient feedback to learners on the accuracy of their language. Feedback can take many forms. Teachers provide learners with feedback through overt correction such as, "No, it is not ‘He walk to school,’ say ‘He walks to school,’" or more indirect forms such as rephrasing an incorrect utterance correctly. Even something as subtle as a pause or a look from the teacher can function as feedback to a learner. Interaction, through the communication breakdowns and negotiation that they lead to, is an excellent source of feedback to learners--another good reason for incorporating a lot of interaction into the language classroom. Language learning materials that provide opportunities for learners to check their work and receive prompt feedback on the accuracy of their production also provide much needed feedback to learners as they learn the new language.
Finally, it is important to note that a major goal of any language class is to help equip students to be lifelong learners of the language. Courses and materials should provide students with instruction and practice in language strategies such as how students can improve and monitor their vocabulary development, how to read a text for meaning, how to prepare to write an essay or letter, how to edit and revise one’s writing, how to scan a text for important information, or how to skim a text to get the main idea. By providing instruction in and opportunities to practice language strategies, learners can get the most out of all of their experiences with the language. Long after they leave the classroom or finish using the materials, students can continue to develop their proficiency in the language as they continue their studies or travel abroad.
This article has identified some of the features that characterize a quality foreign language-learning environment. These guidelines can be used as a checklist for new course development, to assess a technology-based language course, or choose language course materials that will meet the goals of language coordinators, instructors and learners.