Suggestions for the Computer-using ESL Classroom


F. Scott Walters

Pronunciation | Writing | ESL Computer Literacy | Integrated Skills | Listening Comprehension | On-line Instructional Management

Pronunciation-related Drills

Click here to view the Final Project composed by F. Scott Walters and Katarina Lexova for HUM 382 (Fall 1997). This interactive site constitutes a prototype of similar programs that could be used for high-intermediate ESL pronunciation classes, as a supplement to certain pedagogical materials developed at the University of Illinois.

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Writing-skills Practice

As a possible aid in the teaching of writing skills, one may examine this interactive quiz page, written by the author, intended for upper-intermediate students in a source-based writing class. While this demo-example is a quiz on a short reading passage, similar HTML techniques can be employed for online drill and practice. (N.B.: the Submit features are not functional in this demo.)

A somewhat different site deals with Netiquette:

This site might be used to prepare upper-intermediate/advanced students for interaction in newsgroups, i.e., for lessons in Web-based pragmatics. (Of course, this would also constitute reading practice, and students might also be asked to write summaries or responses to the text after reading.) Alternatively, the instructor might, in introducing a unit or course on newsgroups, require a certain period of time in which (advanced) students would have to view newsgroup dialogues --without responding at first -- with a view to their deducing some of the rules of Netiquette (this after some work had already been done with levels of formality in writing and speaking).

As a reading resource for writing comparative/contrast papers or creating oral presentations on the intermediate level, travel information for various cities around the planet may be found at:

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Integrative-skills Practice

Also written by the author is this sample HTML-writing activity for a course in computer literacy skills in English, for upper-intermediate and advanced ESL students, taught in the summer of 1998. The syllabus design of course in question accented task-based approach to English learning.

The website of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (found at contains numerous links to sites dealing with "virtually" all aspects of the United States space program. Some educational links branching off the main NASA pages might be adapted for ESL/EFL projects involving source-based writing, reading comprehension, or research for oral presentations.

An interesting Trip Planner in Illinois may be found at:

This website may be used for reading practice, or as source material for a scavenger hunt, that is, for obtaining cultural information about Chicago (or other regions of Illinois) prior to, say, a class outing. Pre-outing activies might include a search for places to visit in Chicago -- the whole class or groups may in fact plan their class trip (if this is logistically feasible). Such a web search may engender a lot of oral discussion if students are working in pairs. The "scavenged" information may then be shared in a class presentation, which in turn may stimulate class discussion as well as note-taking practice.

Chicago Tourism is okay, but not as fun. It may be found at:

(Possible pedagogic tasks are as listed above.)

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Listening-skills Practice

For listening practice, the archives of National Public Radio may provide many resources. Selections are organized according to program and date of original broadcast. The instructor may ask the student to read a brief, web-posted synopsis of a report before listening to a specific selection (so as to activate schema), or afterwards. An index of archival records for the program "All Things Considered," for example, can be accessed at:


N.B.: In order to access the audio texts, "Real Audio" or like software must be installed on the computer(s) used.

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A Quick and Dirty Guide to On-Line Instructional Management

by F. Scott Walters

Introduction: Below is a brief comparison-survey of some instructional-management features of three computer-based instructional systems which may be used for second- or foreign-language teaching purposes -- PLATO (also known as NovaNET), Mallard, and Serf. Features considered include rosters, routing, grades and grade recording, intra-communication, and usage-statistical and learning-history data handling. At the end of each sub-section, the relative advantages of each feature for the purposes of computer-aided language learning (CALL) is briefly stated. 


In PLATO, while nothing resembling a roster is apparent to the student-user (except a general designation for a class or group -- say, "Humanities 382" -- when one enters the system), rosters may be programmed into PLATO by the instructor. Security is maintained by requiring student-users to type a group login name and an individual login name to access the system. The user is informed if he/she has erred in typing in either password. With Mallard, rosters may also be part of the system if the course instructor inputs the data. Security is maintained by requiring a similar set of passwords to enter the system. As for Serf, the on-line ad touting this system states that with Serf an instructor can "keep track of students," although a specific example of how this is done is not provided.

Rosters: Whose is Better? This is hard to tell, given the fact that Serf's ad is relatively uninformative (a problem that appears repeatedly in the sub-sections below), but it would appear that all three systems are of about equal usefulness with regard to rosters.
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One can examine two sub-functions here: the manner in which each system may sequence educational materials and the manner with which an user may navigate throughout the system.

