"Animation in CALL:
Learning to think in the fourth dimension"
(under revision)
Paper Presentation
CALICO ’98 Symposium
San Diego, California
July 9, 1998
Paul A. Sundberg
Educational Psychology
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

OUTLINE (clickable)



2.1 Computer-Assisted animation vs. Computer-Modeled animation
2.2 Mode of generation: frame-by-frame or real-time
2.3 Two-dimensional versus three-dimensional animation
2.4 Objects that can be animated


4.1 Visual attention
5.1 The theoretical case for visuals in instruction
5.2 Use of visuals plus text
5.3 Intrinsic motivation and animation
5.4 Age factors in the effectiveness of animation
5.5 Spatial aptitude factors and animation
5.6 Incidental and intentional learning using animation
5.7 Degree of interactivity of animation
5.8 Animation's functions in instructional design
5.9 Optimal role of animation in instruction
6.1 Language and the brain
7.1 Animation and second-language skill areas
7.2 Animation and SLA methodologies
7.3 New roles, new directions for the CALL designer




Animation -- including all moving images whether on television, cinema, or video clips incorporated into computer applications -- involves subtle changes in a sequence of stationary images presented in time, the fourth dimension, giving the illusion of connected movement.  The term is normally applied, however, to moving images designed either by hand or by computer.

The Computer Animation Dictionary (1989) defines animation as "[p]roducing the illusion of movement in a film/video by photographing, or otherwise recording, a series of single frames, each showing incremental changes in the position of the subject images which when shown in sequence, at high speed, give the illusion of movement.  The individual frames can be produced by a variety of techniques from computer generated images, to hand-drawn cels."  It is not real motion, but perceived motion.

Non-photographic, "cameraless" animation is frequently cited in canonical lists of the wonders of the multimedia capabilities of modern microcomputers ? e.g. "Multimedia allows text, sound, animation, video clips ... " -- but it is rarely an object of research by instructional technologists or discussed at IT or CALL conferences.  Visual aids such as still images and video are much more widely discussed in the literature, yet animation is equally a subset of the category of visual aids.

The goals of this paper are twofold: (a) to raise CALL practitioners’ practical and theoretical awareness of where computer-generated animation might be appropriate in second-language instruction and (b) to alert CALL designers to the unconscious influence of static instructional metaphors on instructional design, to help them to add a fourth dimension (time) to the three (and often only two) dimensions in which they typically conceive of their task.


Animation is older than motion pictures themselves.  The first picture animation (hand drawn) was created on a spinning disk in 1831 by Frenchman Josèphe Antoine Plateau.  It was not until 1906 that animation was added to celluloid film in the newly-born motion picture industry.  The first computer-generated animations were developed on mainframe computers at Bell Labs in 1963; however, they continued the tradition of "cameraless animation" begun earlier in the 20th century.

Animation deals not only with motion per se (its most obvious sense), but with any change in an object -- change in position (i.e. motion), change in color (e.g. blushing), change in brightness, change in size, and metamorphosis -- change from one object into another (e.g. caterpillar into butterfly).

Traditional animation of the Disney or Hanna Barbera variety is based on cels (images on transparent celluloid acetate sheets) that are then filmed at n cels per second to give the illusion of smooth movement.  The cel concept was first developed in 1915 by American Earl Hurd.  Computer animation is a term that covers a wider area than cel or keyframe animation, however.

The computer can fill various roles in animation (Thalmann & Thalmann 1990:13):

a) creating the basic images to be animated (digitizing or created with
 graphics editor) plus backgrounds
b) adding motion to prefabricated images by generating trajectory paths for
 whole objects (in-betweening) or motion of components of objects (e.g. a
 person's hands) or otherwise transforming their shape, color or
c) coloring  the images to create a realistic look
d) synchronizing motion of the graphics with sound
e) controlling a physical movie camera to record an animation sequence or
 following a virtual camera program
f) editing and synchronizing animated film at the postproduction stage

In CALL, I assume most designers will be most interested in (a) through (d) since (e) and (f) involve professional-level motion picture production.

2.1 Computer-Assisted animation vs. Computer-Modeled animation

Computer-assisted animation,  or keyframe animation, is the type of animation most likely to be authored by CALL designers.  It refers to creating two-dimensional graphic objects and animating them.  Computer-Modeled animation, on the other hand, refers to creating three-dimensional objects and programming them with motion behaviors unique to each object.

2.2 Mode of generation: frame-by-frame or real-time

Computer animation can be generated frame-by-frame,  then produced and saved as a " movie" (the MacroMedia Director metaphor) or it can be generated real-time -- on the fly according to user instructions as in rapid moving, interactive computer games or 3D virtual worlds (cf. "interactive dynamics").

2.3 Two-dimensional versus three-dimensional animation

Using the computer to create 2D animations is a faster method of creating the type of animations formerly hand-painted on cels.  3D animation, however, is an area where the computer shows clear superiority over hand-drawn animation since humans are very inefficient at drawing three-dimensional space, especially all the angles possible for viewing 3D objects.

"Man, in fact, has always found it difficult to represent three-dimensional space in drawings. It is simply impossible to produce all the tens of thousands of drawing needed for an animated film by hand.  In this sense, the computer is not replacing man, since it does jobs which simply cannot be performed manually" (Thalman & Thalman: 61).

3D animation is computationally very complex, not only in the modeling of the static 3D object itself for viewing from any angle, but in programming the behaviors of each object in relation to other objects in the environment (e.g. two virtual people avoiding each other in passing).

Creating 3D human figures is especially tricky, since the human body can carry out such a myriad of actions.  The human face with its many tiny muscles used in facial expressions is extremely complex to replicate by computer.  Animation can create two forms of facial behavior:  "emotions" (smiles, frowns) and "phonemes" -- expressions directly related to producing speech (e.g. lip rounding, spreading, etc.).

