TESOL Thoughts

Reflections on Teaching and Learning

Computer-Assisted Language Learning in China


Using computers and the Internet has been extremely valuable in my current teaching context, especially considering I don’t have a course book or a predetermined set of already-made materials. I am working with large mixed-level groups, and it is dreadful to have to base classes on content that is only appropriate to some students. When I get to involve them in activities in which they use resources from the web, students can work at their own pace, and most importantly, with materials that might be closer to their level.

When I am not using the computer lab, sometimes I end up bringing texts to class that are too complex. There’s not much I can do to change this situation, but at least I have the freedom of adjusting the materials and lesson plan so that students help each other learn.

On those days we go to the computer lab, differentiated instruction becomes feasible for these large groups of students. Using a good learner’s dictionary online (not easy to get printed ones here in China) and getting authentic content to read are just a couple of the many advantages of computer-assisted language learning in my teaching context. A lab makes it easier to to manage a large classroom, as students can advance at their own pace if you place written instructions on the Web and give them the links to materials. One example of this would be Webquests, but I’ll blog about that on a different post.

When I was planning the curriculum for my two groups, I had no idea of what our real access to technology would be. I was told there were a couple computer rooms in school, but they were not used for English classes. Fortunately, after teaching a few weeks here, I was able to get 3 periods a week for each one of my groups at the computer labs. Sure, the rooms are incredibly dusty and dirty, but I am convinced that the time my students spend at the computer room is some of the most productive time in our class.


Many times in the past I’ve wondered (and complained) about my students not being able to send emails properly. It may seem surprising in this era of smartphones and tablets, but it’s not unusual to see emails without a subject line or signature. Here in China I’ve had to teach a few students how to actually open their email inbox and send a message as they only use their QQ (Hotmail-like service) for instant messaging. It’s quite annoying to get an email message without a name, leaving you to guess who is writing.

I’ve also gotten frustrated at the students’ overuse of online translators and lack of basic Word processing skills. Some of my most frequently used lines in class are, “Please don’t use online translators! I can tell when you use them, and I’d rather read your mistakes than the computer’s weird sentences.” Inevitably though, I always end up getting at least a couple online translations. I know I am not the only EAP instructor facing these issues, so I’ve decided that as important as it is for students to come to class with paper and pencil, it’s important for them to know how to use Word, send an email properly, and have some basic Internet search skills.

I am a firm believer that we need to teach how to use computers and the Internet wisely. There are so many available resources out there, but it’s easy to get lost with all the digital garbage on the Web. If I want to help my students avoid plagiarizing, I must help them learn to paraphrase and cite properly using online sources. After all, that is most likely where they will turn for information. If the class objectives include students actively using new vocabulary and expressing their own opinions, I have to think of ways in which they can use the technology they already have to do this, but use it responsibly. In my view, teaching students how to use the web to learn English is one way of ‘learning how to learn’.

I’m curious to learn about what other teachers are doing, so I’d like to ask:

What are ways in which your students can benefit from using computers and the Internet in your class? What are the challenges? Let’s open up the discussion here!

Below I’ve listed some of the activities we’ve done so far.


1. Objective: Identify main ideas and supporting details

I model the use of a highlighter (two different colors) to mark main ideas and supporting details in an article. Students then go to http://www.VOAnews.com (could be BBC or CNN) and read an article of their choice. This is helpful because they choose something of interest to them. The article also tends to be text that is closer to their level. After they are done highlighting, I ask them to write a short summary, their opinion (separately) and to email the article to me. When emailing, I also remind them of naming files correctly. It’s quite annoying to get 35 “doc1” or “homework” files and have to rename them when saving them to give feedback. While students are working, I encourage them to use a learner’s dictionary, and I monitor the use of online translators. Students will probably still go back to online translators at home, but at least during class I try to coach them to read without them.

Note: while this is not an activity that has to be done using computers (a highlighter and a printed news article will do). Working online allows students a greater choice of articles, access to online learner’s dictionaries, and practice using Word, naming files correctly, and sending emails.

Making flashcards using Quizlet

Making flashcards using Quizlet

Vocabulary acquisition

1. Objective: Review recently learned vocabulary

Students create http://www.quizlet.com accounts to create vocabulary flashcards. I ask students to join my class so I can see everyone’s work and they can share their vocabulary sets among each other. Every other week, students make a vocabulary set of new words. I let them choose the words by reviewing their notebooks and each card they make has the definition in their own words.

2. Objective: Examine academic words by exploring how they are commonly used

Lately, I’ve asked students to make lexical sets by selecting target vocabulary first and then finding collocations. Some of my students have used the AWL highlighter to get a list of academic words in their reading passages. All they have to do is copy the text and put it in the website. After that, I ask them to go to http://www.just-the-word.com so they can see frequent collocations of the word. Once they get three common collocates for the target word, they make a set on Quizlet and practice the new vocabulary.

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