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Vol 4, No. 1 (September 1986)

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Stimulating Activity: The Role of Computers in the Language Classroom

Paul de Quincey

The author describes six types of software and the different possible roles of each in computer-assisted language learning.

Stimulating Activity: The Role of Computers in the Language Classroom

KEYWORDS: adventure game, facilitator/stimulator role, generative approach, manipulative game, problem-solving game, role of computer, simulation, text creation, text reconstruction

In an age when computers are becoming more and more widely used in educational and training circles, a plethora of terms have come into use, not all of which are either accurate in terms of what they refer to, or desirable in terms of their implications for the teaching/learning process. In language teaching alone, one encounters Computer Aided Instruction and Computer Assisted Instruction, both under the acronym of CAI: Computer Assisted/Aided Language Instruction (CALI), Computer Based Instruction (CBI) and, the term that I shall be using, Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL). While it may be argued that what one calls the process is irrelevant and that what is important is the way in which computers are used, the terminology is in many ways prescriptive as well as reflective of the process it describes. Underwood (1985) informs us that in language teaching there is increasing use of the term computer-assisted language instruction. He points out that "The term instruction is somewhat misleading, since most CAI systems are used for drill and practice or review, and very seldom for actual instruction."

What is more, the term "instruction" implies that the materials themselves have intrinsic properties which enable them to instruct or teach. It is therefore a term which allies what might be modern and innovative materials to a somewhat outdated behaviorist teaching process—Programmed Instruction, or, rather optimistically, Programmed Learning. While the computer has an undoubtedly useful role to play in the "self-access" arena, one must be extremely cautious about overemphasizing the importance of its "tutorial" or "instructive" role. Despite Johns' (1981) claim that "the computer is more observant, more sensitive,


more consistent, more available and more unwearingly patient than any conceivable one-to-one human teacher", the computer cannot at present contend with the human teacher/tutor in terms of flexibility, understanding, or knowledge of the world. The computer's strengths lie not in its ability to instruct but in its capacity to act as a powerful and interactive stimulator of learning activity. So, while I accept that in O'Shea and Self's (1983) words, computers "facilitate autonomous learning", in this paper I shall be primarily concerned with the computer's role as a stimulator of learner-centered activity.

Papert, in his now famous book, Mindstorm (1980), suggested, in a sense, a total role reversal between computer and student. Papert was concerned about the degree to which students in the USA were, from a very young age, being forced into the role prescribed by the types of computer-based materials that were written during the last decade. He was concerned about the fact that it seemed to him to be the computer . that was programming the child rather than the child programming the computer. He stated:

. . . in many schools today, the phrase 'computer aided instruction' means making the computer teach the child. One might say the computer is being used to program the child. In my vision, the child programs the computer, and, in doing so, both acquire a sense of mastery over a piece of the most modern and powerful technology and establishes an intimate contact with some of the deepest ideas from science, from mathematics, and from intellectual model building.

It seems to me that this is in no field more apposite than in language teaching, where what we are in fact concerned with is assisting our students in their attempts at "intellectual model building." While Papert's vision has literally been crystallized in his development of the programming language, LOGO, his words also have a metaphorical importance in terms of their significance for the cybernetics of the learning environment. In the same way that Papert discovered the tremendous intellectual progress that was made by students using the programming language, LOGO, to test out their hypotheses and construct models, language students might also benefit from an environment in which computers play a relatively responsive role, and in which they, rather than the students, are manipulated as part of the "model building process."

It is important at this point to stress that the possible roles that can be ascribed to computers in the language classroom are largely independent of the particular approach to language teaching adopted by the teacher. There is no


contradiction evident, therefore, in admitting the usefulness of computers in facilitating practice of what have been called "citation forms" in a context where most other classroom activities may be of a more communicative nature. The major role of the computer, however, should be to facilitate what Willis and Willis (1985) have called .,replication" and "simulation" activities; i.e., activities where the form of the language used is shaped by the nature of the task, which may be to win a game, solve a problem, create or reconstruct a text, or negotiate a policy. As these types of activity are usually featured at the stage of a lesson when the language items involved in the activity have already been presented in one form or another, they are not, of necessity, restricted to a particular approach. The language to be practiced might have been presented in terms of its place in a structural inventory or in terms of its functional use. What is important is that the student is given the chance to practice the language in a meaningful and motivating environment.

