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Computer Assisted Language & Literacy

by Bruce Laidlaw and Julia McCall

This paper was presented in its original form at the NSW Adult Literacy Conference, 1995, "At  the Coalface".

screendump of Word Weaver

This paper first looks at the way a software package has been used to create a range of authoring programs for teaching adult language and literacy and then goes on to describe how some of them have been used for teaching hospital cleaners and catering staff. It also discusses some of the features of CALL (Computer Assisted Language and Literacy) that make it such an innovative and exciting teaching tool. Finally a "recipe" is provided for teachers who would like to do a bit of programming themselves.

Beginnings, by Bruce Laidlaw

For the last 17 years I have been teaching adult literacy students in TAFE. I was dissatisfied (along with many other teachers) that there were so few computer programs written for adult students. Most CALL programs are written for children and most of those we looked at were completely unsuitable for adults. Adults coming back to improve their reading and writing skills often bring years of experience in living and working. They often too have unfortunate memories of school and can be distrustful of books and computer programs that treat them like children.

I looked at a grammar program recently, wanting something suitable for our learners for whom English is not their first language. A sentence was provided without punctuation. I had to move a bird along the ground so it could catch the correct comma or period that dropped from a tree above. Another popular spelling program has a frog jumping to catch, with a long sticky tongue, the correctly spelt word. Hmm!

So I began writing simple programs for the Macintosh using HyperCard. (My first one was called "Best Cloze"!) HyperCard is a simple yet powerful authoring program. A "HyperCard Player" is provided on every Macintosh which will play "stacks" (as the programs are called), but which cannot be used for authoring. Later, I discovered WinPlus, (and the free "WinPlus Player") which is an equivalent program that runs on Windows computers, and I was able to provide the programs (collectively knows as Practise Your Skills) on both Mac and Windows platforms.

These programs were written initially for Adult Literacy Students, but have since proved popular with a wider range of school and adult students (and teachers) of literacy and language. Some of the Macintosh programs "talk". This usually means that the Mac reads the text requested by the program. Macintosh computers have for some years come with a range of voices (this one here has about 15). I have not been able to find a free (or cheap) program for Windows that will read the text aloud. However, the talking ability is only crucial in one of the programs below (Practise Your Reading).

Here is a quick summary of the programs. Most of the programs are "text manipulators", taking the text from the teacher or student and turning it into an interactive learning exercise for the student. The programs were written so that even the most inexperienced of computer users (teachers included) can successfully use them. The first twelve programs are for students, and the final, Word Weaver, is for teachers, producing worksheets in a flash.

All the programs are available for Macintosh or Windows machines, except where noted below.

Choose the Best: Multiple choice program, which you can easily add your own exercises.

Practise Your Cloze: Students become familiar with a text by picking the missing words from the bottom of the screen.

Practise Your English: Students choose the missing word in a series of English language patterns. Will print out worksheets.

Practise Your Forms:  Students complete forms using their own data (Given name, family, etc).

Practise Your Jumble: Sentences from a text are jumbled, with the student clicking on words to reconstruct the sentence in order.

Practise Your Matching: Rather like a Sentence Halves worksheet, except that the student clicks on the matching pairs on the screen.

Practise Your Reading (Macintosh only): For beginning readers. Uses the talking ability of the Mac to lead students through the texts. "John, click the word address".

Practise Your Spelling: Texts are presented in context and students spell either the whole word, or the missing letter. They can also select words from their text to practise.

Practise Your Stress: Students click before the stressed vowel. NESB students.

Practise Your Typing (Macintosh only): Guides students (and teachers) through till they learn the whole keyboard.

Practise Your Phonetics: Students can learn the phonetic alphabet and practise it in various contexts. Useful for second language learners of English working on pronunciation.

Practise Your Verbs: Written for second language students to practise irregular verb forms.

Word Weaver: The Teacher's Friend. Produce the six printed worksheets below in seconds.

(Examples of the exercises as they appear on screen appear below in Julia McCall's article.)

We use these programs in our Adult Basic Education Centre at East Sydney in a variety of ways. The programs are never a replacement for a teacher, but can be used very satisfactorily as a reinforcement of work already done.

An obvious example is with a beginning reader. We would probably start with the Language Experience approach, taking some of the student's own language to build up a small piece of text. This is then typed once into one of the programs, say, Practise Your Reading. It is then saved and printed out, perhaps in a larger font size. It is then cut up into sentences or phrases, so that the student and teacher can work with them on the table, shuffling and examining them. The student could then spend some time with the Practise Your Reading program, which reads a sentence from the text and then asks him/her to click on a particular word. If that is correct, then another word, and so on.