2.4 Objects that can be animated

Beyond the stereotypical cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse, many other media can be animated: photographs (e.g. the opening animation sequences of Monty Python's Flying Circus), clay creatures, virtual 3D humans or human heads, individual letters in words, words/text in titles, film credits, etc., buttons, directional arrows and other cueing devices, transitions between "pages" or computer screens, and high-end, complex special effects to be incorporated into commercial films.

CALL designers are more likely to use the ready-made features in computer animation authoring systems to animate photographic images or simple geometric shapes than to design 2D or 3D cartoon characters from scratch -- normally the task of professional graphic artists.  Actions of human beings and animals would be more efficiently captured on video than painstakingly designed frame by frame in a computer graphics application.


Since many CALL practitioners/designers are themselves products of the pre-CAI era of education, they tend unconsciously to carry over a vision of instruction and certain expectations about instructional aids into CALL instructional design that reflect this experience.  Younger SL students, however, have often been raised in a media environment with animated computer games, MTV music videos, movies and television -- widely assumed to be "entertainment" media rather than educational media.  By comparison, the static, traditional-appearing instructional presentations even in CALL-equipped  language classes, for example, seem tame, less captivating to such learners.

Older instructional genres carried over ? consciously or unconsciously -- into instructional design in computer-assisted instruction can be termed "instructional metaphors" -- older genres for conceiving of new media.  This is not necessarily negative.  As Erickson (1990) points out: "metaphors function as natural models, allowing us to take our knowledge of familiar, concrete objects and experiences and use it to give structure to more abstract concepts" (p. 66). Operating systems designers, especially for Macintosh and Windows 95, have made profitable use of such older, more familiar metaphors in making the user interface more easily learnable: the "desktop" metaphor used in both OSs with trash/recycle, folders, files, etc.  It is inevitable, perhaps impossible for instructional designers not to conceive of their product in older, familiar metaphorical ways. The question is:  Is the metaphor appropriate?  Is it optimal?

To begin a consideration of the merits of various metaphors for use in instructional design for CALL, the author offers the following examples of media metaphors (many familiar to language instructors ) from pre-CAI days - static metaphors, dynamic metaphors, and a "hybrid" of the two ? along with submetaphors ("pages" of a "book", for example) associated with each.  None of the lists below are to be regarded as exhaustive.

Static (unanimated) media metaphors, linear and non-linear:

- The class lecture + blackboard/overhead transparencies/page of notes on handout (linear presentation)
 - The textbook -- computer as "electronic book" (A. Hubler) made up of
  "pages" (linear)
 - The foreign language (FL) reader (collection of short stories, etc.)
 - The FL grammar (systematic grammar reference)
 - The newspaper + pages (nonlinear)
 - The full-length scholarly paper + pages (linear)
 - The stack of note cards (HyperCard) + cards (linear or hypertext)
 - The map (nonlinear)
 - The multiple-choice quiz + questions, pages (linear)
 - The encyclopedia + volumes + pages (accessed nonlinearly, hypertext
 - The dictionary + pages (accessed nonlinearly)
 - The photo album, coffee table book + pages (casually linear)
- The slide show + slides (linear)
- The magazine [casually linear]

Dynamic (animated) media metaphors:

The following examples break out of the static metaphors above by incorporating live action sequences or hand-created animation:

- The live stage drama or play (one of the oldest metaphors dating back to Classical Greece and the rituals of preliterate societies)
- The music concert
- The cartoon animation (e.g. Bugs Bunny)
- The full-length motion picture, seen either at a theater or on video
- The filmed documentary
- The television soap opera or telenovela
- The television Sitcom (situation comedy)
- The news broadcast or news reel (before television)
- The live interview
- The how-to program (e.g. cooking, home repair)
- The television or movie advertisement

Hybrid metaphors:

The term "hybrid metaphor" I uses to refer to media metaphors which, although traditionally static in terms of medium (usually paper-based), are based on dynamic, real-life experiences or stories.  They are, in a sense, blue prints for dynamic media, much as Shakespeare intended his written plays to be performed.  Computer-based multi-media (like motion pictures) can transform them into the dynamic versions from which they derive:

- The script of a movie/play or opera libretto
- The story/novel (in static form but with dynamic, linear content)
- The foreign language "dialogue" (in static form on page but representing dynamic, real-life social interaction)

Animation is merely one presentation option currently allowed by multimedia-equipped computers and authoring applications.  In instructional practice, it may be merely one element used within a static metaphor (an animated illustration of the workings of a flour mill in a digital encyclopedia, for example) or the entire metaphor of the program -- a full-length animated feature (the equivalent of a digital Bugs Bunny cartoon) or acted play.  In this period of synthesis, when formerly separate traditional and early 20th century media genres are being crossed and hybrid genres are resulting, an eclectic mix of static and dynamic media metaphors is to be expected and perhaps even to  be welcomed!

There is a concomitant danger, however, that by mixing metaphors too radically, the initial advantage of the metaphor for the new learner is lost.  Cates (1994) recommends that in such cases, a more encompassing metaphor be used that subsumes the two competing metaphors.  For example, combining Beethoven's biography and animated musical selections might not fit comfortably into a book metaphor, but might fit into a broader metaphor such as the television documentary (subcategory: celebrity career  retrospective).


Motion perception in the case of animation involves a psychological phenomenon known as "apparent motion", a human mental trait that creates an inner mental experience of smooth, continuous motion from a series of multiple static inputs that are perceived by the senses as "discrete and separate" (Sekuler & Blake1990: 269).  A variant of the stroboscopic motion effect, apparent motion occurs when any object is seen undergoing incremental changes of position close enough together in space and time (roughly 24 cycles per second in film) to give the experience of motion, e.g. a row of theater lights that appear to be one light circling a marquee (cf. Small & Levinson 1989: 69).  Visual perception research shows that the degree and smoothness of motion experienced in such apparent motion phenomena is dependent on factors such as image duration and timing, spatial proximity, similarity between objects in question, overall illumination level, and prior learning.  Below a certain threshold level, motion is not perceived (S & L:72).

