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The benefits of new technology in language learning

By Gary Motteram

18 September 2013 - 11:22

Gary Motteram, editor of Innovations in learning technologies for English language teaching, explains how the arrival of digital technologies in the classroom has helped learning.

Technology is very much part of language learning throughout the world at all different levels. We are as likely to find it in the primary sector as much as in adult education.

I no longer need to make the case for computers to be provided in education, because computers are there in abundance in all their modern forms.We may see traditional computers in labs, teachers and students walking around with laptops or tablet PCs, and many people will have a mobile phone in their pocket that is capable of doing rather more than the mainframe computers that started computer-assisted language learning in the 1960s. I do recognise that there are many kinds of digital divide, and that this is not true everywhere.

What can put teachers off using technology

What is still sometimes an issue is the reliability of these technologies for classroom use. This can discourage teachers from making use of technology as often as they would want to. It's compounded by the fact that, if these teachers are working in schools, they are faced with classes of learners who may, on the surface at least, appear to be more digitally competent than their teachers are. Learners can therefore challenge their teachers, in ways that put the latter off using the technologies that could potentially make such a difference to what happens in the classroom.

How technology can help learners test their skills

In my recent book for the British Council, Innovations in learning technologies for English language teaching, I argue that digital technologies are ideally placed to help teachers working with learners, and learners working independently, to do the necessary ‘languaging’ (M. Swain) that makes their language development possible. We are talking here about doing things with language rather than just learning about language. Swain argues that learners can’t simply develop based on input.  We must engage with other people using that language, and try to make meaning together. Whenever I speak or write something, if I don’t produce language with someone else in mind, I have no way of knowing whether others can understand what I say or write. Of course, I need to read and listen as well, but unless I progress to this further stage, I can’t complete the process.

If we take writing as a starting point, technology in the form of word processors (and the many other ways we now have of producing text) allows us to work at the language. We go through a process of creating and re-creating text until it is fully comprehensible to others and is accurate. We can create a draft, show it to others and, based on feedback, can make changes to improve the text. The tools can also help us by showing that our spelling or grammar needs work, too. Technology makes this much easier, and makes it more likely that learners will engage with the editing process to produce the highest-quality text that they can. This writing can then be displayed for others to look at and comment on.

Trying to find ways for people to do meaningful spoken language practice in a class can be very challenging, particularly if, as a teacher, you lack confidence in your own spoken language skills. Linking your class to other classes around the world, using tools such as video conferencing, can give a reason for a learner to ask a question and then try to understand the response. It might also provide support for the teacher, too. The technology mediates the process, getting language out there and giving feedback that shows whether someone has or hasn’t understood what you have said.

The benefits of technology in language learning that is integrated with project work

Another area that technology supports very effectively is project work. We have always tried to encourage learners to learn about things through language. Getting learners to do work about topics that are of interest to them, or topics that are taught in other parts of the curriculum (sometimes called Content and Language Integrated Learning or CLIL) is a great way to improve their skills. Technology makes this possible wherever you are in the world. Teachers and learners can go online to read or listen to material about different areas of interest, and can then write or speak about what they have discovered, telling others in the class or other classes elsewhere in the world.

In the book, there are plenty of examples of case studies of teachers doing these kinds of activities, so you can see how technology can be effectively used to support the language development process.

The publication, Innovations in learning technologies for English language teaching, was presented at a British Council seminar for English language teachers in the UK yesterday. You can find more publications and book your seat at our next seminar in the UK via the English Agenda website.

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