As the student becomes more familiar with the text, the program, Practise Your Jumble might be used. This asks the student to rearrange the words of the sentence into the correct order, by clicking on the individual words. Again, we use the same text, importing it with a couple of clicks. The programs are very reinforcing, applauding every correct answer and ignoring any mistakes.

The same text can then be used in Practise Your Cloze, where individual words are plucked out of the paragraph and the student clicks on the missing word from a choice of six buttons at the bottom of the screen. The student's confidence is building up, and this piece of text is no longer as daunting as it was a while back.

If the student is ready to move into individual words, the text (the same one) can be used in Practise Your Spelling. For beginners, the program asks to type the one letter missing from a word in the sentence. If that is correct, then another letter from the same word is hidden and the student identifies it (and gets some confidence at using the keyboard, one letter at a time). Later on, the student may try typing whole words, always in the context of the sentence from the original text.

Finally, the teacher opens Word Weaver, imports the student's text, and chooses to print worksheets for, say, Sentence Halves and Cloze. A photocopy or two of these and the student has revision to work at in class and at home.

Offering Tutorial Support to a bakery apprentice, for example, we might simply turn some of the notes from the student's workbook into a multiple choice quiz and put them, using Plain English, into Choose the Best. This multiple choice program is available in the bakery Flexible Delivery Centre, and the student is able to go through the program in their lunch hour before the class. Either as a tutorial, which shows the correct answer after an error, or as a test, keeping the score till the end. We are trialing a version of Choose the Best that shows pictures of the cutlery, crockery and glassware to be identified for our Tourism and Hospitality Operators' course.


Programming, can I do it? by Bruce Laidlaw

I taught myself to write this (very simple) programming called HyperTalk, using the Macintosh program HyperCard, and later, the (very similar) Windows program WinPlus. I can't recommend it highly enough.

To show you how easy it is, here is the instructions and full script (programming language) for a simple program called "Practise Your Alphabet", which might be suitable for children, or an adult learning the letters of the English alphabet. This program can be written, from nothing to the finished product, in about 10 minutes.

 A Taste of HyperTalk (how to write your own program)

(This section will not work with HyperCard Player. You need the full HyperCard program. It might be on an older Macintosh somewhere, where it was provided free).

I have reprinted a full script for the button below. Note the way it indents itself to show you where the repeats and ifs begin and end. The commercial version of HyperCard comes with an introductory book on scripting. I bought the excellent book HyperTalk 2.0: The Book, by Dan Winkler and Scot Kamins, Bantam Computer Books, 1990, for $60 (less teachers' 10%) from Dymocks in Sydney (958 pages!).

on mouseUp
  repeat until the mouse is down
    put any character of "ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQ" into card field "display"
    wait 1 second
    hide card field "display"
    ask "What letter was it?"
    if it = card field "display" then
       answer "Well done!"
    end if
    if the result = "Cancel" then exit mouseup
    show card field "display"
  end repeat
end mouseUp

Now, here is an exercise for you, changing the program above into a spelling program.

Create a new field called "data". Type a few words into it, one on each line.
Change line 3 of the script above to
      put any line of card field "data" into card field "display"
Add a line to your script saying hide card field "data". Try it and see if it works. Well done!
Then you could have another button which would show card field "data" so that you could enter the spelling words to practise.

Happy programming!

"Practise Your Skills" in the field, by Julia McCall

Fairfield Hospital, NSW, 1995

I started exploring the possibilities of computer assisted language learning for a specific reason. A training program for around 30 cleaners at Fairfield Hospital was started in June of 1995 in which language and literacy teaching was integrated into the mainstream cleaning training. All cleaners, NESB and native speaker, literate and otherwise, were given four modules of training covering such topics as cleaning chemicals, infection control, bathroom and carpet cleaning etc. The cleaners got one two and a half hour session from the Domestic Services trainers which I attended and used as a basis for the following week's language and literacy session, also two and a half hours long.

Since the training was compulsory, the groups had in them all those who had steadily refused to buy into previous English classes run by the hospital, and for that reason I wanted a way for them to learn reasonably privately and with as little of the ambience of the traditional classroom as possible. CALL seemed to offer this.

A further factor which drew me to CALL as a teaching method was the knowledge that computers are definitely on the horizon in the hospital Domestic Services Department anyway. A system of monitoring the production of the yellow bags of contaminated waste (which apparently cost $1 each to send by train to Queensland for disposal) is being introduced and the cleaners will need to know how to key in information to computers. Because of this CALL seemed to offer the chance to kill two birds with the one stone -- demystify computers a bit and get people comfortable with some of the language of the cleaning training at the same time.

