Academic Exchange Quarterly         Winter  2003: Volume 7, Issue 4


Designing Instructional Technology for Language Learning

                                                            Jonita Stepp-Greany, Florida State University

Jonita Stepp-Greany, Ed.D. (University of Florida) is the Spanish Language Program Director in Modern Languages and Linguistics.  She teaches Spanish and instructional methodology, and supervises the curriculum of the program, including the use of technology for instruction.



The purpose of this article is to promote the consideration of a variety of options in designing technology enhanced instruction for foreign language. In doing so, it proposes a number of learning issues, theories, and questions that should be considered in designing instruction for second language learning via computers. A sample design approach taking these issues into account is proposed. 



The title of this article may give the impression that there is one way to structure curricular design for technology enhanced language learning (TELL) that may produce a maximum effect for anyone learning a foreign language.  In fact there are many variables in language learning, and these intertwine in complex ways that render the definition of one solution for curricular design impractical, if not impossible.  Moreover, theories about second language acquisition and how students learn via technology are still being refined.  The purpose of this article is not to present a single solution; but to highlight current issues of learning that may affect the planning of instruction via computers and widen the options currently available to students.


Sequencing of Instruction

For over two decades the foreign language profession has advocated a proficiency-based curriculum (Met, 1988; Omaggio, 1986; Richards & Rogers, 1988).  In our enthusiasm to promote proficiency, we have encouraged the idea that getting students to communicate would result in communicative competence.  However, within the TELL context, some researchers have found that writing for real purposes did not result in improved writing skills in itself (Sanaoui and Lapkin, 1992; Stepp-Greany, 2002).  Others indicate that proficiency is more likely to result when instruction proceeds from structured input to communicative output (Van Patten, 1995) and that sequencing of instruction from lower level to higher level tasks plays an important role in the development of proficiency. (Walz, 1998).   


Theories of Second Language Acquisition

Various theories of second language acquisition may provide one rationale for instruction.  Monitor Theory (Krashen,1982) emphasizes the importance of comprehensible linguistic input in the acquisition process.   It proposes an initial silent period in which students listen, but do not speak, as a way to promote acquisition.  Monitor Theory indicates that a series of activities emphasizing listening comprehension should precede even the most simple production activities.


The Input Processing Model (Lee and Van Patten, 1995) differentiates between input (the language to which the learner is exposed) and intake (the language that actually gets processed by the learner). This model emphasizes the importance of binding the form of a word to its meaning.  If used as a rationale, it would indicate that early input activities ought to be simple recognition activities that require students to attend to one important detail and connect form to meaning.  Activities would progress from simple to complex along a continuum ranging from recognition to simple one word production to sentence level and discourse level production in a logical order.


Interaction Theory and Sociocultural Theory emphasize the importance of the social aspect of  language learning (Doughty, 1987; Long, 1981; Vygotsky, 1978; Lantolf, 1994).  Within these frameworks, language is negotiated and socially mediated or assisted.   Paraphrasing, requests for repetition, clarification requests, verification checks, and comprehension checks are tools used by the novice learner to achieve proficiency during interaction with an expert speaker.  Promoting social interaction through the computer and providing opportunities for the production of both oral and written language that may be negotiated would be indicated in a design organized around these theories.  These two theories also imply that the program should be designed so that paired and group-learning opportunities are afforded to the student.


The Content-Based Lesson Plan

The content-based lesson plan offers an organizing structure for computer-based instruction.  A good plan (Ballman, 1997; Shrum & Glisan, 2000) consists basically of setting the stage (using prior knowledge to construct or solidify a knowledge base), providing input and engaging learners (presenting new material), guided participation (activities that reinforce), and extension (application and creative activities).  However, since one of the advantages of the computer is its capability for multiple branching and for allowing the student multiple attempts at problem solving, providing relational learning in addition to sequential learning may be appropriate.  Regardless, task-based activities that reflect or simulate a real-life situation, as well as creative extension activities, seem to be essential to linguistic development (Ballman, 1997; Shrum & Glisan, 2000).  Having students apply knowledge helps them understand the usefulness of the information or skill gained and ties classroom knowledge to the real world.  The guiding questions for the instructional designer may be  “What is the real-life use of this piece of information?” and “How can I simulate this use in an activity?”


Bloom’s Taxonomy

Principles for organizing computer-assisted instruction may also be provided by Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956).  This taxonomy classifies learning tasks as running from simple to complex, with recall being the least demanding task, and synthesis and evaluation the most demanding.  Sequencing and planning instruction for computer-assisted learning using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide would indicate that opportunities be provided for analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and other higher cognitive skills in the foreign language, in addition to task-based application activities.



Principles of constructivist learning theory and the instructional potential inherent in the computer may challenge traditional notions of sequencing in instructional design.  In the constructivist framework, learning occurs by exposing students to primary sources within a situated context, and encouraging them to see relationships (Brooks & Brooks, 1993).  The emphasis shifts from instruction by the teacher to construction by the learner.  Learning happens in an idiosyncratic manner as each student uses his/her unique prior experience as the lens through which new information that creates dissonance is interpreted, and new knowledge is constructed (Reagan & Osborn, 2002).  Sequencing is not as important as responding to learners’ needs as they arise in the context of the learning situation. (LeBow, 1993).


