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Review of  Teaching Languages Online

Reviewer: Zoe Louise Handley
Book Title: Teaching Languages Online
Book Author: Carla Meskill Natasha Anthony
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Book Announcement: 21.4908

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AUTHORS: Meskill, Carla; Anthony, Natasha
TITLE: Teaching Languages Online
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2010

Zöe Handley, Department of Education, University of Oxford, UK


In 'Teaching Languages Online', Carla Meskill and Natasha Anthony provide a
guide to the effective use of online environments in language learning for
language teachers. Coming primarily from the perspective of distance learning,
the book is also aimed at teachers working in traditional face-to-face (f2f)
classrooms. While the authors make frequent reference to a wide range of
on-line resources including various web-sites and tools, the book's primary
focus is on Computer-Mediated-Communication (CMC), that is, software that
'allows learners to exchange language -- through text or audio' (Blake, 2008:
152). This is reflected in the organisation of the book, with one chapter
dedicated to each of the four main classes of CMC, namely synchronous oral,
asynchronous oral, synchronous written, and asynchronous written. To clarify,
voice chat is the most popular type of synchronous oral CMC. Synchronous voice
chat allows learners to engage in real-time conversations with native speakers,
instructors or other learners. Wimba Voice Boards are the best known example of
asynchronous oral CMC used in language learning. Similar to a blog or a
discussion forum, Wimba Voice Boards allow users to record oral posts and
responses to previous posts. Instant messaging and text-based chat allow
learners to engage in real-time text-based interaction, i.e. synchronous written
interaction, with native speakers, etc, and e-mail is the most popular example
of asynchronous written CMC. These four main chapters are preceded by an
introduction to the four classes of CMC and their main features which is
accompanied by a discussion of pedagogical approaches which might be adopted in
these environments. Two further chapters address the affordances, or added
value, of the integration of text and visuals in oral CMC and audio and visuals
in written CMC, respectively. The book concludes with a chapter summarising the
affordances of online environments for teaching the different areas of
linguistic knowledge and skills. In this chapter, the authors also provide
suggestions on how teachers might exploit online tools and resources to develop
their own language curriculum. Further details of each of the chapters are
provided below.

In Chapter 1, 'Teaching languages well online: the essentials', the authors open
with a discussion of the practicalities of teaching languages online. Both
advantages and disadvantages are considered under the following themes: (1) time
available, (2) instructional time, (3) task design, (4) management, (5) content
sequencing, and (6) assessment. The four classes of CMC, namely synchronous
oral, asynchronous oral, synchronous written, and asynchronous written are then
introduced with a discussion of their main features. Next, theories of and
approaches to teaching relevant to online language teaching through CMC are
discussed. Specifically, it is proposed that CMC is well-suited to implementing
a sociocultural approach to language teaching. In particular, CMC provides a
much-needed opportunity for distance learners to develop a community of practice
in which they can engage in authentic language use. With respect to pedagogy,
two approaches observed in traditional f2f classrooms are compared, namely
Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE) sequences (Sinclair and Coulthard, 1975)
and instructional conversations (Tharp, 1993). The authors then go on to refine
Tharp's general model of instructional conversation for the specific purposes of
language teaching. The authors' model of instructional conversation for language
teaching, which provides the structure for the chapters focusing on the
different types of CMC, comprises the following instructional moves: (1) calling
attention to forms, (2) calling attention to lexis, (3) corralling, or
redirecting the students' attention to the task and appropriate language, (4)
saturating, i.e. repetition and reinforcement, (5) using linguistic traps, i.e.
forcing learners to use the target language forms, (6) modelling, (7) providing
explicit feedback, and (8) providing implicit feedback. The authors conclude the
chapter with a number of activities to help the reader explore the unique
features of online communication and design their own language learning activities.

Chapter 2, 'Language learning and teaching in oral synchronous online
environments', focuses on environments such as voice chat which allow learners
to engage in real-time conversations with native speakers, tutors and other
learners in real-time. The discussion centres on audio-graphic conferencing
applications, that is, applications which, in addition to CMC, integrate a
shared workspace in which task materials can be displayed and manipulated. In
the introduction to the chapter, the authors highlight the similarities with f2f
communication and the affordances, or added value, that such environments can
bring to language learning, such as archiving and easy orchestration of
activities. The authors then go on to illustrate the different ways in which
teachers can perform the instructional moves presented in the first chapter
using screenshots of applications and activities and extracts of student-teacher
interactions. While the authors also demonstrate how teachers can use strategies
from traditional f2f classrooms, the focus is on the ways in which the visual
modality and online resources, including online dictionaries and grammars and
other websites, can be exploited to enhance instruction. The authors conclude
the chapter with a number of activities to help the reader explore the features
of this specific class of CMC applications.

Chapters 3, 5, 6 focus on oral asynchronous, written synchronous, and written
asynchronous environments, respectively, and adopt the same format as Chapter 2.

Chapters 4 and 7 focus on the advantages of integrating text and visuals in oral
CMC and audio and visuals in written CMC, respectively. The authors observe that
using a different modality to the primary mode of communication for the
provision of feedback and other information is less intrusive than if it is
presented using the primary mode of communication. They highlight that using
visuals can save time. For example, it is much quicker to explain a point of
vocabulary by providing learners with an image and it is much quicker to provide
feedback on grammar by pointing to a chart in the shared work space. Visuals,
for example circling items in the shared work space or changing the font of
target language forms in written-feedback, are also observed to increase the
saliency of feedback. Another observed advantage of CMC is accessibility, that
is, the ability to refer back to images displayed in the shared work space and
archives of text-based communication. Finally, the authors note that being
'digital natives' (Prensky, 2001), learners appreciate multimodal presentations
of instructional materials.