Having said that, the tasks described above are of the type most often found in a communicative type approach, where the emphasis is on fluency, acquisition, oral/aural ability, and contextualized, meaningful practice, but they are also the type of task that most professional and far-sighted teachers have been using for a number of years to practice the language taught in a possibly more rigid and controlled environment.

Unfortunately, however, Cook (1985) points out that although the potential for incorporating the computer into a number of disparate approaches to language teaching is large, "typical existing programs concentrate on a limited area of language and are incompatible with most contemporary teaching models."

I would now like to examine in more practical terms the roles that can be ascribed to computers in the language classroom, and will start at the level of generality, by examining what Johns (1983) called the "generative" approach to computer-assisted language learning. The generative approach to using computers in the language classroom reflects, in one sense, what Papert was referring to when he wrote about the child programming the computer. Johns' idea of a generative program was one in which the program generates a learning task which changes every time the program is used. The program, therefore, has an internal flexibility that allows it to respond to the individual needs of the learners. He states:

The generative approach to computer assisted learning entails that no tasks are written in advance: what the computer program consists of is a series of instructions


allowing the machine to create such tasks on the basis of its moment-to-moment interaction with the student. wish, furthermore, to suggest that in giving the computer this more active role we may also find that we can help to release the creative, investigative ties of our students.

In essence, what Johns is talking about is providing the student with an environment in which experimentation and interrogation are the norm and in which the data held by the program is manipulated by the student according to the learning needs. This might be thought to imply, of course, that the learners will need to know in advance what they need from the program data. What it means in practical terms, however, is that the emphasis is on facilitating learning; i.e., allowing students to formulate their own hypotheses and models of use rather than on instructional teaching in which language is viewed purely as content knowledge.

On a more practical level, a very basic but crucial distinction was made, only a couple of years ago, specifically in relation to the use of computers in the language classroom. It was a distinction, however, that had implications which reach far beyond the language teaching environment and embraced the whole area of computer based learning.

Higgins (1983) made the distinction between what he called the "magisterial" and pedagogics roles of the computer in the language-learning environment. By "magisterial" Higgins meant the way in which the computer could be programmed to impart a body of knowledge to the student, while by pedagogics he meant the way in which the computer could be used as a resource at the complete disposal of the student. He said, "The computer becomes a task-setter, an opponent in a game, an environment, a conversational partner, a stooge, or a tool."

The implication underlying Higgins' rationale is that we, as language teachers, should not regard the computer merely as an imparter of knowledge, but as a resource that can be used to stimulate language learning in a variety of ways, in a variety of different environments, and supporting various approaches to language teaching.

Underwood envisages the computer being integrated into a communicative approach to language teaching by "setting up an environment in which language—real language is needed, both on screen and in front of it." A third dimension has, however, been completely overlooked, and is in a sense crucial to an understanding of the possible roles of facilitator or stimulator that computers can play in the language classroom. This is the dimension of activity and hopefully learning that takes place not in front of the screen but away from


it. Only when this type of computer generated but, temporarily at least, computer independent activity happens can the computer be said to be playing a truly passive role in the teaching process but a very active role in the learning process.

It is with the above points in mind that the British Council has, during the last two years, been working towards producing a range of innovative ELT software which would illustrate how the specific roles generated for the computer within the facilitator/stimulator framework are affected by the teacher's choice of software.

Despite the useful general framework for categorizing CAL programs described by Kemmis et al. (1977), it is perhaps more useful in the language learning context to categorize programs according to program type, each type dictating, to a certain extent, its own possibilities for pedagogic exploitation. In this respect, the British Council has taken six major categories of ELT software and developed one program in each category to illustrate the ways in which the transactional networks used and levels of language focussed on are largely dictated by the specific nature of the software.