Sequence of Lessons: PLATO. In PLATO, the routing design may be randomized, that is, the student may be enabled to choose from any item in the main menu or in sub-menus of individual lessons. However, an orientation-type lesson may be placed at or near the top of the list of menu items. Since there may not be an on-line syllabus nor even assignment due dates as such, the instructor must provide in-class guidance to the student as to the preferred sequence of lessons, deadlines, etc.

Navigating the Nodes: PLATO. To get from one page to another within PLATO is a bit cumbersome, as it requires the user to memorize a series of commands, nor do the commands always work as advertised. From the Contents (main menu) page, one can explore a hierarchy of nodes that is select from a number of lessons, usually by pressing Return (the PLATO prompt on the screen is NEXT). At each sub-node (lesson main page), one may choose which lesson activity (e.g., drill) to interact with by pressing a given number or letter. For example, in Latin Lesson 1, press (a); for a sentence-translation activity, press (c). One may also jump back to a previous page, but sometimes this is possible only if an entire text has been displayed on the screen after the user has pressed Return repeatedly. As for exiting a lesson, there are three putative options, but in the event they do not work, one must use the mouse to access a pulldown menu from the top of the screen, and select for a control panel which provides a series of command keys labeled STOP, BACK, DATA, etc.

Sequence of Lessons: MALLARD. In Mallard, the routing design is similarly random (though a definite, ordered syllabus can be given, in class or on-line) allowing the student to preview or review materials at will. Lessons for the term, along with their due dates, may be posted by the instructor as the semester unfolds.

As with PLATO, in Mallard there is a hierarchy of nodes from a student Main Page to a number of sub-nodes, such as Announcements, Course Information, Help, and Lessons Pages. Each sub-node also acts as a superordinal node for further sub-nodes -- as in the Lessons Page where the student user may have several options available, such as access to the course Syllabus and Notes, or a link to an intra-class communication system. The regression of sub-nodes can apparently extend quite far, at the discretion of the instructor or course director.

Navigating the Nodes: MALLARD. While Mallard's nodal "tree" can extend some "distance" from the Main Page, access to various levels of the system is continually open to the student via a series of icon links arranged in a vertical frame to the left side of the main frame of the browser screen -- unlike with PLATO, where one has relatively limited freedom of movement and must either memorize commands or take the trouble to access a pulldown menu. In addition, the Mallard user may, by pressing and holding on a mouse button and letting "up" on a dialogue box, jump back or forward to pages immediately preceding or following the one he or she is viewing.

Mallard will "time out" after several minutes if the user does not interact with the hypertexts. (The same occurs with PLATO.) The user must then re-log on with his or her login name and password.

Sequence of Lessons: SERF. With Serf, it appears that the routing function can also be as randomized as the instructor sees fit, he or she having the freedom to edit, move, or delete class "events" (i.e., lessons, quizzes), thus de facto restricting student access to items until a predetermined time. In practice, if Serf's ad is any indication, it seems that the system is intended to provide free student access of course material at all times, in the manner of a physical (i.e., not virtual) library collection on reserve.

Navigating the Nodes: SERF. At the bottom of every Serf screen the student has access to a horizontal array of grouped links, similar to the vertical arrangement of Mallard, enabling him or her to access syllabus items, inspect grades, peruse daily or monthly course calendars, and also to log on or off (this last presumably a feature provided in the event of being "timed out").

Two routing features apparently unique to Serf (at least among the three systems under review) include: (1) giving the student the ability to jump back to a previously-viewed page at the precise point on that page from which one had left it (unlike Mallard, which can only allow for jumps to to very tops of pages/documents); and (2) a Search feature, not described in detail, which is perhaps used as an alternative to clicking back to the superordinate node/main page to help orient the student lost in the system.

Routing: Whose is Better? Both Mallard seem Serf are superior to PLATO/NovaNET with regard to routing. Both enable the student greater freedom than PLATO does to navigate among system nodes (documents, lessons, etc.) than within PLATO, by virtue of the continuous presence of the icons on the screen, which link a given page to various locations in the system. Between the two "winners," Mallard may be seen here to "win out" over Serf, in a minor sense, since its icons are continually present in the left-hand frame, whereas the user must scroll down to the bottom of each page to access the links. On the other hand, the Serf feature of allowing the user to back up to the precise location is a previously-viewed page may be seen as a "plus" in comparison to the capability of Mallard, which necessitates jumping only to the tops of pages, depending on the language-learning task at hand. If a learner is engaged in, say, a writing project from web-based resources, Serf's jump-back feature could save time. However, if the instructor's intent is to facilitate the development of scanning skills, Mallard's jump-back feature may actually preferable, since the learner may have to scan down lang documents for desired information.