This optical illusion is equally created by motion pictures, video, television  and cartoon animation.  This paper assumes that what is said concerning the pedagogical role of computer-generated animation in CALL -- and in instruction generally -- applies equally to other media using similar optical trickery to convey motion, especially (in the case of CALL) digitized video clips.  Secondary factors, such as different degrees of complexity of image in artificial and photographic animation, in the latter two cases, will undoubtedly be responsible for some differences in instructional effect.

4.1 Visual attention

Perceptual attention is highly selective: We can attend to only a small fraction of the complexity of our perceptual surroundings at one time.  Our eyes move purposefully to take in key points to construct an inner map of the outside reality (Fleming 1987: 236).   Moving objects have immediate perceptual saliency -- they stand out from the static background, even when seen "out of the corner of the eye", in the region of peripheral vision.  The visual center of the brain even contains direction-selective neurons sensitized to visual movement in a single direction.  The perception of even a tiny amount of motion in a single direction allows attention to be drawn to it through neuronal cooperation that amplifies even weak signals (Sekuler & Blake:265-268). The ability instantly to  pick out tiny motions, to judge the direction of the motion (trajectory), and to identify the source of the motion obviously have been an evolutionary advantage to many animals, including humans, both to locate prey and to avoid predators.

It is this evolutionarily useful predisposition to motion perception in humans that makes animation (a purely artificial motion source) one of the most salient of attention-getting devices -- in instruction and elsewhere. "Changes, particularly in motion, are strong attention-getting factors.  Sensitivity to these factors is present even in infants, hence the designer can use them with all ages .... Once attention is gained, continuing changes in the ongoing stream of instruction can help maintain it" (Fleming: 236). Endlessly repeating animations maintain attention, long after it is desired -- compare the abuse of animated gifs on amateur Web pages that draw attention to themselves and away from the text.


One of the striking things when researching the use of animation in educational settings is the sparseness of the literature on it despite the relatively long use of computer animation in educational research (cf. Rigney and Lutz's 1975 study) and technology in general (since the mid 1960s).   While much attention has been paid to comparing visual (graphic) vs. non-visual (text only) presentations (c.f. Paivio's dual coding theory 1987), little literature has dealt with the differences between static graphic presentations and animated graphic presentations.  Rieber (1989) hypothesizes that "animated graphics should provide greater elaboration than static graphics when lesson information involves highly imageable, faces, concepts, or principles that change over time" (p. 6).

The findings on instructional animation have been mixed, however. Earlier studies tended to find animated instruction ineffective; only gradually are studies beginning to isolate various factors that may determine under which conditions animation is most effective (Rieber 1989).  R feels, however, that such conditions are beginning to be defined: " ... it is only recently that this research base has started to be effectively applied to instructional computer graphics .... Research into animated visuals will require a similar systematic process and effort to uncover unique conditions." (R here compares the gradual elucidation of the optimal role of animation to the initial inconclusive and unencouraging research on static visuals, which later, more focused research showed indeed to have instructional value.)

Where instructional animation has been tried is primarily in the sciences, engineering, and math, where imaging of data and abstract principles is vital, e.g. to demonstrate Newton's laws of motion (physics), represent functioning of pumps (engineering), and visualize changes to variables in algebra word problems.  Very little literature exists in which animation's role in Second Language instruction has been studied.

5.1 The theoretical case for visuals in instruction

Animated visuals are normally considered a subset of instructional visuals, and therefore research which applies to static visuals ought to apply equally to animated visuals (Rieber 1989).

One of the most frequently cited psychological theories to provide theoretical grounding for the use of visuals in instruction is dual coding theory  (Paivio 1986 and elsewhere). Experiments in human learning and long-term memory have tended to support a dual coding model, but not a single coding model (i.e. a single mental representation is created from either visual or verbal modes), as claimed by Pylyshyn in cognitive science.

Paivio hypothesizes that there are two independent codes for creating memory: a verbal and a visual ("imaginal"), one activated by words and the other by pictures*. Retention of material can be increased if the information is initially coded in two codes rather than one.  Thus, presentation in visual (including animation) and verbal modes simultaneously facilitates comprehension and  memory formation (i.e. learning).  If one memory channel is lost, as in the case of aphasia, the other remains.  Moreover, the more concrete, or "imageable", verbal information is, the more likely it is to be dually coded in the brain. Concrete concepts can be stored both visually and verbally, whereas abstract concepts can be stored only verbally.

While research on the benefit of visuals in instruction prior to 1970 painted a mixed picture of their instructional effectiveness, since then research has more clearly defined what the facilitating conditions for their use (Rieber 1989:7):

1) visuals are superior to words for long-term memory construction
2) combining visuals with text facilitates learning, provided the visuals are related to the verbal content
3) children under nine or ten rely more heavily on visuals than older students
4) children's imagery abilities develop gradually, and children under nine or ten do not automatically form imagery when reading, necessitating visuals

5.2 Use of visuals plus text

One widely-studied area of research in educational psychology has been the relationship between text and visuals in instruction.  A purely graphical presentation may fail to aid comprehension since learners unfamiliar with the content may not be able accurately to perceive important, yet subtle differences (Rieber 1989: 9).  "... animation without narration can have essentially the same effect on students' scientific understanding as no instruction (the control group)"  (Mayer & Anderson 1991: 490).

The optimal combination of text and visuals appears to be the inclusion of a verbal description (in M&A's 1991 study, a verbal sound track) during the presentation of a (mechanical) animation rather than before the presentation (i.e. as an advanced organizer).  Subjects who viewed the animation with a verbal description also did better than subjects who were exposed to the animation only or the words only.  Similar results obtained for subjects viewing static visuals with text mapped to the illustrations:  "effective understanding depends on words and pictures being coordinated with one another" (M&A: 484).  Their study supports Paivio's dual-coding hypothesis, clearly showing the superiority of simultaneous use of both a visual and verbal code (building a referential connection between input from the two codes).

