Speaking & the Internet: an unlikely match?
by MJ. Auria, E. Lozano & M. Mansilla

Abstract

In 2002-3 the English Department of the Official School of Languages 1 in Zaragoza, Spain, has, for the first time ever, run a course through the Internet However, it has not been a fully online course since oral sessions have been held in our School.


Three members of the teaching staff, including the online course tutor, have enthusiastically surfed the Net for some enlightenment into how the teaching of the "speaking" skill is tackled elsewhere, so that successful methods can be implemented in our School in future editions of the online course.


Having scrutinized scores of webpages, both institutional and individual, the authors of this article can honestly claim that it reflects the findings and conclusions of thorough research into the area of teaching oral skills through the Internet, and that ESL teachers will, no doubt, find it very useful as reference work prior to any study they want to do on teaching pronunciation and oral communication on the Net.

Scenario

The Genesis

Being in charge of teaching an online course to intermediate students of English and confronted with the problem of including the oral  skill within the course, one of the underwriting team members decided not to run the course fully online unless research into the field proved this a good idea.

Apprehension towards technicalities aside, online courses already available did not seem to have the "speaking" part resolved. Apparently, some courses that claimed to cater for speaking practice only provided video and/or audio exercises  which did not allow much interaction on the part of the student, and any interaction that did take place was not appropriately monitored.

Having said that, the team members agreed that the above statement was a mere intuition that did not deserve much credit until proper research was done, which was the starting point for this project, namely:

"Speaking and the Internet: An Unlikely Match?"

The Prospects

The fact that the "speaking" part of the ongoing online course is being carried out onsite was the challenging thorn that triggered the team's wish for some enlightenment into online teaching and the real possibilities of teaching oral skills through the Internet.

The future implementation of any advances and practical ideas into the online course currently run at the School was paramount in the genesis of the project.

The Team

Teachers of English at Zaragoza's oldest Official Language School:

Mª José Auría Labayen,

Esther Lozano Estopañán,

Marga Mansilla Olmos,

The three team members are enthusiastically into computer mediated language learning, are regular users of the School Computer Lab and are eager to incorporte further uses of the Internet into their daily teaching work.

 

Methodology

Task Allocation

This being a research project, square one was setting the grounds for research.

Project Targets had to be clearly defined, and Search Tools properly chosen.

  • As there was a candidly self-confessed ignorance on the part of the teachers involved, of any theoretical approaches behind the teaching of spoken English through the Internet, we made this our first research target.

The starting point in our search for theoretical approaches to the teaching of oral English through the Net was Donn Byrne's explanation of what teaching "speaking" involves:

"The main goal in teaching the productive skill of speaking will be oral fluency: the ability to express oneself intelligibly, reasonably, accurately and without undue hesitation (otherwise communication may break down because the listener loses interest or gets impatient). To attain this goal, the students will have to be brought from the stage where they merely imitate a model or respond to cues to the point where they can use the language to express their own ideas (...) Two complementary levels of training will therefore be required: practice in the manipulation of the fixed elements of the language (...) and practice in the expression of personal meaning "

On the understanding that teaching the speaking skill through the Internet must also meet these requirements:

a) present the learner with a model to imitate and respond to

a) present the learner with a model to imitate and respond to

, and

b) facilitate oral interaction with others so that information is exchanged,

our second research target was therefore constrained to finding courses and websites where there was a "model" to imitate and/or respond to, which in fact meant searching for online courses , teaching institutions websites, ELT webpages , ESL teachers' personal websites etc. that made use of video and/or audio-aided teaching material.

The overwhelming increase in ESL teaching material on the web was instrumental in our decision to divide the research target mentioned above into two search areas:

  • Websites/online exercises devoted to teaching oral skills and practising pronunciation, including prosodic features such as stress and intonation, by means of providing the student with a "model", as described.

  • Fee-paying and/or free online courses containing a genuinely interactive element which enables students to communicate, that is, to express and exchange ideas and feelings of their own.

Search Procedure

Once the research targets had been set, the decision on Searching Tools did not pose a problem since there was an initial consensus on having "Google" and "Yahoo!" as our main search engines, for one thing, all three team members were familiar with them and thought them quite useful. Other Searching Tools agreed upon were : printed journals, teaching magazines and books.

A final step was to clearly define the areas to explore, which eventually were named:

1) Theoretical approaches to teaching spoken English through the Internet

2) Teaching pronunciation through the Internet

3) Oral interaction within online English courses

Discussion Forum

The idea of using the Internet as a means of communication between the research group involved was paramount and presided over the whole project. With this idea in mind, the coordinator created a discussion group http://groups.msn.com/teamprojectEOI1 where relevant documents were to be uploaded, points of view exchanged and meetings called.