The first major software type which can be used in the language learning environment is the manipulative game, in which students use their dexterity and keyboard skills to manipulate an object on screen. Because of the nature of the task, the relationship between the student and the computer, and consequently the role of the computer in the wider context of the learning environment, is fairly rigidly defined. The situation dictates that the students must interact with the computer on a one-to-one basis. There is little scope for discussion or communicative tasks in this environment in which the student is usually practicing a specific skill such as word construction or letter recognition. In fact, because of the high level of manual dexterity required in most manipulative games this type of program is not of great relevance to the language teacher. One example, however, in which the manipulative game can be used to good effect in the language learning environment is as an aid to learning or practicing alphabet recognition skills, and a number of programs exist for this purpose.

In the British Council program "Letterhunt", devised specifically for non-Roman alphabet users, rows of letters scroll down the screen. The student, depending on which task has been selected, has to attempt to shoot down the letters as they move towards the bottom of the screen. If the task is to hit the letters in alphabetical order, the student has to remember the sequence of letters


in the Roman alphabet. If the task is to hit both upper and lower case letters, the student has to understand or attempt to make sense of the relationship between tipper and lower case letters. Apart from the flexibility that the program displays in allowing students to select their own task, the program allows the teacher to author numerous files of words for the students to hit one at a time. If, for example, the students have been dealing with vocabulary relating to the weather, they might have to hit the letters which comprise words like "rain," "clouds," "snow," "sun," etc. and by so doing gain practice not only in picking out letters on the keyboard but also in spelling, word recognition, and lexical relationships.

The role that the computer assumes in this scenario is, therefore, fairly obviously--that of an opponent in a game. Students have to pit their wits against the machine and use what knowledge and dexterity they have to win or complete the task. The major difference, however, between the type of game used in an educational environment and one used in an entertainment environment is that the educational game should ensure that the task can be selected by students according to their ability or knowledge level, and that the tasks are therefore within the scope of the student to complete, thus providing them with a motivating but potentially soluble task.

The second type of program that has been featured prominently in the language classroom, largely as a result of the recent emphasis on task-based activities, is the problem-solving game. This category subsumes a whole range of programs developed to encourage students to use language in order to solve specific problems which, because of the nature of problem-solving activities, tend to encourage the sharing of ideas and consequently involve discussion. This type of activity can therefore be used to practice fluency skills; i.e., the "replication" activities referred to earlier, or, if the problems posed by the program are of a specifically linguistic nature, to center discussion around selected linguistic exponents. "Code Breaker," a program in this category, involves students in a code-breaking activity during which sentences authored by the teacher or indeed by the students themselves in whatever the target language may be are codified. The task is to decode the codified sentence and thus reveal the underlying target language sentence. This process involves the students in formulating, testing and sharing their hypotheses about sentence structure and word distribution in a collaborative setting.

The role that the computer plays in the scenario outlined above is that of task-setter, where the students are presented with a task but allowed to formulate their own hypotheses about how to solve that task. Thus we see that


the "intellectual model building" process, which Papert claims should be encouraged through the imaginative use of computers, can be part of the reality of even an elementary language classroom. In "Code Breaker," the computer, far from instructing the student in the use of certain linguistic forms, provides them with environments in which these items can be acquired. By decoding certain types of sentences the students will learn about the constituent parts of those sentences.

Through the two examples cited above it can be seen that the possibilities for using computer-generated, problem-solving activities in the language classroom are enormous and varied. But while problem-solving activities provide a realistic and motivating environment for practicing language, we should guard against the indiscriminate use of such techniques where solving the task assumes a greater importance than the linguistic processes used to achieve the solution to the task.

An altogether different role is created for the computer by programs in which the problem is "solved" rather than "posed" by the computer. Higgins' program, "Jackass," is an example of a program which, in a sense, sets its own problems to be solved and then interrogates the user in order to build up a database of "knowledge" which it then uses to solve the problem. The computer, in its pseudo-intelligent role of "learner," can then use the knowledge it has acquired to generate other tasks. While this type of program is certainly of interest to the language teacher, the range and sophistication of such software currently available is limited.

The third, and to date the most popular type of program to be used in language teaching, is the text reconstruction activity of the kind exemplified by the now famous "Storyboard." Typically, a text is authored by the teacher, though possibly by the students themselves, and degraded so that the text is either totally covered up so that the students only see a series of symbols representing letters, or clozed so that a number of gaps are left to be filled. As with the type of problem-solving program outlined earlier, students can either work individually, in pairs, or in groups, to reconstruct the text in its original form. Particular types of text-reconstruction activity generate tasks which are in many ways similar to those generated by the decoding program given as an example earlier. It can be seen, therefore, that the categories of software I am describing are not rigidly defined.

