English Language Teachers and Technology

The TESOL President’s Blog

In fall 1983, I was hired as an undergraduate Spanish teaching assistant. Over the course of a weekend, I was trained to:

1) speak and dramatize a Spanish sentence from a pattern-practice drill,
2) snap my fingers,
3) point at an unsuspecting student lined up in one of two rows,
4) look at that student while he or she tried to get the answer out before I moved on to snap at someone else,
5) repeat the correct answer (if the student had provided it), and
6) then cycle through steps 1–5 with a different student and eventually a different exercise.

When I was observed, the performance metrics were how many times each student had spoken in an hour and whether I had caught all the mistakes. Known as the Rassias method, the goal was to help students quickly move past any affective barriers to speaking the language and begin developing fluency in the phonological and grammatical forms of the language.

Today, there is no need to hire a human being to do what I did. Cell phone apps efficiently cycle through spoken and written pattern-practice drills, tracking problematic forms for repetition; meanwhile, gamification achieves the motivational effects of my histrionics.

The Role of Technology in Language Learning

The theme of my TESOL President’s blog has been TESOL 2.0 and the changes occurring within our profession. Since TESOL was founded in 1966 as an association for English language teachers, one of the most profound changes has been the rise of technology as a tool for language learning. As technology has moved from being a tape recording in a language laboratory, to a program in a computer lab, and now an app on a mobile device, it has become clear that providing language practice—something teachers have always thought of as their job—can be done better by technology.

With technology today, the learner chooses the optimum moment to learn: while riding a bus, at home in a silent room, or in the company of friends competing against each other with the same game. The technology can remember everything the learner has ever been exposed to and produced within the tool’s environment, prompt him or her to try again when the pattern does not match, and even provide hints. Moreover, as language increasingly becomes digitized because of the Internet, technology is able to go beyond programmed notions of right and wrong to compare learners’ productions with huge corpora of language. For example, I recently came across an interesting tool: ludwig.guru, which allows learners to try out a phrase or sentence to see if it has been uttered on the Internet and then provides a list of similar sentences culled from the Internet that will help the learner understand both the correct form as well as the context and usage.

The advent of such technology is very threatening for teachers who spend the majority of their classroom time working through language exercises. Even the ways in which the exercises are created is changing. Increasingly, algorithms analyze the frequency of different forms in different contexts in order to select language students should practice, and then translations are crowdsourced to generate exercises—no teachers involved (see for example, duolingo.com).

The Role of Language Teachers With Educational Technology

In the face of such changes, it is important to remember what professionally trained teachers bring to language learning. The first thing we bring is an understanding of what and how students can learn using technology (see TESOL’s Technology Standards Framework and associated publications as well as the British Council’s Mobile Pedagogy for English Language Teaching). Students need vocabulary; they need syntactic, morphological, and phonological patterns to slot vocabulary into and manipulate it. We can advise them on ways to get this knowledge using technology. We can also advise them on the difference between a tool that will maximize the time they are willing to put in and a tool that is bells and whistles with little substance.

Professional English language teachers also realize that language is as much about creative negotiation as it is production and reception. We don’t just teach students language; we teach students to use language. We understand the constraints and affordances provided by authentic contexts. We know how to design projects and group activities where interaction can be practiced, situations where students can be exposed to messy input, make decisions on the fly, and generate novel forms and usages. As such we don’t just create exercises; we design experiences. We know how to sequence those experiences so that  students build, grow, and develop in a way that is faster and further than they could do on their own.

Finally, we may not be as good as a machine at catching every “error” or remembering what a student was writing 2 months ago, but we know our students. We know that what is going on outside the learning environment impacts their ability and willingness to concentrate; we know the value of a smile as well as when to look stern.  We may use games to motivate, but we also call students by name, ask where they came from, and find out what they are interested in.

Yes, technology can provide individualized instruction, but we teach individuals.

About Dudley Reynolds

Dudley Reynolds
Dudley Reynolds is the 2016-2017 president of TESOL International Association and a teaching professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, where he teaches first-year writing. Over his career he has also taught elementary school learners in Egypt, intensive English students at Indiana University, and MA TESOL candidates at the University of Houston. His research focuses on teacher development and second language literacy issues.
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One Response to English Language Teachers and Technology

  1. Steve Bryden says:

    Hi Dudley,

    I enjoyed reading your blog, and as a Rassias ‘graduate’, I found the connection that you made between present-day technology and the drilling method quite compelling. When I attended the Rassias workshop several years ago, I was reminded of the exercises that I had undergone in high school learning French, when the audio-lingual method, rooted in behavioural psychology, was very fashionable.

    I agree that teachers should be instructing learners how to use the technology efficiently to enhance their language learning, but technology is no replacement for good teaching with sound pedagogy. Classroom experiences are authentic and irreplaceable, but there needs to be a balance between technology and pedagogy, but the latter should always take precedence.

    As a relatively new TESOL member, I look forward to your future posts.

    Steve Bryden