5.3 Intrinsic motivation and animation

Intrinsically motivating instruction is an ideal in designing instruction.  Students who perceive themselves as in control of their success stay with a task longer and are more likely to return to it. External reinforcement (i.e. from the instructor) is less effective at motivating students.  Motivation/arousal lies on a continuum, and optimal levels theoretically exist for various instructional components -- including animation, Rieber believes (1989:13).

In Rieber's experiment contrasting text-only, static visuals-plus-text and animation-plus-text presentations, 4th graders were highly motivated to return to the animated presentation when given the choice of that over other computer and non-computer activities.  Internal reinforcement (pleasure) proved a greater motivator than external reinforcement (praise for correct answers).  For this age group, at least, animation proved an intrinsically motivating methodology.

5.4 Age factors in the effectiveness of animation

Age of subject was one influential factor Rieber noticed in his literature review of the use of animation in education.  Studies using adult subjects (e.g. King's 1975 study of Naval training students 1975) tended to show that animation had an insignificant effect on learning, whereas studies with children tended to show its effectiveness. Adults, R hypothesizes are better at creating an internal visualization from text (imagery ability), whereas children are still developing this skill and thus rely more on visuals.  After the age of nine or ten, imagery ability in children becomes more developed and they are thus less dependent on visuals for comprehension of prose.

5.5 Spatial aptitude factors and animation

Another significant learner variable in the effectiveness of animation appears to be the spatial aptitude of the subjects. In a study designed to find a  correlation between success in learning from an animation and spatial ability, subjects with low spatial aptitude were found to benefit from animated presentation (again due to poor imagery ability), while subjects with high spatial aptitude showed no effect (Blake 1977).  This suggests that spatial imagery ability varies widely even among adult learners and is an important learner variable in predicting the instructional effectiveness of animation.

5.6 Incidental and intentional learning using animation

Traditional instructional design in the systems approach aimed at intentional learning:  specific instructional goals are determined, instruction is designed, and the student is given a narrow, goal-specific presentation.  Incidental learning occurs when the student attends to secondary information, perhaps not consciously "taught", and learns material beyond what was planned by the instructional designer.  Rieber's 1990 study showed that recall for incidental information improved with the use of animation.  His subjects were not explicitly taught a particular law of physics, but were incidentally exposed to it through seeing animated depictions of objects exemplifying another of Newton's laws of motion.  In spite of the lack of explicit attention to the other law, however, the secondary animation stayed with subjects and aided their physics reasoning in later tests.

5.7 Degree of interactivity of animation

Animation can be presented in two ways: (1) preprogrammed dynamics, in which the learner is a passive viewer of animation designed prior to showing (this includes all popular film animation such as Walt Disney cartoons) and (2) "interactive dynamics" (Brown’s term 1983), in which the animation is created on the fly, manipulated by the viewer, as in computer simulations and many computer action games. Adults learn from either type about equally, whereas children benefit more from the interactive animations, perhaps because of the intrinsic motivation of the latter, Rieber speculates.

5.8 Animation's functions in instructional design

Animation is not merely a presentation strategy in instruction; it can play a wide variety of roles.  The following functions of animation owe much to Rieber's taxonomy of animation in instructional design (1989).

a) presentation strategy -- "the most direct instructional application"  (Rieber 1989)
1. as a supplement to the text for illustrating concepts
2.  as a supplement to the text for examples

b) interactive dynamic -- a practice activity using interactive animations,
 discovery learning. The learner tests hypotheses, which the program
 visualizes for her/him (e.g. flight simulation) -- provided learners perceive
 differences in the visualizations.  Simultaneous coaching or verbal
 prompts may be necessary.

c) conceptualization ? the animation serves merely to remind the learner of
  a previously learned concept; no new information is depicted
d) feedback ? the motivation generated by the novelty in animation can be useful in reinforcing correct responses;  however, the novelty of such feedback may unintentionally reinforce wrong answers, i.e. rewarding errors with interesting feedback; for all such feedback, the novelty eventually wears off

e) attention-getting devices (e.g. blinking arrows) ? should be used sparingly

f) motivation/reinforcement

g) cosmetics - making an attractive visual impression ("technocentric"
design); however, the "novelty should be used to draw attention to the information to be learned, not to the novel elements per se" (Fleming: 236).

5.9 Optimal role of animation in instruction

Based on the findings mentioned above, a preliminary list of instructional guidelines for the use of animation in instructional design can be formulated:

a) Animation is most effective when used for conceptually new material.

Studies in which the use of animation supplemented material that was already very familiar to the student or in which motion was not an inherent part showed little significant difference over pure prose presentation (Rieber 1989: 9).

b) Learners should have some familiarity both with animation as a medium and with the topic presented, at least at a rudimentary level to profit from the animation

If the learners are total novices to the material presented, they may not be able to attend to the relevant presentation points in an animated presentation with no verbal cueing or other advanced organizers.  Indeed, the more complex the animation is visually, the more likely such incomprehension by learners will be.

c) The material which is illustrated by the animation should be at a learnable level for the intended audience.

Difficulty level of the material is another significant factor in the ultimate success of animation. When used to present material beyond the level of subjects, animation showed no benefit, whereas animated instruction tailored to the ability level of students has shown significant benefit.

d) Animation should be an inherent part of the material presented, not a gratuitous add-on.