In the final chapter, the authors draw the book together with a synthesis of the
benefits of online teaching for the teaching of reading, composition, listening,
speaking and pronunciation and intonation. In contrast with the rest of the
book, here, there is much more of an emphasis on the role of internet resources
such as online dictionaries, concordances and other web sites than on CMC. The
authors conclude the book with recommendations on how teachers might integrate
online teaching into their own language curriculum. Suggestions are given for a
range of curriculums: current events-based, literature-based, culture-based,
theme-based, grammar-based, specific purposes-based, and functions-based.


With numerous example activities, extracts from student-teacher interactions,
and practical suggestions for the implementation of online teaching, 'Teaching
Languages Online' (Meskill and Anthony, 2010) is a valuable addition to the
language teachers' book-shelf.

However, the book could be much more user-friendly. Given the organisation of
the book, in order to appreciate the affordances of the different modes of CMC,
it is necessary to read the book cover to cover. While the distance language
teacher for whom online teaching is a must today may be motivated to read the
whole volume, teachers working in a traditional classroom situation would
appreciate a book which they can 'dip into'. This could be achieved through a
more in-depth and systematic comparison of the features which distinguish the
different modes of CMC, as provided in Levy and Stockwell (2006) and the
provision of a comprehensive list of the different software applications that
fall into the different classes of CMC -- currently, which software applications
fall into which class of CMC only becomes clear in the individual chapters. Such
a systematic comparison would allow teachers to identify the appropriate mode of
CMC for their instructional goals and their pedagogical approach (see Hubbard
1988 on the evaluation of CALL) and then skip to the chapter focusing on that
mode of CMC for inspiration and advice. The individual chapters would also
benefit from some restructuring. For example, it would be helpful if the
affordances of each mode of CMC were highlighted in some way, for example by
bulleting them, and the name of the software application used was indicated in
all screenshots.

Further, the authors have not adequately addressed a number of important issues
related to the use of CMC in language learning and teaching. First, one of the
most important benefits of CMC is not discussed, namely its potential to put
language learners in contact with native speakers of the target language and
hence a situation in which they can acquire language (Jung, 2005) -- all of the
extracts in the book are of student-teacher interactions. Second, with respect
to the differences between the four modes of CMC, there is little discussion of
how the choice of mode affects the type of language that is produced by the
learners and widely-held concerns about the negative effects of exposing
students to 'netspeak' are not addressed (see Levy and Stockwell (2006) for a
synthesis of research findings). Third, the authors make frequent reference to
the fact that learners are 'digital natives' (Prensky, 2001), happy working in
online environments. Prensky's original paper was an opinion piece, as is
Meskill's own paper (Meskill, 2007) which is cited as evidence of learners'
digital literacy skills. While Meskill and Anthony are not alone in accepting
Prensky's view, readers should be aware that many are also questioning the
validity of the distinction between digital natives and digital immigrants and
the surrounding discourse (Bayne and Ross, 2007; Bennett et al., 2008; Helsper
and Eynon, 2010). I am sure that it was the authors' intention to demonstrate
to teachers that it is easy to implement online teaching with today's learners
because they are digital natives. However, I have become aware that the
discourse around digital natives can make teachers more apprehensive about using
technology in the classroom because they feel that learners may know more than
them, embarrass them, and consequently undermine their authority.

These criticisms aside, 'Teaching Languages Online' makes two important
contributions to the literature on CMC in language learning: it proposes a model
for teaching languages in CMC environments and it provides practical advice on
the use of text and visuals in oral CMC to support and enhance language
learning. As such, it is a valuable resource for those interested in integrating
CMC into their teaching practice.


Bayne, S and Ross, J (2007). The 'Digital Native' and 'Digital Immigrant': A
Dangerous Opposition. A presented at Annual Conference of the Society for
Research into Higher Education. Downloaded 05/12/10 from:

Bennett, S, Maton, K and Kervin, L (2008). The 'Digital Natives' Debate: A
Critical review of the Evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology. 39
(5): 775-786.

Blake, Robert J. (2008). Brave New Digital Classroom: Technology and Foreign
Language Learning. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

Helsper, E J and Eynon, R (2010). Digital Natives: Where is the Evidence?
British Educational Research Journal. 36 (3): 503-520.

Hubbard, P (1988). An Integrated Framework for CALL Courseware Evaluation.
CALICO Journal. 6 (2): 51-72.

Jung, U (2005). CALL: Past, Present, and Future -- A Bibliometric Approach.
ReCALL. 17 (1): 4-17.

Levy, M and Stockwell, G (2006). CALL Dimensions: Options and Issues in
Computer-Assisted Language Learning. London: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Prensky, M (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. 9 (5): 1-6.

Sinclair, J. and Coulthard, M. (1975). Towards and Analysis of Discourse. New
York: Oxford University Press.

Tharp, R. (1993). Instruction and Social Context of Education Practice and
Reform. In Forman, E., Minic, N, and Stone, A. (eds.). Contexts for Learning:
Sociocultural Dynamics in Children's Development (pp. 269-282). New York: Oxford
University Press.

Zöe Handley is currently Oxford University Press Research Fellow in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on the use of new technologies in language learning. She recently completed a comprehensive systematic review of empirical research on the use of new technologies in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in primary and secondary classrooms. Her previous research has focused on the use of speech and language technologies in language learning, in particular pronunciation training.

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Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781847692726
Pages: 208
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Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781847692719
Pages: 208
Prices: U.S. $ 39.95