The use of computer technology allows a lot of self-access work for students. For example, a lot of the repetitive drilling at lower levels in the class can be replaced by having students working alone on computers. There are many stimulus/response type programs on the market which can help students with basic structures in a lively and interesting context.
There are several programs designed to help students with their skills. Skimming or scanning reading skills will by aided by the use of time limits or by the setting of a particular type of question. The ‘storyboard’ programs are very useful at getting students to guess unknown words from context – another skill needed by successful readers. Word processor programs can help students in their organisation of letters, for example and the spell checker, imaginatively used, can be employed to give students an incentive for checking their own work.
The more modern, interactive computers can be used by students for language laboratory-type listening and pronunciation work. Students hear a model word or sentence and then attempt to ‘mimic’ it. In this way, they can concentrate not only on problem sounds or clusters but on natural intonation and rhythm. Again, this is a use of computers best suited for self-access and takes pressure off the teacher inside the class. The interactive CD-ROM’s that I have previously used allow the students to enter a situation such as ‘shopping for clothes’ or ‘buying a train ticket’ and their route through the program can differ every time they use the program depending on their responses. This provides a high incentive for students and the quality of these programs is improving all the while.
I have also used computers with groups of students to provoke and encourage discussion among them. The ‘simulation’ programs are especially good for this. “SimCity”, for example, requires the students to work together to build a city from scratch and then make the correct adjustments and decisions to ensure its continued survival and growth. There is little language in the program itself so it can easily be adjusted to many different levels. However, it does always gets students talking a lot in a genuinely communicative way. In situations like this, the teacher can act more like a monitor. Another good game for this is “Railroad Tycoon”.
There are more general advantages to using computers too. Younger learners especially are more often more motivated when using computers as an aid to learning. When using a program like a word processor, students see themselves practising or learning a skill which they will be able to use in the wider world too. Computers give students a lot of autonomy in how they go about their learning. The self access aspect of CALL means that students can direct a lot of their own learning which can only be of benefit.
Computers can be a huge help to both students and teachers, but there needs to be a lot of thought given to how best to use them. Simply dumping students on computers for a couple of hours without thought as to what they will actually be doing will not be helpful. Using computers allows a teacher to cater to different levels in a class so this needs to be thought over beforehand. Attention needs to be paid to those students to whom computers may not seem the most user-friendly of aids. Smaller institutions will probably not be in a position where they can afford a lot of computer technology so this will dictate how they can be used. The expense of computers is a disadvantage but it is becoming less and less of one. Finally, computers should be seen as another useful aspect of an eclectic approach to language teaching and students should be discouraged from, for example, stopping other out-of-the-class activities such as reading or watching English-language videos.