In material in which visualization, sequence, motion and/or trajectory were essential (e.g. Newton's laws of motion), the animated presentation strategy showed significant advantage over text-only (Rieber 1989:10).  To generalize from this and other studies, in order for animation to benefit learners, motion should be an integral component of the material to be learned.

e) Sequencing and presentation of instructional modes -- text, sound and animation -- need to be planned for maximum effectiveness

In presentation strategy, Rieber (1988) found that careful cueing of grade-school students to what to attend to in a subsequent animation, and chunking of the textual and graphic presentation into separate frames controlled by the student was superior to simultaneous presentation of text with graphics, which resulted in cognitive overload and inadequate attention being paid to relevant details.  Careful control of the quantity of material presented at one time, on the other hand, made the material more comprehensible and learnable.

Mayer & Anderson (1991), by contrast, found that simultaneous presentation of an animation with a verbal "sound track" was superior to sequential presentation:  the sound track followed by animation.  This seemingly contradictory finding may perhaps be explained by assuming (a) that the quantity of verbal and animated presentation was at a comprehensible level and (b) that printed text as used in the Rieber study may compete visually with animation, while sound narration may not compete with the animation.

The gratuitous addition of animation to verbal material which it does not fit, however, shows poor instructional design and will likely show no advantage over other presentation modes.  The opposite effect is likely:  distraction and confusion.

f) Children should benefit more from animation than adults, although there does seem to be some ancillary benefit to adults. (This may apply only to adults learning via animation in L1.)

When Rieber conducted the same study on adult learners as he had on 4th graders, however, there was  no significant difference for the effect of animation over static or verbal presentation.  Response time on the post-test, however, was significantly faster for adults in the animated visual condition group, where it functioned as an aid in retrieval.  These subjects also showed less need for additional practice and rehearsal than the static graphics and no graphics group (Rieber 1989:11).

g) Allowing the viewer greater control over the animation results in more learning.

Animation's "greatest potential" , Rieber claims (p.12) , may be in its use as an interactive dynamic, letting learners control the course of an animation by their input when they are "in the driver's seat," rather than passively attending to (or not attending to) a visual presentation.

h) Computer-generated animation may be superior to video when greater simplicity of image and saliency of the focal point is critical to the instruction.

"Realism per se is not necessarily a virtue in instruction  .... picture-mediator enthusiasts have sometimes overlooked the fact that abstraction is often the intent of instruction" (Fleming: 242).  Video by its nature includes details (in background and foreground) that may not be focal to the material presented, whereas cameraless animation allows the designer to abstract an image to its bare essentials.

i) Animation should be created at a sufficiently professional level for its intended audience.

As with any media developed in-house, animation which is crude and obviously garage-shop quality may not possess much surface validity in the eyes of a student.  Ideally, computer animation should be of a sufficiently professional level so as not to distract from the material presented.  Adults, as a more sophisticated audience for media presentation, would require a higher level of production quality than younger children.


Natural language reflects the inner perceptual (and social) experience of human beings, including the perception of motion and change of state.  Speaking simplistically, we experience the physical world as:  (a) discrete objects (e.g. trees) with static attributes (The tree is tall.), (b) static relations between objects (The tree is beside the stream.) and ? when the fourth dimension, time, is included ? (c) objects with dynamic, changing qualities (The tree is turning green.), and (d) objects in motion (The tree is swaying.). These semantic propositions are realized in natural language by such universal linguistic categories as subject and predicate (NP VP) and noun and verb and in particular languages by particular linguistic categories, such as adjectives and prepositions (these latter categories are widespread among world languages but by no means universal).

The perceived distinction between static reality (3D) and changing/moving reality (4D) is indeed reflected in natural language, but not in a one-to-one correspondence with a particular grammatical category: e.g. "movement is expressed by verbs," as a naïve  respondent might at first suggest.  In reality, these linguistic functions are parceled out among a number of different parts of speech:

a) prepositions of dynamic location: to, from, into, out of, onto, off of, etc.
marked by distinctions in the case of the article and noun head in languages such as Greek, Latin, Russian, German:

im (in dem) Geschäft (in the factory -dative case for static location) in das Geschäft (into the factory -accusative case for dynamic location)
b) prepositions of time:  during, after, before, since, until, etc.

b) participial adjectives:  graying (hair), developing (country), etc.

c) verbs of motion:  run, walk, nod, wave, etc. (but not all verbs)
verbs of change of state:  become, increase, weaken, etc.
 verbs of repetition: drip, hack (cough frequently), etc.
 adjectival verbs: e.g. Arabic form IX verbs of color or
 disability:  iHmarra - to become red, blush

d) nouns of phenomena: rain, drip, lightning, etc.

e) verbal nouns:  destruction, collapse, arrival, departure, etc.

Beyond parts of speech, there are other facets of language such as verb tense and aspect (many languages are morphologically much richer in aspect than English) that deal with motion or change of state:

Tense:   The tree fell. (past)
  The tree is falling. (present)
  The tree will fall. (future)
Aspect: The tree has fallen. (perfective ? static condition due to past
The tree is starting to fall. (inceptive ? the action has just begun)

Animation, although it is mentally processed via a visual, rather than a linguistic code (cf. Paivio's Dual-coding Theory), can effectively depict the one dimension of the physical world that traditional static visual aids leave untouched: time, the fourth dimension.

"Animation, like any graphic, should be expected to aid the recall of verbal information when it serves to precisely illustrate a highly imageable fact, concept, or principle." (Rieber 1989:6)

6.1 Language and the Brain

In psycholinguistics, language is viewed as a multi-level, symbolic system linking audial (phonological) representations with semantic representations in the mind.  Thus, every word in a natural language is dually coded as sound and meaning -- and, for a literate native speaker of a language with a writing system, trebly coded: sound/orthography/meaning.  In neurolinguistics, this dually or trebly linked mental structure has been established as having a biological correlate in the structure of the brain.

In addition to links between a sound and meaning representation for words, the meaning component of concrete words (stored in the brain in separate regions from abstract words (Allport & Funnel 1981)) is further linked with perceptual memories of the real world as experienced through the five senses: sight (e.g. a seashell), hearing (a giggle), smell (barbequed meat), taste (honey), and touch (satin).  Human language, by its nature, involves multiple links between different areas of the brain, linguistic and non-linguistic.