Constructivists take issue with positivist, outcome-oriented empirical approaches to learning.  They emphasize that real learning is neither rational, nor objective, but circuitous, responding to trial and error attempts at understanding, and that it is firmly embedded in a social-emotional context (Brooks & Brooks, 1993). 


Content-based instruction, in which the linguistic process is driven by cultural and real-world information from authentic texts, rather than by language learning for its own sake (Ballman, 1997) fits easily into the constructivist paradigm, as do related whole language approaches. 

In a whole language approach, students are presented with whole texts or utterances and meaning is broken down with the aid of context and recycling of the text in various forms (Shrum and Glisan, 2000).  The student constructs new knowledge by synthesizing the text in creative processes that include trial and error and the integrated use of language skills.  Such an approach contrasts dramatically with the sequenced piece-by-piece building block approach to knowledge that has traditionally characterized language instruction. 


Sequencing does seem to play a role, however, both in the reconstruction of the whole, and as an aid to structure meaning of the parts as they are taken out of the whole.  Sequenced activities to assist meaning making may include recognition activities (like true-false or multiple choice), forced choice questions, information questions, putting sentences in order, and analysis and synthesis activities like identifying main ideas or producing a novel version of the text. There is frequent recycling of meaningful material from the text in various forms through activities that demand progressively higher cognitive skills. 


The computer has great potential for facilitating learning within this paradigm.  It provides the capabilities for presenting authentic whole texts contextualized by images and other graphics, for trial and error attempts at learning, for branching, for circuitous forms of learning, and for recycling of the material in a myriad of ways.


Affective Issues

The constructivist framework also includes the affective domain--the student's feelings about learning, his or her confidence about learning, and the knowledge of how he/she learns best.  Such issues may be addressed in the TELL environment through personalization of the program and positive feedback for the student.  Student feelings may be enhanced not only through opportunities for collaboration, but also for autonomy and self-regulated learning (LeBow, 1993).  The latter should include error recovery activities that allow reasoning to flow out of a mistake, resulting in a positive feeling of empowerment, rather than the negative feeling that may result when students are simply given a correction with a judgment (LeBow, 1993).  In a constructivist environment, students must be given the encouragement to guess at solutions and the freedom to feel some level of ambiguity about a given topic.  These encouragements may be provided within the program, in the absence of a facilitative instructor.  Such supports may help students make intelligent inferences about meaning, increase tolerance for ambiguity, and provide motivation for the learner to take responsibility for his/her own learning.


Since the computer does not judge as humans do (unless judgments are built into the program), it can be a more encouraging medium for learning than a human instructor at times.  Also, it can reinforce correct guessing, i.e., solidify formative ideas about a language concept through complex positive feedback, while providing encouragement that a teacher may not be able to provide, and it may do this ad infinitum, without tiring or losing patience. 


Addressing the affective domain also implies a strategy-focused methodology. Students often have impoverished self-views regarding the reasons they fail.  They adopt unreal explanations to preserve their self-esteem, which may result in unproductive classroom behaviors (Brandt, 1988; McCombs & Whisler, 1989).  The computer may inform and prompt appropriate strategies, providing the opportunity for success in risk-taking in a judgment-free environment.



Metacognition refers to the process by which the learner thinks about his/her own learning. This process recognizes the active involvement of the learner in organizing and acting upon his/her own learning environment (Oxford, 1990).   Attention to metacognitive theory would indicate that the support of explicit language learning strategies be incorporated in a computer-assisted program. For example, instructions teaching students how to skim for comprehension, read for detail, or pick out the main idea may be included.


Metacognitive strategies may be especially effective in the teaching of writing on the computer.  Using a process writing model, students may be prompted to brainstorm and organize knowledge around a chart or graphic organizer (Shrum & Glisan, 2000).  Students might write a first draft on a disk and edit each other's material, using the enhancements of the computer for doing the editing.  Students may write and edit multiple drafts, and "publish" their work on a Webpage or other posting board for others to see and comment, receiving recognition and affirmation for their work.


Schema Theory


Schema Theory may influence instructional design in the area of both reading and listening.  This theory implies that students are assisted in breaking down complex material into meaningful parts if they are given hooks (schemata) on which to organize the material mentally

( Richgels, 1982; Carrell, 1993; Ommagio, 1986).  Webbing, semantic mapping, categorization, and classification activities may be incorporated into the design to assist students in this process.


Schema Theory would also indicate other kinds of reading or listening activities.  Pre-reading, advance organizing activities would help direct students' attention to the meaningful elements of the reading and provide the background information that some students may lack to comprehend the reading.  Comprehension check questions during the reading and task-based post-listening or post-reading activities, such as filling in a chart with key concepts or creating titles and headlines, or other extension activities, are also indicated (Omaggio, 1986; Shrum & Glisan, 2000).  Graphics, sound, heightened display, and animation may be applied to the computer program to provide additional context that may assist the development of schema and aid comprehension.


