Current Issue: Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall 2011:Conversations
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Cara Tuzzolino-Werben
Idiom Editor

Elisabeth Gareis
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Promising Practices


Featured Article

Technology for Second Language Learning
Carol A. Chappelle

Our English language learners have access to a range of technologies from word-processing programs to CD-ROMs designed for ESL learning and to the Internet. These technologies surely have implications for what and how ESL teachers help their students, but what are the implications—that is how can teachers help students increase their language performance and ability through the use of technology? 

I consider this question by reviewing how students learn English rather than by thinking about which of my jobs as a teacher the computer might take over. What linguistic needs do English language learners have that computer technology can help with? Turning to the research on instructed second language acquisition (Lightbown & Spada, Ch. 6), we can find some guidance if we know the capabilities of language-related technologies (Chapelle, 2003). Considering the important linguistic needs that learners have, I will describe four ways that language-related technologies can help. 

First, most teachers and researchers agree that learners should be provided with comprehensible input—i.e., engaging language in a context whose message the learner can understand. Language can be spoken or written and come from almost anywhere, including conversation partners, the media, textbooks, or the Internet. Teachers, in fact, can find a lot of examples of engaging language for learners on the Internet; one might be the Web site developed by the California Distance Learning Project at, which contains readings for English learners at various levels on a wide range of topics. Because language use differs across topics, the availability of examples of language on different topics is very valuable for learners (Schleppegrell, Achugar, & Orteíza, 2004). For advanced learners, teachers can draw upon the many Internet magazines and media outlets. And for all learners, teachers can develop WebQuests that require learners to seek specific pieces of information through the use of selective reading strategies.

Second, theory, research and practice suggest that learners can benefit from obtaining help with comprehension. Such help can come from anywhere: conversation partners, teachers, and computer programs. Many multimedia materials developed specifically for English learners, such as Longman English Interactive (Rost & Fuchs, 2003), include help built into the program so that learners can see, for example, the definition of a word they do not know or the written transcript of a conversation they listened to. These options provide help for learners in connecting form (sounds and structures of language) and meaning. Research such as from Yoshii & Flaitz (2002) investigating learners’ use of help for comprehension indicates that students are more likely to learn vocabulary when they have access to effective online help with comprehension such as word definitions and images.

Third, learners are unequivocal in their desire for feedback on their performance. Researchers will also attest to the importance of feedback as a means of providing learners an opportunity to see what they know and do not know. Feedback can come from anywhere: conversation partners, teachers, and computers. Different sources provide different types of feedback; computers are particularly meticulous and patient at providing students with feedback on computer-assisted language learning (Cowan, Choi, & Kim, 2003), although this is an aspect of CALL programs that teachers should examine carefully because some programs are better than others at providing feedback (Chapelle & Jamieson, 2008).

Fourth, most teachers and researchers agree that learners should have opportunities to engage in meaning-focused conversation. Conversation helps learners to connect form with its meaning. Conversations are especially useful in developing new form and meaning connections when negotiation of meaning occurs; in other words, when a communication breakdown occurs and then the participants in the conversation work to recover, learners have an opportunity to learn. Today such conversations occur through a variety of technologies, including the Internet, where interactive video, oral language, and written language can all be used in conversation. Many teachers and researchers organize activities that allow their students to converse while working on projects with students in other classes across national boundaries, and some of these projects e.g., Smith (2004), have been evaluated to show learning. In addition, such conversation beyond the classroom provides exposure to language other than classroom-style language (Kern, 2006; Lam, 2000).

These four needs of language learners obviously crosscut many different teaching approaches, lesson plans, and episodes of learner interaction. In doing so, they help to illustrate that technology requires teachers to think out of the box. One way of doing this is to keep in mind that your job as teacher in this high-tech era is not only to teach English but also to teach learners to use technology for learning English beyond the classroom (Hubbard, 2004; Warschauer, 2000). ESL learners might be with you in class for a semester or a year—hardly long enough to learn all they need for succeeding in the English-speaking world! But when they leave your class, very few, if any, will leave behind their access to technology—the technology that you will have taught them to use for language learning.


Chapelle, C. A. (2003). English language learning and technology: Lectures on teaching and research in the age of information and communication. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

Chapelle, C. A., & Jamieson, J. (2008). Tips for ESL teachers: Using CALL. White Plains, NY:  Pearson Education.

Cowan, R., Choi, H.E., & Kim, D. H. (2003). Four questions for error diagnosis and correction in CALL. CALICO Journal, 20(3), 451-463.

Hubbard, P. (2004). Learner training for effective use of CALL. In S. Fotos & C. Browne (Eds.), New perspectives on CALL for second language classrooms (pp. 45-67). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kern, R. (2006). Perspectives on technology in learning and teaching languages. TESOL Quarterly, 40(1), 183-210.

Lam, W. S. E. (2000). Second language literacy and the design of the self: A case study of a teenager writing on the Internet. TESOL Quarterly, 34(3): 457-482.

Lightbown, P., & Spada, N. (2006). How languages are learned (3rd ed.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rost, M., & Fuchs, M. (2003). Longman English Interactive 3. Pearson Education.

Schleppegrell, M. J., Achugar, M., & Orteíza, T. (2004). The grammar of  history: enhancing content-based instruction through a functional focus on language. TESOL Quarterly, 38(1), 67-94. 

Smith, B. (2004). Computer-mediated negotiated interaction and lexical acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 26, 365-398.

Warschauer, M. (2000). The changing global economy and the future of English teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 34, 511-535.

Yoshii, M., & Flaitz, J. (2002). Second language incidental vocabulary retention: The effect of text and picture annotation types. CALICO Journal, 20(1), 33-58.

For more readings on this topic, check out this free online journal:
Language Learning & Technology


About the Author

Carol A. Chapelle is a professor of TESL/applied linguistics at Iowa State University and was a plenary speaker at the 37th Annual NYS TESOL conference, November 2007, in White Plains.