I managed to get hold of three black and white Macintosh computers, each with a hard disk and a minimum of two megabytes of memory. I have to say that I had very little idea what would actually happen when 9-10 people distributed themselves in front of them. In the event it has been a highly successful experiment which has provided some unexpected insights into the language acquisition process and the potential of CALL for providing a mixed group of people with a range of meaningful learning activities.

To make my sessions useful I needed teaching material that could not only be adapted to the particular field of cleaning language but was also versatile enough to be useful to a range of learners, some of whom had no language problems at all. I needed to be able to author materials which revise and reinforce the content of the cleaning training and at the same time provide practice in the spelling and structure of the cleaning language for those who needed it.

I was familiar with the two commercially produced programs, Storyboard and Crossword Magic, and both have proved very useful for familiarising the more advanced learners with training material in an entertaining way. However it has been the Practise Your Skills series of programs that has brought home the true potential of CALL as a broad spectrum teaching and training tool.

Everybody in my group of cleaners could read at least a little, though about one third (mostly NESB) either couldn't write in English or believed that they couldn't. For this reason a beginning had to be made without, or with minimum recourse to the keyboard of the computer. The first program I used was Practise Your English in which a range of language options (chosen and keyed in very quickly by me) appears on the monitor followed by a series of sentences, each with one word clozed out -- eg:

screendump of Practise Your English

All the learner is required to do is point and click on his or her choice of word for the gap. A wise choice is greeted by a congratulatory noise of some kind -- applause, the word "good!", "fabulous" or even "cool!". Any other choice makes the sentence in question fade silently away to be replaced by another. After the student has run through the examples on the computer the exercises can be printed out for revision if he or she wishes.

It seems to me that two aspects of this process are particularly interesting and innovative as far as language teaching is concerned. The first is the way that it simulates real life language learning. An appropriate utterance out in the world will elicit a smile, or at the very least a reaction and consequences, whereas an inappropriate one is usually met by blankness which, without discouraging, prompts the speaker to try to get his or her meaning across again. The marking by a teacher of a traditional grammar exercise with ticks and crosses however a) reacts to everything, right or wrong and b) does so retrospectively so that any correcting by the student is divorced from the communicative impulse and may well never be seen by the teacher anyway.

CALL seems to offer teachers an exciting hybrid of written and spoken styles of communication. Like writing it can be planned and structured, and yet like speech it can elicit immediate responses, be corrected, and students can be less than perfect first time without having any more than a whisker of a sense of failure (if that).

A further fascinating discovery whilst using Practise Your Skills was that the language choices offered to learners do not have to be confined to grammatically right and wrong; in fact the options can be broadened to embrace the preferred and dispreferred in a particular context, thus allowing for exploration of the content as well as the form of the language and providing a test of the judgment of native speakers as well as language learners. For example, which of the following is the best answer?


and then




Deducing the rules from the examples presents as interesting a task to a native speaker as anyone else and provokes plenty of discussion round the computers. Because the computers cannot explain why, the learners have to hypothesise for themselves and then test their hypotheses -- often by repeating whole exercises at speed. All very good practice.

 A particularly engaging program is Practise Your Jumble which offers a pool of words to the student which he/she can point and click at in sequence to form a sentence, eg


The computer prompts when asked to and reads the correct sentence back at the end of the exercise. (This activity is particularly useful for stabilised learners who tend to omit articles.)

Using CALL to facilitate cultural change, by Julia McCall

Bankstown Hospital, NSW, 1997

Bankstown Hospital has recently been totally rebuilt.  The old grey multistorey tower has been demolished and in its place is a bright modern single storey hospital with a fountain playing at the entrance.
With the new hospital has come a new sense of the patient as customer and an awareness that the communication style of the catering  staff is a little out of kilter with the times.  No longer are patients encouraged to be  dependent and child-like during their stay.  They need to remain adult, aware and independent and in fact stay in the hospital as short a time as possible.

Most of Bankstown's catering aides have been with the hospital for over a decade and even those from non English speaking background have developed a particular way of serving patients that typically begins thus
"Hi sweetie, would you like something to drink?"  and continues in a warm but decidedly informal vein..

In August this year the Corporate Services Manager together with the Catering Manager decided it was time for change and gave the Enterprise Based Teacher (EBT - viz - me) the task of converting the communication style of the department to something more in tune with the customer focussed philosophy of the hospital.  The tenor  of all future exchanges with patients (at least on first encounter) was no longer to be parent to child but adult to adult.  There was to be more uniformity -- something approaching a set script in fact.