Decision-Making in Design

In the past, empirical, outcome-based models, exemplified by programmed instruction, drill and tutorials, and mastery-based learning focusing on grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, have characterized foreign language computer-assisted instruction.  Such learning sits in contrast to activities suggested by the concepts described above; however, both types of learning may be useful, depending on the situation and the desired outcome.   The two models imply some polarized issues to be considered as decisions are made about instruction, including which principles to embrace and to what extent the program should reflect one or the other side of the continuum.  These are:

1.  Learner discovery v. tutored instruction

            2.  Task-based, real world learning v. learning for its own sake

            3.  Generating multiple answers v. one right response

            4.  Interactive v. passive learning 

            5.  Holistic learning v. building block learning 

            6.  Interpersonal, contextualized learning v. detached, isolated learning.

            7.  Affective, constructivist processes v. academic, positivist processes

            8.  Metacognition v. cognition

            9.  Right answer, error adjustment process v. error recovery process

            10. Opportunities to communicate v. grammar/pronunciation activities


Additionally, Carrier and Sales (1987) cite the following questions that may assist the decision-making process:

            1.  What strategies appear appropriate for this instruction?

            2.  Are these appropriate relative to the context of the software? 

            3.  What type of students will learn most/least using this strategy?

            4.  How much should this strategy be used?  What are the effects of its overuse?

5.  In what ways will this feature of the technology (color, sound, flashing, inverse print,

     graphics, animation, learner control) enhance the strategy?

            6.  What will be the effects of using this strategy repeatedly?


The following questions also may be helpful for designing activities specifically for foreign instruction:

            1.  What is the linguistic goal for this activity? 

            2.  What theories of learning may be involved?

            3.  What do I want students to show that they have learned? Does this activity do this?


A Sample Design

By incorporating the above theories, issues or questions within the structure of Ballman’s content-based lesson plan, it is possible to propose a sample design for computer-based foreign language instruction.  The first step would be to propose a series of linguistic goals based on  communicative functions, as, for example, “The student will be able to compare and contrast historical events that are presented in the text in a written essay or an oral presentation.”


Setting the Stage

Following Schema Theory, the computerized lesson may begin with an advance organizer, such as a prediction or categorization activity to preview the coming text material and elicit learner’s background knowledge. To assist metacognition, students also might be given an accompanying frame that provided strategy use suggestions.


Providing Input


In accordance with constructivism and whole language or content-based approaches, the presentation would consist of a complex listening-reading task that offered an authentic language text.  In compliance with Monitor Theory, the input must be made comprehensible.  Frequent verification and comprehension checks, as implied by Interaction Theory, with a true-false or yes-no format, or picture prompts along side the reading may be provided to increase comprehensibility.  Immediately following the reading, the program may proceed to a meaning-based activity that asks students to focus on one concept at a time, requiring only recognition of language, and focusing first on meaning, as suggested by the Input Processing Model and somewhat implied by the silent period in Monitor Theory. 


Guided Participation


Within the context of these theories, progression might move to more complex recognition activities that help students deconstruct the whole, such as placing sentences in order according to what happened or matching captions to picture frames.  Opportunities in the program for the student to produce paraphrases of the important ideas encountered during the reading also are indicated. In addition, reinforcement activities connected to the text that required structured production of short discourse, such filling in blanks, question-answers, and the creation of short phrases would be appropriate.  


Following tenets of both input processing and whole language philosophy, there would be a focus on grammar only after meaning was established.  Grammar instruction might unfold inductively (to raise the cognitive level) through questions that prompted students to arrive at their own understanding, or through branching activities that required students to attend to one salient detail at a time within a meaning-based activity, leading them to make their own form-meaning connections.  Heightened display may be added to assist the student in the formation of these connections, or as feedback.  In keeping with principles of constructivism, feedback during this process would encourage guessing at meaning, as well as provide opportunities for understanding errors in grammar or meaning, as opposed to simple feedback indicating right or wrong responses.




Students might then be led through a series of activities as suggested by whole language proponents (Shrum & Glisan, 2000) to help them recreate the whole—activities ranging from matching images and captions, recreating sentences, creating titles, summarizing, or other task-based activities with moderate structure and support, to an open-ended and creative application activity, such as writing a new ending to the story, creating new dialog, or comparing and contrasting the characters.  Higher order skills from Bloom’s Taxonomy would also be tapped with such activities.   To incorporate other aspects of Sociocultural Theory and the social-affective dimension, the students may be afforded opportunities for negotiation of language by engaging in paired learning for the more complex post-reading activities.  Their collaborative efforts may culminate in a writing project using a process approach through the computer, such as producing a brochure related to the theme of the reading.




As more holistic models based on current theory and practice are developed in addition to traditional, positivist models, wider varieties of learners may be reached in the TELL environment.  Designing such instruction may optimize the opportunity for second language acquisition by all students, as well as provide alternative options for success in the foreign language classroom. 



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