Having said that, every two weeks face-to-face meetings were held at the workplace, so that progress made on the project findings was appropriately checked and further action taken.

 

Findings

1) Approaches

The Internet is regarded as the superhighway of information, the ultimate mass medium, but also as a very valuable interpersonal means of communication.

It is for the latter function that we teachers use the Internet with our students and encourage them to use it on their own.

When the Internet was not even born to the lay world and computer technology was in its infancy, the acclaimed linguist, M.A.K. Halliday hit the nail on the head when he said:

"The distinction between speech and writing is becoming blurred as a consequence of modern technology"

After surfing the web for contemporary linguists' views , we cannot but praise Halliday's vision of today's scenario.

A contemporary well-known linguist, David Crystal , has coined the term "Netspeak" to refer to a new type of computer mediated language, which is in fact a blend of written and spoken language and it is the language computer users the world over communicate through. Symbols and emoticons that take over real facial expressions, prosodic features, body language .... that is, onsite face-to-face communication. D.Crystal says that "what makes Netspeak so interesting , as a form of communication, is the way it relies on characteristics belonging to both sides of the speech/writing divide"

We would like to point out here that it is English, particularly, that because of its status as a lingua franca, is being largely affected by the medium. As Alexander Voiskounsky puts it in his article "Teleloge Conversations" http://www.ascusc.org/jcmc/vol2/issue4/voiskounsky1.html

" Analysing English usage by those netters for whom it is not the mother tongue, one could find a peculiar kind of *pidginized 'network English' being formed "

* (authors' note): "pidgin" is a lingua franca that is spoken by non-native speakers.

We must admit that not much research need to be be done to disclose the undeniable fact that written rather than spoken English is widely used through the Net, for various reasons, among them the possibility of communicating with others without the hindrance of pronunciation , as English is not a phonemic language and you never know how to pronounce diphthongs, for example! ,

If we ESL teachers do not want to see how spoken English loses its battle to 'pidginized netspeak' we have to turn to the teacher's best allies : multimedia (software)and the playful element inherent in the medium (hardware)

In Rogers' words "a new kind of imaginary playground for the mind". An unbeatable description that we can only expand by saying that, thanks to multimedia, speaking can regain its popularity with English learners through mind-challenging, eye-catching CALL activities in the computer lab. Let's not forget that a need for competition and interaction is in the very nature of human beings, and this is where multimedia come to our rescue: on the one hand, audio-aided material can provide the student with a spoken Egnlish model that students imitate and respond to . On the other hand, Interaction can place through voiced chats, webcams and videoconferencing, which can be used to communicate with others outside the classroom.

Other ESL teachers are on the same wavelength, as is the case of D.Teeler and P.Gray, who claim " "Still, the real motivating factor in using the Internet for speaking practice has to be its potential for communication beyond the classroom walls through the use of videoconferencing and telephony. Arranging debates and presentations with a class 5000 miles away, with different perspectives on an issue, pushes students to express themselves coherently, examine their rhetoric and work on social strategies. And the tools promote collaboration between schools and experts for investigation and research on cross-curricular projects. "

This scenario sounds really promising : speaking practice activities would then be authentic, genuine interaction taking place in real time. What James Simpson calls " Synchronous Computer Mediated Communication" . The future direction of CMC includes the prospect of increased availability and the use of voice and video conferencing, assuring a continued growth in its significance for teaching and learning."

However, we run the risk of becoming too dependent on new technologies and sooner or later we will be held hostage by computer gurus, always with new upgraded gadgetry, versions etc. to sell. The downside of it being how time consuming reaching a mere user level is, let alone becoming the troubleshooter in the computer lab!

One of the most conclusive findings we can put forward at this stage is that the new role of teachers has been dramatically influenced by the medium .This new role is at the same time:

a) rewarding , because the medium encourages learners to learn independently and turns teachers themselves into learners.

b) scary, because it can be too demanding "...the element of motivation that IT arouses ensures that many learners will continue to access the Internet and thus develop linguistically perhaps in spite of its only partial presence in schools. For the most part the Internet is still there for teachers to explore and exploit more fully." Trotman,Wayne "Aspects of the Internet and their Possibilities for ELT: a Survey Review" http://www.eltnewsletter.com/back/March2000/art22000.shtml

In fact, in the next two sections we will analyize the results of our findings after fully exploring the Net for teaching pronunciation methods and speaking practice within online courses.