Motion information, associated primarily with visual input from the outside world (secondarily with motor input from a person's own physical motion) is stored in a region of the brain adjacent to the visual center and is presumably linked to lexical items dealing with motion. According to dual-coding theory (Paivio 1986), learning concrete vocabulary items simultaneously with their physical-world counterparts should improve both speed of comprehension and retention in Long Term Memory. In addition, with the appropriate stimulus following learning, the vocabulary associated with the stimulus should be retrieved from Long Term Memory more quickly.  In the case of language dealing with motion and change of state, using animation as an initial presentation medium and as a memory stimulus should aid in the comprehension, storage and recall of such language in either the L1 or L2.

Where first- and second-language learning differ is that L1 learning involves a child building the initial schemata for language from scratch, linking audially-encoded words with their real-world referents and creating higher-level semantic linkages, according to the Schema Theory paradigm (Gagné & Glaser 1987: 62-63).

In the case of L2 learning, the initial linguistic schemata have already been created with their dually- and trebly-coded mental connections.  L2 learning therefore involves linking new information with old, mapping a  new linguistic code (the L2) onto a pre-existing, language-independent semantic framework.  The novelty in using visuals in an L2 instructional presentation thus lies not in the visuals themselves (except perhaps when they depict culturally unique aspects of the L2 culture), but in the new linguistic code which is attached to them.  The use of visuals, including animation, should thus aid in initial understanding and processing of the L2 linguistic code (learning) and subsequent retrieval of it, although initially, the L1 connections should be much stronger than the newly-formed L2 connections for the same stimulus (and L2 connection stronger than L3, and so on).


If the literature on the use of computer animation in instruction in general is sparse, the literature on the use of animation in Second Language instruction is even sparser.  In a university library database search, I found only two related articles: an unpublished dissertation (Suzuki 1996) on "The Effect of Animated Hypermedia Instruction on the Appropriate use of postpositional particles by beginning college students of Japanese" (an empirical study) and a literature review (Xiao & Jones 1995) entitled  "Computer Animation for EFL Learning Environments" (a literature review).  Perhaps this paucity of written material is due to the fact that the technology for authoring with animation has become widely available to ordinary CALL practitioners only in the last few years.  Much basic research, therefore, remains to be done.

Meanwhile, however, beyond the general guidelines for the optimal use of animation in instructional design (section 5.9), we may begin to ask what constructive role animation might specifically play in Second Language learning and instruction.  Learning a second language involves mastering a variety of skills:  intellectual (syntactic parsing and semantic construction via reading or listening), visual (interpreting a writing system), motor (controlling the muscles involved in the speech apparatus), and communicative.  What contribution might animation make to such typical SL concerns as teaching L2 pronunciation, writing reading, syntax, listening and culture? Likewise, various competing SL teaching methodologies are currently in use; how might computer animation relate to these various methodologies?

7.1 Animation and second-language skill areas

In response to the first question, with what SL skills computer animation might be an appropriate teaching medium, I believe that the general instructional principle Rieber and others have frequently stated applies:  To be instructionally sound, a dynamic/animated presentation format must be appropriate to the nature of the material presented, i.e. it must have a necessary time component with motion and/or change of state.  In the section below, I review several traditional components of SL instruction in which such elements are found or where secondary advantages of animation may apply.

a) Teaching pronunciation

Traditionally, the teaching of L2 pronunciation has relied on static cut-away side views of the vocal apparatus to illustrate phonological production.  However, pronunciation is by and large dynamic. In reality, producing the phonemes of any language involves a sequence of motions among various parts of the vocal apparatus: creating an air stream, manipulating various parts of the throat, tongue and lips to restrict or stop the flow of air. In the case of affricates such as [tsh] and [dzh], the tongue moves from one position to another to create the sound.   Likewise, in the case of diphthongized vowels, movement is an essential component of the sound, e.g. movement towards lip rounding ([aw], [ow], [uw]) or constriction of the mid tongue and palate ([aj][ej][ij]).  Static diagrams cannot do these inherently sequential actions justice.  Traditionally, this lack in the textbooks has been made up for by the real-life modeling of the pronunciation by the instructor.  A live human model is still optimal; however, some form of animation -- either video clips of a real person pronouncing sounds or three dimensional animation using an animated human head -- would approximate the dynamics of real speech more closely than the static illustrations in pronunciation texts.  A further advantage of non-photographic animation is the potential to show simplified anatomical cross-sections of the vocal apparatus, highlighting only the relevant parts of the vocal apparatus.

b) Teaching the calligraphy / writing of differing L2 writing systems

For native speakers of Latin alphabet-based languages, much initial teaching time is taken up instructing them in the writing systems of non-Western languages such as Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew and Hindi.  For ideographic writing systems such as Chinese and Japanese, especially, writing each character requires scrupulously following a traditionally-ordained stroke order.  Since writing is a dynamic procedure, illustrating ideographs with animation (as, for example, in Kanji Master software for Japanese) would be far closer to the end behavior than the static numbered diagrams of stroke order currently available to students.

c) Teaching reading

Of the language-related skills, reading is the most visual skill; in fact, reading is termed "visual language processing" in the psychological literature. Although the text itself is normally static, the act of reading itself (saccades of the eyes from word to word) is dynamic. It is natural, therefore, to look to a dynamic tool such as animation when a dynamic element is desired for L2 textual presentation. In computer-assisted L2 reading instruction, for example, animation allows a presentation style in which each printed word in the text is visually highlighted while it is being read aloud, coordinating the reader's eye movements with the reading speed of the audial track. However, the L2 reader should ideally be given some control over the speed of the presentation to keep the flow of verbal information at a comprehensible level.  The above is not to imply that animation is appropriate for all instances of L2 reading, however. It is merely one potential means of reading presentation among many.