Having used CALL programs for integrating language and literacy teaching into mainstream training in the cleaning departments of various hospitals for some time I know how effective they are for introducing change. Unlike the average trainer, CALL programs can be playful without seeming frivolous. Also, because computers are actually not human, the changes their programs are designed to bring about do not seem to be critical of previous practice.   Even the novelty of handling a  computer at all seems to carry with it the message that times are changing and if one can learn to use a computer then any change is possible.

In order to raise awareness of the issue I begin each one hour session with a multiple choice computer quiz prepared with the program Choose the Best.   Data entry on the program is extremely easy and all the students need to do to participate in the quiz is learn to handle the mouse in order to click on the best of four ways of offering a beverage eg:

Morning love - do you want a drink?
Good morning Mrs Williams - would you like something to drink?
Hi sweetie - tea coffee or cordial?
Tea, coffee or cordial?

The test goes on to cover each stage of the morning tea exchange as well as some ways of handling dissatisfied customers (there's a caterpillar in my lettuce, etc)  Occasionally after much discussion all four options are rejected and a new response proposed..   Personal anecdotes and argument are usually a feature of this stage of the session.  However, by the end of the quiz the following script is usually considered best practice:

Good morning [name if pronounceable and nothing if not].  Would you like something to drink?
 [That'd be lovely]
Tea coffee or cordial?
 [I'd love a cup of tea.]
And how do you take it?
 [White please. with two Equals]
That's white tea with two Equals.  One moment please.  There we go.
 [Thank you very much]
You're welcome. Bye.

Each of the group of trainees is then given a booklet  produced by feeding the above script into the Word Weaver program -- also part of the Practise Your Skills suite.. Producing the following booklet takes about twenty minutes (excluding photocopying and stapling time) The exercises, usually with more space between the lines, look like this:

 Draw lines connecting each half.

Match the words, then fold over the right hand half of the page and write them correctly again.

 Sort the above dialog into the correct order.


 Write the correctly ordered sentences in the spaces.

This cloze exercise can be printed with blanks or, as above.

Replace the Capitals letters and missing punctuation.

I find that the puzzle-like quality of the exercises keeps the native speakers engaged whilst the people from non English speaking background actually get serious practice in both speaking and writing the script.  Invariably the ESB participants end up helping the NESB participants and gain useful insights into the difficulties some of their colleagues have with reading and writing in English.

After working on the booklets the group roleplays serving the beverages and each student is videoed and critiqued.

Using CALL to support peer tutoring in the cleaning department

Two two-person teams of ESB cleaners are now running weekly one hour language and literacy classes for six or seven of their NESB colleagues at Bankstown Hospital. The NESB learners have already attended classes with the Enterprise Based Teacher and have become familiar with a range of conventional teaching routines as well as CALL programs. Now that the EBT only has one day a week at the hospital the task of the ESB tutors is to keep the learning going.
Each week the tutors meet for an hour with the Enterprise Based Teacher to plan classes and get training in using the following programs which have been supplied by the South West Area Health Service:

    1. Practise Your Skills (12 programs)
    2. Storyboard
    3. Gapmaster
    4. Issues in English
    5. The Alphabet
    6. The Interactive Picture Dictionary
    7. The Grammar ROM
Tutors are taught to begin each class with a traditional "warm up" exercise  focussing on some aspect of grammar or spelling after which the groups settle into booklets produced by Word Weaver eg "Problems, Problems" which features simple sentences such as "The toilet is blocked" or "Accidents and Incidents" [" I was leaving the car park when the boom gate hit me on the nose"] To start with the EBT produced the booklets but now the tutors have taken on the authoring with a marked improvement in relevance and authenticity of the texts.

The session finishes with hands on work on the computers using either the dedicated or the authoring programs.   The Protea programs with their streamlined and user friendly design are the most used of the dedicated programs.  However after the glamour of the mini-videos and hypertext has worn off students seem to gain greater satisfaction from processing their own texts through the authoring programs -- either Wida's Storyboard or a combination of Practise Your Cloze and Practise Your Jumble.

It is still early days in the peer tutoring project but so far both tutors and learners are surprised and delighted with their respective achievements.

21 October 1997.

Bruce Laidlaw was a teacher in Language and Literacy Studies at East Sydney College of TAFE.

Julia McCall was a teacher in AMES' English in the Workplace Program, +61 2  9318 2819.

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