 

2) Pronunciation

The main aim of this section is to make things easier for the teacher who wants to use the Internet as a tool to teach English pronunciation, either in the classroom (taking advantage of free materials provided by some websites) or in the computer lab. We used two well-known search engines: Google and Yahoo! and started from scratch searching "English pronunciation". We were presented with more than 300 addresses of websites, and the list could have been much longer if we had had the time and the energy required to trace the links provided. As is widely known, and we had anticipated, one of the most tiresome burdens the teacher has to bear is to deal with the huge amount of information the World Wide Web offers, information which must be classified, verified and frequently has to be discarded and forgotten.

In his article "Where are the Good Web Pages?" http://www.eastment.com/eval.html David Eastment says that the best way to find good websites is to follow the recommendation of a colleague who has actually visited a site or to find a site with some kind of authority and follow the links it suggests. What can be read below is the result of our visiting a huge amount of sites throughout this school year. Needless to say, there are many others that we simply were not able to check.

We have tried to spare the teacher the trouble of spending too long sieving the incredible amount of websites offered. We have left aside those websites we did not find interesting enough and have kept those which could be of, at least, some help. The addresses we have discarded are of three kinds:

  • websites with a sheer commercial aim, like selling a particular book, course or CD-Rom, unless there is an interesting "demo" or the course is highly recommendable.

  • websites which merely show the transcription of a long poem, jokes or stories, since although these are presented to the teacher as wonderful materials to study or practise English pronunciation, actually no directions are given as to the way they can be used and they prove to be really poor resources.

  • websites with long lists of words and their pronunciation in English. We think they could be of some interest for specific teaching purposes but of little use for the more general purpose of our study. Within this group we came across sites with the pronunciation of biological Latin terms, taxonomical names, biblical names, or even the names of the characters in Harry Potter's books, although no doubt this would be more attractive to our younger students.

Once we had made a first selection, our next step was to determine how useful the remaining sites were. And this is our list:

http://www.yesenglishonline.com/pronunciation.htm

This is a free site.

It is presented by David Appleyard and includes audio materials.

It offers "playful pronunciation practice (or the 44 sounds of English English one at a time!)"

Its list of contents includes the 20 vocalic and diphthongal sounds, the 24 consonantal sounds and problem sounds for Japanese learners. It uses SIL-IPA phonetic fonts.

http://www.btinternet.com/~ted.power/ted.html

Free access. No audio materials.

Ted Power, an English teacher, presents TESL/TEFL theory from his teaching experiences. He offers free lesson materials, a section of common mistakes, assimilation, a list of 150 Songs for English Phonology Teaching by Level, classified in 6 levels of difficulty with the most frequent sounds which you can hear in each of them.

http://www.uni-margug.de/linguistik/dgweb/phonology

CD-Rom for sale.3 demos. Audio and video materials.

Jürgen Handke presents The Mouton Interactive Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology. It claims to be able to replace the traditional face-to-face course, including evaluation and assessment.

The University of Marbug Linguistic Engineering Team offers this method in CD-Rom for sale. There are three interesting demos containing a phonetics section (aspects of articulatory, auditory and acoustic phonetics and animations, pictures and sound examples), a phonology module (the phoneme, distinctive features, non-linear phonology, optimality theory and the sound system of British and American English) and a group of additional modules with bibliographical references and a glossary of important linguistic terms.There is an interactive tutor who trains the skill of the student and monitors his individual progress.

http://www.englishlearning.com

http://pronunciationpower.com

Online subscription. CD-Rom version. Downloadable version. Audio and video materials.

Four products are offered: English Dictionary, Pronunciation Power 1(Beginner-Intermediate), Pronunciation Power 2 (Intermediate-Advanced) and Pronunciation Power Idioms. There is a useful demo with sound examples, animations and speech analysis (here the students listen to the instructor's voice and then record their own voice; then they compare their waveform with the instructor's waveform)

http://www.fonetiks.org

CD-Rom Pronunciation Guide. Free material. Audio materials.

Timothy Bowyer presents "The Online Resource for Pronunciation and Language Study" with examples not only in British English but in American E., Australian E., Canadian E., Irish E., Scottish E., and Welsh E. There are recordings of 40 speakers. There i s a stress and tone section.

http://www.international.ouc.bc.ca/pronunciation

CD-Rom. Very interesting demos. Audio and video materials.

Brian Rhodes, from Okanahan University College, presents this pronunciation teaching method which covers different aspects of this topic such as sound description, minimal pairs, dictation, dialogue (interaction with a native English speaker), tongue twisters, etc.

http://www.eleaston.com/pronunciation

Free materials for teaching and learning. Audio materials.