More in line with Paivio’s Dual-coding Theory, an animation could serve as a visual aid embedded in the text page to illustrate, say, a manufacturing procedure being discussed in the text.  The animation should not, however, be running in an endless loop while the reader attempts (futilely) to concentrate on the text.  Rather, a button should be provided to allow the reader to control when (and whether) to launch the animation.

d) Teaching listening

Although there is no visual aspect to listening per se, L2 learners depend on many contextual cues, including visual ones, to understand what they are listening to. Using dynamic visual aids to clue the listener in on the topic of conversation is a highly effective aid to L2 comprehension as an advanced organizer, taking advantage of existing schemata in the learner's mind to aid him/her in processing the new audial content.  Another potential listening exercise with animation would be to present the listener with oral instructions which s/he would then follow by manipulating an animation ? an interactive dynamic, in this case. The goal would be for the learner to demonstrate comprehension at each step by correctly matching the on-screen animation to the oral instructions -- a CALL variation on the Total Physical Response methodology.

e) Teaching morphology and syntax

Animation could serve to highlight salient features in the L2 syntax: regularities in morphology (the conjugational endings of Romance verbs, for example) or various syntactic transformations (such as changes in word order in English question formation ? He will come tomorrow. -> When will he come?). In addition to animation’s innate attention-getting properties which can direct students' attention to such syntactic patterns, use of animation could help increase student motivation in a subject often considered one of the duller aspects of foreign language learning.

Animation might also be used to illustrate tense and aspect distinctions in a second language by presenting a natural sequence of scenes without the highly abstract grammatical explanations often given in L2 texts.  For example, to illustrate the English present perfect tense’s relation to present time, an animation of a tree falling could be presented with a sequence of sentences: the tree is standing; the tree is falling; the tree has fallen; the tree is lying on the ground..  The grammatical features of the second language are can thus be acquired naturalistically in a meaningful context as in first-language acquisition.

f) Teaching culture

Culture is one L2 content area where a pre-existing schema in the adult learner may be missing.  Not only is the linguistic information new, the visual/experiential information has, as yet, no mental representation. Although an American student of Chinese, for example, may have a schema for festivals in general, it is doubtful that the term "Moon Festival" would stimulate any concrete associations in her/his Long Term Memory.  The learner must construct a new linguistic and sensory schema from scratch -- often with no opportunity in the US to experience that cultural element first hand.  In this case, an animated "virtual" experience is the next best thing.  For elements of culture which involve sequence, procedure, motion, etc. animation should  be the preferred presentation mode when the "real thing" is unavailable.  Cultural elements that qualify are festivals, games,  gestures, dances, and religious ceremonies.  However, as most of these involve human subjects -- traditionally one of the hardest objects to depict graphically -- the most efficient medium for capturing and displaying cultural content may well be videotape/film rather than computer-generated animation.

7.2 Animation and SLA methodologies

As for computer animation's role in different teaching methodologies, it is merely one computer-assisted instructional mode among several and not wedded to any particular methodology.  As a basic (neutral) presentation methodology, animation is thus likely to find a role in a wide-range of SL and FL teaching methodologies: from grammar-centric approaches to natural language-, communication-centric approaches.

Grammar-translation approaches will see animation mostly as a means to illustrate aspects of syntax dealing with motion and change of state, and perhaps as a means of focusing learner attention on various linguistic forms, i.e. animated text.

More communicative methodologies, on the other hand, will see animation as a useful tool for presenting naturalistic settings where students provide the language: describing scenes, telling stories, interpreting the various communicative functions required in scenes of human interactions.  Here the content of the animation will be much richer and more varied.
In a task-based instructional style, animation may be used to illustrate a totally non-linguistic topic. Students might watch an animation originally intended for native speakers of the L2 that illustrates how nuclear power plants operate, for instance, the goal being to learn new information through the second language.  Again, the main criterion for choosing an animated presentation is whether the instructional objective includes motion as an inherent component.

7.3 New roles, new directions for the CALL designer

The CALL designer has primarily tended to think of her/his role as lesson-writer, textbook-writer, test-maker ? traditional instructional roles. New authoring applications that allow longer-length animated presentation, as documentaries and cartoons have traditionally done, should encourage CALL instructional designers to experiment with new roles, such as that of animator or movie director.  In this new role, the CALL designer is free to  break out of static instructional metaphors and begin to conceive of larger play-like productions involving characters, plot, and dialog . Plays are proverbially a metaphor for real life ("all the world’s a stage").  If real language reflects the totality of human life, perceptions, and emotions, then L2 materials ought more closely to mirror that totality.  Animation (and digital video) add the time dimension.

With the advent of 3D virtual worlds on the Web and elsewhere, CALL designers should soon be able to develop more open-ended, less instructor-guided L2 learning environments ? interactive dynamic worlds ? where  learners can select, even design, their own characters and settings and spontaneously create their own plots and dialogues.  Learners will be able to play make-believe doctors and patients in virtual hospitals, function as CEOs of foreign corporations in virtual office buildings, and travel through virtual galaxies in virtual space ships as astronauts. The possibilities are no longer limited by the technology, but by the preconceptions of the instructional designer.


Given the relatively infantile state of research on animation in CALL, a number of questions arise from the existing literature on animation in general and findings on second language acquisition.

1. How should the verbal half of the word/image dual-input best be presented in SL instructional contexts with animation:  as printed text, as an audial sound track, or as simultaneous sound and printed text?

2. Animation has proved effective in presenting cognitively new content in fields such as physics and engineering. Does this same advantage apply to animation in second language learning, which involves mapping a new linguistic code (L2) onto previously learned concepts and human experiences  -- leaving aside for the moment the issue of very real cultural differences in experience of life.

