ESL/EFL Teachers and How They Use Technology

lynnz80By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

There is a wide variety of hardware and software available for teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL) and of English as a Foreign Language (EFL). Even though the contexts between the two types of teaching/learning are different, the motivations are the same. Teachers and students want and need access to techniques and strategies that effectively teach English. Depending on the  specific context,  the teachers and students may have more or less access to various types of technology.

Before we go any further, for those of you who are not familiar with this field, I will define ESL and EFL. The ESL teacher is teaching English in an English immersion context.  The students are learning English in an environment where English is the primary language spoken, such as the US or Australia. The EFL teacher is teaching English as a Foreign Language in an environment where some other language (or languages) is primary, such as in France or Taiwan.

As I stated earlier, context often determines the type and amount of technology that is available. For example, ESL teachers who teach adults in American community colleges also iwb2often incorporate teaching computer skills into their classes. A teacher in an online program, whether ESL or EFL, uses a variety of web technologies for his/her class, which may include Skype, Ning, or other such online tools. A teacher in Peru may not have classroom access to a computer, but have access at home so that she/he can find lesson ideas online to use in class.

I decided to interview several ESL/EFL teachers to find out how they use technology, especially computer-based technology, in their classes, and I will start with myself. I do not usually teach English, but this semester, spring 2009, I am teaching EFL to university students in Poland who are studying to be English teachers. There is a computer with Internet access in the teachers’ office and I have my own laptop and Internet access at home, so I can reproduce and create classroom materials. One classroom where I teach has a computer and projector for showing DVDs and PowerPoints. Therefore, I have been able to integrate some computer-based technology into lessons. Most of my students have regular access to computer-based technology and use it regularly, so, besides my own use of the computer for presentations and the Internet for gathering materials, I set up a Ning so students could engage in a couple of online discussions.

In addition to classroom teaching, I have been tutoring a woman in another country using Skype, and I also email her occasional homework assignments. Since she only has access to a computer at work, we talk during her lunch break about once a week. I often use the chat feature to type a correction as she is speaking, so I do not interrupt her flow. Her spoken English is quite fluid, and, because of the slight lag in Skype, I have found that if I correct her verbally, it is more disruptive than when I type her the note. She can look at the note when she pauses and can then ask me about it or repeat it as necessary. I also use the text function sometimes to give her the phonetic spelling of a word or to write a phrase out for her. Combining these two functions has worked well for us.

Even though I am not an English teacher, I meet them through conferences, online courses and workshops, and the invisible network that English teachers seem to have. I decided it would be interesting to see how some of my colleagues in different English teaching environments use technology in their classes. The following comes from interviews with two of them.

Australia, Adult Intermediate ESL

Teacher A told me that she has “been involved in teaching ESL with computers since 1995, starting with using ESL programs in a computer lab.” She said that she learned very quickly that she needed to upgrade her computer skills “and since that time,” she said, “I haven’t stopped doing that, formally and informally. Formally I’ve done many computer-related jazz_chants2courses, including a Graduate Certificate in Multimedia, Certificate III in IT, and Masters in Education (Computers in Education). Informally, though, I haven’t stopped, being involved with CoP Webheads in Action for quite a few years.” Since 1999, she has also trained ESL teachers in her college in the use of computer technology.

She then went on to tell me how her use of computer technology has evolved. “I’ve tried using various applications,” she said, “through MS Office, ESL programs, blogging, wikis, and IWBs [interactive whiteboards]. Each of them has been useful for different purpose and audience.” In an attempt to maintain a paperless classroom almost everything is set up so that it is done on the computer, including grammar exercises, reading activities, and listening activities. Over her years of teaching English using technology, she has found that hands-on activities, either individual (in the computer lab) or individual/group with Smartboard have been effective.

In her present class she has access to a wide range of technology. She uses an interactive white board for web-based and Notebook (Smartboard proprietary software) interactive exercises. These activities can also incorporate audio and video, so she often uses a camera to take photos and short videos to enhance her lessons. She also has access to a Student Response System (clickers) that she uses for tests and other assessments. Teacher A also relies on email to stay in contact with students and has found that wikis are useful for developing and posting class programs, files, and links. They are especially helpful for students who are absent to keep up with what is happening  in class.

However on the downside, she has found that technology is not always an effective learning tool for some of her students for a variety of reasons. One form of technology which she has found problematic with her students is SMS (text messaging). She stated that the English they have learned through this medium is a different kind of English and that once students learn it, it is difficult to unteach.

She has also learned that student blogs require too much time for many of these students so that they do not do them at home and have too little in-class time for them. She said that the students in her present evening class are a mixture of young and old people (21 to 50), long-term residents and new migrants (from 3 to 23 years in the country). They either come to class after work or after swapping childcare duties with their husbands. Most of them have no energy or time to study at home, let alone to use the computer (often occupied by younger generation). Only a few students in her class check the class website/wiki.

United States, College-Level Academic ESL Writing

Teacher B originally told me that she doesn’t use technology much in her classes, but I encouraged her to talk to me anyway. She said that one reason she doesn’t use technology much is that she has “an incompetence complex.” Then she went on to say, “Ironically, I run my school’s computer lab.”