With regard to lesson sequencing, PLATO seems to falls somewhat short here too (at least as it appears to be configured at this writing), since it lacks a superordinal node or link from which a syllabus can be accessed, unlike Serf and Mallard, which do have such explicit features.
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Grading & Grade Recording

In PLATO, student scores (number of answers correct/incorrect) obtained as a result of working through on-line activities (e.g., Russian verb morphology) appear on the student screen and are stored by the system for future grading. In Mallard, the instructor has exclusive access to to a table of all "Mallard grades," and may look at or input data into an on-line course gradebook. Students may later access their grades via their Mallard main pages by clicking on a "View Grades" icon. Serf apparently has a similar system to that of Mallard, final grades being accessible to the student through a link appearing at the bottom of every Serf screen (see "Navigating the Nodes: Serf," above).

Grading: Whose is Better? While Serf's grade-recording feature is not directly accessible from their web-based ad, it would appear that all three systems are about even in usefulness here.
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Usage Stats and Learning History Data

Instructor/course director must input data stored in PLATO directly into an external statistical-analysis software package (such not coming with the PLATO system) in order to determine how well a student is doing and to calculate meaningful grades. Also, if the instructor desires to monitor student progress with assigned material, he or she must take the trouble to incorporate such data-gathering tools into PLATO, as this is not a default feature of the system. In any case, very detailed information on student performance is accessible in so-called "block" tables, detailed down to the minute and to the keystroke level. Such information can provide valuable feedback to the course designer as to the efficacy of course materials. (N.B.: If two or more students have worked on the PLATO system simultaneously, this data is interleaved in the "block" display, which might make it confusing for the instructor/course director to read.)

As for Mallard, the instructor can similarly call up information on student performance (say, on an on-line quiz) in order to determine progress. Finally, regarding Serf, the creators claim that Serf can help the teacher "keep track of students," and also "monitor student progress," though no detailed information about usage statistics-keeping or other data-handling capability can be found.

Data Handling: Whose is Better? Based on the information presently obtainable, it would seem that Mallard "wins out," by virtue of the clarity of its tables, followed by PLATO, whose data-arrays may be to confusing due to interleaving of data. The usefulness of Serf's system remains an open question at this writing.
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Intra-Class Communication It is reported that user-user and teacher-user communication in PLATO is excellent, but in a casual survey of the system, this writer could find no obvious way to engage in such. On the other hand, in Mallard, communication between the teacher and the class may be effected in three ways: (1) the Announcements page, accessible from the superordinate Main Page or through the vertical array of icons in the left-hand frame; (2) via an e-mail link; and (3) via a feature called WebBoard, through which student-moderated "conferences" among students may take place. Finally, in Serf, there is a so-called "virtual room," perhaps analogous to Mallard's WebBoard, e-mail links between the teacher and students, and also a Calendar feature, through which the class may receive announcements from the instructor.

Intra-Communication: Whose is Better? With regard to intra-class communication, both Mallard and Serf are apparently better equipped than PLATO, which, as noted above, has no obvious way of facilitating on-line contact among course participants. This apparent shortcoming in PLATO would severely restrict inter-L2 learner interaction via computer. By contrast, both Mallard and Serf have an e-mail feature, some way of psting announcements, and also an interactive, on-line forum for asynchronous conferencing. With regard to this last, Mallard appears to be superior to Serf in that the WebBoard system can allow for individually-moderated conferences on select topics, which capability may be useful for second- and foreign-language students to practice written (and, in a way, spoken) discourse forms as well as mechanics -- and reading too, of course -- on a given topic, as opposed to the "chat space" in Serf, which would seem better suited for unmoderated, more open-ended discussion. Of course, this is not strictly relevant to instructional management per se, but in an ES/FL context, it is a bonus. (It should be noted, however, that while this conferencing feature theoretically is a boon to intra-class communication and ES/FL language practice and study, in this writer's experience WebBoard has a serious drawback in that access to the server appears to be limited to relatively small numbers of users; given a large student population accessing the system, the server may overload and perhaps break down, thus limiting communication and practice.)
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In sum, among the three instructional-management systems briefly surveyed above, certainly Mallard deserves first consideration, followed by Serf (this judgement pending further access to Serf systems), and finally PLATO, primarily for reasons of ease of user-navigation and also of superior language-use-facilitating, intra-class communications.

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This site was last revised on 7/14/98