3. Both computer-generated animation and digitized video allow a four-dimensional presentation mode.  Are they processed cognitively in similar ways? How are they alike and how do they differ?  Human-designed animation gives the instructional designer the advantage of being able to control the amount of visual complexity in the moving images and backgrounds, whereas video often includes much irrelevant, and potentially distracting naturalistic detail.  On the other hand, video photography is often less expensive and labor intensive than cameraless animation.

4. Do Rieber's observations about age-difference factors in the effectiveness of animation on L1 learners also apply in a second-language instructional setting?  What age of L2 student would most benefit from animated presentations?  Are adult L2 learners cognitively similar to younger L1 children in the effect dually-coded presentations have on them?

(this paper is copyrighted (1998) and may not be published or distributed for profit)


2D authoring applications with animation potential

Applications that incorporate animation potential:

Course Builder:

A relatively long-lived application (since late ‘80s) geared for instructional development.

Macromedia Director 6.5:   $960 (non-acad)

For designing multimedia productions. Uses animation authoring concept.  Can animate up to 120 objects simultaneously.

Macromedia Flash 3:   $295 (non-acad)

Web standard for fast vector animation, create animated interfaces, no programming

Macromedia Fireworks:   $299 (non-acad)

Prepares images for the Web, including animation.

Auto F/X Universal Animator:  $100  (non-acad)

Creates animations in many other applications (e.g. Illustrator, Photoshop, FreeHand)

Adobe After Effects 3.1:   $650 (non-acad)

2D animation, time-based special effects

Adobe ImageReady:   $299 (non-acad)

Prepares images for the Web, including easily tweened animation.

Hash Animation Master 5.0:

3D-animation authoring applications

Crystal 3D Impact! Pro:   $100

"the world's easiest to use 3D animation software" for Web pages and presentations. (Windows  only)

MetaCreations Infini-D 4.5:   $560 (non-acad)

Rated 5 mouses in MacUser.

MetaCreations Poser 3:   $180 (non-acad)

For figure animation (human and animal).

MetaCreations Ray Dream Studio 5:   $295 (non-acad)

MetaCreations Ray Dream 3D:   $100 (non-acad)

Basic tools for modeling and animation.


WebSpice Animations: $100 (non-acad)

30,000 royalty-free animations in all image categories


Adobe Premiere 5.0:  $550 (non-acad)

The premier digital video editing and video capture tool


One useful such list (1961-1989) is the long, chronologically organized one found in the Appendix to Thalmann & Thalmann’s 1990 book Computer Animation: Theory and Practice (pp. 223-241).


Allport, D. A. & Funnell, E.. (1981). Components of the Mental lexicon.  In
The Psychological Mechanisms of Language.  London: The Royal Society and the British Academy (published jointly).

Blake, T. (1977).  Motion in instructional media: Some subject-display mode interactions.  Perceptual and Motor Skills, 44, 975-985.

Brown, J. (1983). Learning-by-doing revisited for electronic learning
environments. In M. A. White (Ed.), The future of electronic learning  (pp. 13-32).
Hillsdale, NJ: Elrbaum.

Erickson, T. (1990).  Working with interface metaphors.  In B. Laurel (Ed.), The art of human computer interface design  (pp. 65-73).  Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Fleming, M. L. (1987). Displays and Communication.  In R. M. Gagné (Ed.), Instructional Technology: Foundations,  (pp. 233-260).   Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gagné, R. M. & Glaser, R. (1987). Foundations in learning research. In R. M. Gagné (Ed.), Instructional Technology: Foundations, (pp. 49-83).  Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

King, W. A. (1975).  A comparison of three combinations of text and graphics for concept learning.  (Report No. NPRDC-TR-76-16). San Diego, CA: Navy Personnel Research and Development Center. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 112 936).

Mayer, R. E. & Anderson, R. B. (1991).  Animations need narrations: An experimental test of a dual-code hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 484-490.

Mayer, R. E. & Anderson, R. B. (1992). The instructive animation: helping students build connections between words and pictures in multimedia learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 444-452.

Milheim, W. D. (1993). How to use animation in computer assisted learning.  British Journal of Educational Technology, 24, 171-178.

Paivio, A. (1986). Mental representations: A dual-coding approach. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rieber, L. P. (1988).  The effects of computer animated lesson presentations and cognitive practice on young children’s application learning in physical science.   Unpublished manuscript.

Rieber, L. P. (1989). A Review of Animation research in Computer-based Instruction. In Proceedings of Selected Research Papers presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology.  Dallas, Texas. (ERIC Document Service No. ED 308 832).

Rieber, L. P. (1990). Effects of animated visuals on incidental learning and motivation.  In Proceedings of Selected Paper Presentations at the Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology.  Dallas, Texas. (ERIC Document Service No. ED 323 943).

Rigney, J. & Lutz, K. (1975). The effects of interactive graphic analogies on recall of concepts in chemistry (Technical Report No. 75). Washington, DC: Office of Naval Research.  (ERIC Document Service No. ED 109 639).

Roncarelli, R. (1989). The Computer Animation Dictionary.  New York: Springer-Verlag.

Sekuler, R. & Blake, R.  (1990). Perception.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Small, E. S. & Levinson, E. (1989). Toward a theory of animation. The Velvet Light Trap, 24, 67-74.

Suzuki, T. (1996). The effect of animated hypermedia instruction on the appropriate use of postpositional particles by beginning college students of Japanese.  Unpublished dissertation.  University of Texas at Austin.

Thalmann, N .M. & Thalmann, D. (1990). Computer animation: Theory and Practice.  Tokyo: Springer-Verlag.

Xiao, X. & Jones, M. G. (1995). Computer animation for EFL learning environments.  In Eyes on the Future: Converging images, ideas and instruction.  Selected Readings from the Annual Conference of the International Visual Literacy Association.  Chicago, IL. (ERIC Document Service No. ED 391 518).

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(this paper is copyrighted (1998) and may not be published or distributed for profit)

last updated:  July 20, 1998