She said that another reason she does not use technology a lot is that she thinks it can be overused. She found that, because young people “feel comfortable with this low-context, pronunciationpeople unfriendly medium,” they will often overuse it and ignore other ways of interaction. She gave an example of teaching students irregular verbs with flashcards. Most were not interested. However, when they discovered an online irregular verb quiz, they were eager to participate. Her comment was that “they obviously prefer the impersonal to the personal.” She thinks that this type of interaction “does not include important human contextual clues during discourse” and is concerned that the development of interpersonal communication skills will suffer as a consequence.

However, do not get the idea that Teacher B is a technophobe. She uses the ELMO document camera with a Smart Board to display papers for group discussion and uses audio equipment to play Jazz Chants, rhythmic chants for teaching English pronunciation and stress. She said that she likes “to refer students to on-line exercises, but it takes a lot of time to find good matches for each student.” She also encourages use of the computer lab for independent reading comprehension work using the Kenmei Internet Reading Lab.

Teacher B also uses other technology with her students, but she thinks it should be moderated and mediated by the teacher. For example, she likes to use Pronunciation Power software, but she commented that “It is useless if used unmonitored, and that is the way it is promoted!” In the fall semester she is planning an inductive grammar activity for her students using an online corpus, which she believes will help them improve their writing.

8 Responses

  1. Lynn, thank you for introducing this subject. Language learning is the key to discovering other cultures. An online browser “tool” that I’ve discovered and use daily is translators such as “Google Translate”
    ( and “Yahoo! Babel Fish” ( I can translate any non-English text or webpage into English by simply pasting the URL into the translator. Also, the hits that appear in my Google searches include a “translate” button. When I click on it, the website appears in English.

    The translations are, for the most part, literal so the user must learn how to translate them into their intended meaning, but this is a lot easier than it at first appears to be.

    I’d think that for any language learner, reading L2 webpages as L1 translations would be both entertaining and educational since they could follow topics that interest them.

  2. I admit I have never tried that even though now that I am in Poland, and use a Polish Internet provider, the offer to translate my hit into Polish pops up quite frequently.

    One reason I have not tried these translators is that I had a very early experience, I don’t remember now how many years ago, maybe 15, with a “computer translator” and got such bizarre results that I have filed that under “not useful.” However, I am sure the technology has improved since then, so with your encouragement, maybe I’ll give one of these a try. Thanks. Lynn

  3. When Babelfish first came out, I fed it its own instructions and sent the administrators the pure gibberish that came out: they kindly explained to me how such a program gets fine tuned.

    Now, these tools have hugely progressed. Especially Google Translate, which works on the sad but true assumption that folks tend to repeat what has already been said. So apart from the thesaurus + rules part, Google Translate goes and fishes from the huge thesaurus of texts scanned by Google.

    In 2007, in an intensive workshop of French as a foreign language for grad students, I did an activity on translation tools. Part of it was comparing the German translations of a French text by Google Translate and Babelfish. Here’s the result we got back then: maybe I should try again now.

    BTW, we used the free wiki because the administrators of the master’s course the students were going to do after the workshop wouldn’t let us use the Moodle for that course, as instruction in its use was only foreseen for later ;-) But we only used the wiki so that the students would have a record without having to take notes all the time.

  4. Claude, an ETC article explaining the more popular online translators such as Babelfish and Google Translate would be very interesting. How do they work? Are they “smart” enough to learn and improve over time and repeated use? Which is the best? Are they better for some languages than others?

    In your articles, you’ve mentioned audio translators for videos. How do these work? How would one go about translating, for example, the audio from a Chinese YouTube video to English?

    -Jim S

  5. Jim: if a person who uploads a Chinese to YT in adds a file with the captions of the original audio, then the YT CC feature offers the option to to have them automatically translated from Chinese into many other languages.

    Not the audio itself, sure, but subtitles in other languages are already a great help, even with the remaining imperfections of automatic translation.

    Moreover – though I don’t know when exactly this feature was added – now when a YT video is captioned this way, it also produces an interactive transcript that can be activated by any user below the video. This means that blind people – who cannot read the captions on the video with a screen reader – can grab this transcript and have it translated at Google Translate or Babelfish if they don’t know the original language.

    Of course, such a translation would not be synchronized as captions. But if you are reading it using text-to-speech, then maybe it is just as well not to have the original audio interfering.

    Re the progresses of translation programs, at least, when you ask Google Translate to translate a page via its URL, there is a mouse-over option on each sentence to suggest a better translation: it does not directly affect the translation offered, but my surmise is that what you input goes in a database where it can be used to fine-tune the software.

    I’ll try to do the comparison between Google’s 2007 and present translation of the chunk of text we used in the French workshop mentioned before.

  6. Claude, thanks for the explanation of YouTube’s translation features. I was hoping for a feature that would automatically translate audio from one language to another, but I guess we’re not quite there yet. -Jim S

  7. Well, in a way, the combination of automatic captioning for English videos – or semi-automatic captioning based on a tran/script for videos in other languages – and automatic translation of the captions and of text-to-speech software can produce audio in another language – but it would not be a very pleasant audio, and re-synching it with the video images is another story.

    I’ve put the comparison between the 2007 and 2010 performances of Babelfish and Google Translate in translating the same text from French into German in

  8. I loved this one.

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