The criterion that differentiates this type of program from those in other categories, however, is that the text-reconstruction program focuses very firmly on the level of text. By providing students with tasks based around


reconstructing or possibly restructuring text, the emphasis is on familiarizing students through the active manipulation of text with the types of internal cohesive features that are so often ignored in the language classroom.

The role that the computer plays in this situation is in fact multi-layered. The computer, in a broad sense, is acting once again as task-setter, though the nature of the task generated by this type of program is qualitatively different from most of the tasks set by problem solving programs. They are always related to text and invariably involve students in discussion which is closely connected to the linguistic content of the text being used. This critical, close analysis and manipulation of text, which of necessity involves the students at various levels of linguistic complexity, is an activity that is difficult to imagine taking place away from a computer.

As all text reconstruction programs make use of the computer's text manipulation facilities, I shall call the role that the computer assumes in this context that of "manipulator."

The computer's role of manipulator is in some situations akin to another of its roles, that of "enabler," particularly when, as has already been suggested, the texts used in the text reconstruction programs are created by the students themselves using an authoring program. In most text-reconstruction programs and in the next type of program to be described, the computer merely provides the students with a tool that enables them to create for themselves a text, a strategy or a body of information. As the type of activity most relevant to the language classroom is text creation, it is on this that I intend to concentrate.

The enabling role that the computer can play usually revolves around a particular type of application program. Databases, spreadsheets, business management programs, and word processors all come into this category. Taking word processing as the most relevant example, the students could have been stimulated to produce a piece of writing by something that they have been doing under the teacher's guidance. While the students could arguably create their text on paper, the word processor offers them, again possibly as a group activity, the opportunity to create, revise, edit and polish their texts in a way that could not be contemplated using pen and paper. They can always have printed copies of their text which are completely legible and can use the replace and search facilities, for example, to update or change their texts as and when required. In "Deadline," a particular program of this kind specifically developed by the British Council for language learning purposes, a scenario for students to


produce a travel guide to their own location is incorporated into the program. Thus the computer's role is once again anything but straightforward. It provides the students with an environment in which experimentation and interrogation are the norm, but also provides them with a scenario and a task and the tool that enables them to complete this task efficiently.

A further category of software that provides the teacher with a particularly powerful tool is that which has come to be known by the generic title of simulation. The nature of specific simulations will vary greatly depending on what it is they are attempting to simulate. It would be true to say, however, that in language-teaching terms simulations usually attempt to create quasi-realistic environments in which communication is necessary for the completion of a task. Business and management simulations usually provide this type of environment and can prove both motivating and communicatively valuable if used carefully.

An example of such a piece of software specifically written for the language classroom is the British Council program "Fast Food." The program simulates the running of a fast-food stall at an exhibition, during which students are presented with a number of interrelated tasks which demand communication and collaboration. The particular program to which I shall refer falls into four stages. During the first stage, students (in groups) have to decide what ingredients they must buy in order to sell the products they decide on, and in the second stage they must agree on what they wish to charge for these products. In order to stimulate discussion in these two stages, students are provided with two different sources of information--a random weather forecast and a chart showing how many people attended the exhibition on that day of the previous year. The third and forth stages actually simulate the day's trading by displaying a digital clock and informing students when their products have been sold and then providing them with a table of their expenditures, sales and profit figures for that particular day.

The merits of such a simulation are that students are motivated to increase their profit margin because they are in competition with other groups of students: they are forced to come to group decisions under a time constraint and must, therefore, communicate; and a number of spin-off activities are generated such as role-plays, dialogue-writing exercises, interviews, listening texts and report-writing exercises.

A second, more specialized, type of simulation consists of those programs which attempt to simulate conversation, the most famous of which is Weizenbaum's "Eliza." In such programs the computer assumes the role of "interlocutor" and interacts, usually in the orthographic medium via the screen.


