With English reportedly the most commonly ‘learned’ second language around the world, this chapter explores how information and communication technologies (ICT) can be used to support the process of English language learning for those in the very early stages of education. It asks: what innovative approaches to language development can be employed to meet the needs of a new generation of young technocrats growing up within an increasingly globalized world?
Evidence suggests that there can be significant variability in practitioner and pupil confidence with ICT, although this is a rapidly changing picture as new generations of pupils who have grown up in a digital world come into classes, and graduates who don’t remember a time when they didn’t have a mobile phone train to be teachers and enter the school systems around the world. There is also unequal access to the technology itself and while there is increasing access to technologies throughout the world there are still ‘digital divides’, both in, and between, countries.
Practitioners frequently comment how ICTs facilitate collaboration whilst also offering the potential for personalized, scaffolded learning. There is also the recognition that there is a place for computer assisted language learning (CALL), particularly for independent, self-paced learning via assessable assets such as language games and drilled activities. This type of learning can be particularly effective due to the immediate feedback that is offered to the user, and indirectly the teacher, a highly significant attribute of ‘visible learning’. Outcomes for children are likely to be most successful, most ‘visible’, when teachers are able to see learning through the eyes of their children and where children understand that teaching and all that it entails is key to their own continued progression. Broadband-related technologies have particular significance, enabling learners to communicate with each other over distance, bringing native speakers into contact with non-native speakers and providing opportunities for developing intercultural understanding. These projects started mainly in universities. However, with many schools around the world having access to broadband technologies or mobile tools with good internet access, we see many new projects being developed, mainly within the European Union, but also across the world with support from organizations like the British Council.
Computer assisted language learning (CALL)
The endlessly patient and non-judgemental nature of computers makes them perfectly suited to enabling repetitive language learning activities that provide instantaneous feedback to the user. In an EFL context, learners can really benefit from self-directed vocabulary and grammar-based exercises, particularly those that monitor voice input and assess the accuracy of pronunciation.
However, ‘drilling and skilling’ can sometimes lack context in the way that information is presented to the user, potentially limiting long-term acquisition of language. More sophisticated CALL developed for US and UK markets, introduces children to themed-based multi-modal activities, where learners can interact within typical scenarios. The narratives are built around familiar settings like the school, family and neighborhood, allowing children to internalize contextualized vocabulary and learn simple grammatical rules through fun-based repetitive exercises built around each scenario. Meaning is made explicit through a family of characters set within familiar settings and typical storylines. Full audio-visual support and synchronous feedback to a user, makes this type of CALL particularly successful for language learning.
However, like any product targeted at a specific market, some of the content will inevitably be culturally loaded. Teachers will need to think carefully about only selecting media and resources from one cultural domain as this may skew learners’ perceptions of what standard English is, or should be.
CALL: do it yourself activities
The internet can be a vast treasure trove of English learning games and activities, but teachers should not underestimate the potential for making their own games for their learners. Indeed, there is also huge potential to enable learners to become ‘game-developers’ and publish for their peers. Language games and activities not only provide a framework for reviewing existing language but can also be used to explore and acquire new language.
There are numerous online tools for developing games and activities as well as standalone packages such as ‘2Simple’s 2Do It Yourself’ (https://www.2simple.com/2diy/) software, which is easy enough for younger learners to use as well as providing enough complexity to keep older learners engaged.
Portable devices such as tablet computers, smart and feature phones and MP3 players have particular resonance for English teaching in situations where practitioners move between different locations and where learning occurs in isolated contexts. These technologies have the potential to deliver high quality multimedia stored on internal drives or removable memory cards or that can be accessed over wireless and telecommunication networks. Many portable devices feature long-lasting batteries, particularly important where power supplies are only available during certain times of the day. Moreover, some can be powered using solar cells or charged via wind-up mechanisms. Touch sensitive screens and simple menu systems may also be of particular benefit in situations where a lack of familiarity with mice, keyboards and operating systems might inhibit learning. Many mobile devices sport one or more cameras and where there is a reliable internet connection, users can communicate over distance using simple video conferencing tools. GPS functionality and internal compasses also enable users to access and interact with powerful mapping tools. Front facing cameras allow learners to be creative as well as enabling them to trigger the release of information, for example by scanning QR codes (a type of barcode). In-built audio recording functionality allows children to record their thoughts about an area of learning or perhaps interview peers or family members prior to a task.
Mobile phones and other ‘smart’ devices are perfect for developing mobile assisted language learning (MALL) activities. Clever software can facilitate the delivery of multi-modal content as well as offering the potential to register user interaction, provide feedback and track progress.
The content is organized into themes related to English culture, featuring exercises for practising vocabulary, spelling, word associations, speaking and listening, reading and writing, and grammar in context. Through rich multimedia the software presents game-based activities to a user, recording progression and manually uploading achievements at regular intervals to the company’s servers. In one family learning project the technology was used with newly arrived Eastern European parents and their pre-school children to facilitate home–school communication and support their acquisition of English.
Youngsters enjoyed working with their parents on the game-based activities. Adult participants using the system reported that they felt more confident in their writing abilities and were more equipped to engage in community-based activities and in communicating with their children’s schools.
‘Smart’ devices (both phones and tablets) feature dedicated software applications (apps) that can be used to assist language learning. Certain apps help promote creativity: ‘Toontastic’ and ‘Puppet Pals’ enable younger learners to create stories using animated characters and recorded speech, as well providing opportunity for them to share their creations online. More sophisticated apps like ‘Comic Life’ enable children to take photographs with the mobile device’s in-built camera and incorporate them into cartoon-style templates, alongside written narrative. Others like ‘Phoster’ provide a framework for developing posters so that children can play around with text and images in order to assess their visual impact on an audience.
Many apps have the more specific purpose of helping to develop reading and writing. In-built text to speech synthesis can open up access to texts for English language learners and can also serve as an effective model of oral language, particularly in the absence of native speakers. There is a multitude of dictionary apps available to support users in their acquisition of new vocabulary. Translation apps also have a role to play in enabling users to transfer knowledge and skills across from a stronger first language to their learning of English. In addition, there are numerous apps that support the development of vocabulary, grammar and colloquial language, as well as contextualizing language through cultural contexts that make meaning clear.
It can be seen from the case studies and illustrative examples in this chapter that technology has a significant role to play in enhancing the delivery of English language teaching and learning in the primary sector. The range of technologies now available can support teachers in a variety of ways both inside the young learner classroom, but also increasingly in the home environment and while learners are on the move about their daily lives. Technological use is clearly ‘situated’, dependent on context and predicated on the notion that what works in one context may not be entirely replicable in another. However, creative practitioners will always be able to see the potential for an idea and are particularly adept at customizing approaches to meet the individual needs of their learners.
With the continuing reduction in manufacturing costs, greater coverage and increasing speeds of communication networks and the development of a ‘read/write Web’, English language teachers have an unparalleled opportunity to ensure their curricula and teaching styles genuinely meet the needs of their 21st century learners.
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