Technically, this type of program will benefit greatly from current research into artificial intelligence techniques. Pedagogically, however, I doubt whether their technical sophistication could be equalled by their usefulness as a language-learning tool.

The role that the computer plays in these two scenarios is that of simulator; i.e., it imitates the conditions that might hold in a real-life situation. It therefore provides the language teacher with something that would be impossible to replicate realistically in any other way, because it is interactive and responds immediately to student input, in a way that no other medium can do at present. The computer's role of simulator, therefore, is one that will be of great significance in the future, particularly when it is successfully combined with video as is the case in the flight simulator.

In the last category of programs—adventure games—the computer still takes the role of simulator, but within a more restructured framework. In adventure games the computer does not usually attempt to imitate real life settings in the way that simulations do. Instead, the computer provides the student with a much more controlled environment and a specific task which must be completed during the time allocated. Although the students must decide which route they follow to achieve their end, a restricted number of possibilities are open to them. Thus they do not have the freedom to explore in the same way as they would in a simulation, and must adhere to certain conventions set by the program.

As yet, there are few examples of adventure games written specifically for the language learner. In an attempt to rectify this, the British Council has developed an English language-learning program entitled "London Adventure" in which the students have to negotiate their way around London, buy certain presents for their friends, and get to London Heathrow airport to catch a 5 o'clock plane. Once again, they are in groups and must, therefore, make group decisions about where they are going and how to get there. They are faced with both tactical and linguistic choices throughout the adventure and spend a great deal of time reading text on screen.

The computer then, in this context, rather than simulating reality is acting as "environment provider" and enables the students to achieve a pre-set goal by making certain pre-determined choices. Thus, like the simulation, it allows students to experience a degree of interactivity and environment switching hitherto unknown to the language teacher. Perhaps more important is that when the computer is acting in its role of "simulator" or "environment provider," it is


offering students a setting in which hypotheses can be tested and language acquired without the overt didacticism so redolent of most computer-based instructional materials. Harrison (1983) remarks that

With adventure games there is a real spirit of discovery and exploration. Poking around in uncharted areas, such as a maze, can produce many utterances that only the most tortuous of textbook exercises can test.

To summarize, I have looked at six major software types and attempted to describe the different roles that can be generated by each. These are represented graphically by Figure I below in which "*" represents an area of definite focus and "/" represents an area of possible focus.

Figure 1

Program Type




Task Setter




Environment Provider




Problem Solving



Text Reconstruction



Text Construction









In this paper I have attempted to focus attention on the practical and varied roles that computers can have in the language classroom. These roles will, as I have pointed out, undoubtedly depend on the types of software that is being used, and on where in the teaching/learning process it is being used. They will also depend, however, on the way in which we, as teachers, envisage the


relationships that exist between ourselves, our students, and computers


Ahmad K. et al. 1985. Computers, Language Learning and Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.

Cook, V. J. 1985. "Bridging the Gap Between Computers and Language Teaching." From ELT Documents 122, Computers in English Language Teaching. Pergamon Press.

Harrison, C. 1983. "English Teaching and Computer Assisted Simulations." From Exploring English with Microcomputers, ed., Daniel Chandler. CET

Higgins, J. 1983. "Can Computers Teach?" CALICO Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2

Higgins, J. and T. Johns. 1984. Computers in Language Learning. Collins

Johns, T. 1981. "The Uses of an Analytic Generator: The Computer as Teacher of English for Specific Purposes." ELT Documents 112. The British Council.

Johns, T. 1983. "Generating Alternatives." Exploring English with Microcomputers, ed. Daniel Chandler. CET.

Kemmis et al. 1977. "How Do Students Learn?" C.A.R.E. Norwich.

Phillips, M. 1984. Intelligent CALL and the QWERTY Phenomenon: A Rationale.

O'Shea, T. and J. Self. 1982. Learning and Teaching with Computers. Harvester Press.

Underwood, J. 1984. Linguistics, Computers and the Language Teacher—A Communicative Approach. Newbury House.

Willis, J. and D. Willis. "Varied Activities for Variable Language." A paper presented at the BAAL Conference 1985.

Author's Address

Paul de Quincey

The British Council

10 Spring Gardens

London SW1A 2BN