Easton Language Education provides materials for teaching pronunciation of American English, such as: articles, exercises, quizzes, readings, songs, tongue twisters, etc.

http://pronunciation.englishclub.com/index.html

Free access. Audio materials.

English Club is presented as a club for teachers and learners of English as a foreign or second language. If you join the club, you receive a monthly magazine and you are promised special discounts on selected ESL products. Among other aspects of pronunciation, this site covers word stress, linking, homophones, tongue twisters. There is also a ESL Help Centre for questions and interactive activities.

http://www.edict.com.hk/vlc/pronunciation

Free materials. Audio materials.

Edict Virtual Language Centre is described as a "resource-assisted website for distance learning". A free gift is offered including a Phonemic Alphabet Chart, a description of consonants and a comparative study of vowels.

http://www.soundsofenglish.org

Free access. Audio and video materials.

Sharon Widmayer and Holly Gray present a website designed for learners of English and their teachers and which contains materials created by them. There are links, handouts from presentations they have made, English pr onunciation pages (with pictures, sounds and videos), tips for teachers, word stress and short listening exercises with online activities.

http://hctv.humnet.ucla.edu/departments/linguistics/Vowelsand
Consonants/Index/html

Free material. Audio and video materials.

There is a long index of languages, including BrE and AmE. When British English is chosen you get to Peter Ladefoged presenting "Vowels and Consonants" with audio and video materials, and A Course in Phonetics, which covers almost every aspect of this area.

http://www.study.com

Free site. No written materials.

Mantained by the Internet TESL Journal. It offers useful links for the teacher, articles, etc. The student can contact a teacher for an online class. There is a wide range of class times. This site can be useful for learners to work on their own.

http://www.antimoon.com/how/pronunc-how.htm

Pronunciation course. Downloadable version

Made by Tomasz P. Szynalski and Michael Ryszard Wojcik. They sell a computer programme called \ldblquote Perfect Pronunciation\rdblquote with more than 500 exercises in BrE and AmE. The students listen to an example, record their own voice and can listen to their recording. There is only a description of the course.

http://www.rosettastone.com/ind/free demo/online

This course of 24 languages includes American English. It is a language learning programme in CD, although you can go to the website for one week of free instruction online. It covers the four skills. There are e xercises of speech recognition: the students listen to the native speaker\rquote s recorded voice, reproduce it and they compare their recording with the speaker's

http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/index.html

This is John Wells's website, which contains interesting articles. As we said at the beginning, this is only a very short list of what can be found on the Internet. Again we have to agree with Eastment that good learning materials take too much time, energy and, let us face it, money to be put up on "what is essentially a world-wide copying facility". Still there are some sites worth visiting and some are worth buying.

 

3) Courses

The Internet is a suitable place to practise languages as it offers the possibility, with the right software, of using images and audio resources at the same time, combining sound and images as in communicative situations in the real world. It also provides users with a highly appealing and innovative format. Nevertheless, surfing the Net is a daunting task due to the amount of information available .A lot of time and effort are required in order to select what you want from all the materials available due to the fact that many pages offer a variety of online courses with oral practice. Unfortunately, most of these pages have a selection of listening material only, with sound quality ranging from average to poor. Some pages offer video extracts using Real Player with or without exercises, whereas other pages just offer sound and tapescripts, sound and pictures or sound and cartoons. Here are some examples of free online courses or listening resources:

www.ompersonal.com.ar/omaudio/contenidotematico.htm

www.esl-lab.com

www.mansioningles.com/listening00.htm

www.eslinusa.com/free_ESL_learning_resources_Speaking.htm

www.japanese-online.com

www.eleaston.com/

www.englishlistening.com/

mypage.direct.ca/p/prossett/javalesson.html

www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/index.shtml

www.ctv.es/USERS/amiles/bcn-onlinelistening.html

http://kansaiconnect.com/myradio/english/

http://cla.univ-fcomte.fr/english/sites/listen.htm

http://cyberitalian.com/index.shtml

http://www.learndutch.org/

Our final objective was that of seeking courses online with oral resources to see how they solve the problem that practicing speaking online poses. The results obtained classified the possibilities according to the technical devices used as follows: courses using voiced chats, courses involving webcams, and courses using video conferencing. Other well reputed institutions combined online courses with speaking practice in their premises.

Video chats.

www.study.com/voicemessage.html

Talk to a teacher or a student using a webcam. Combines video and audio. Interactive. Problems to log in due to network congestion. You must be 13 years old or older to use it.

www.eviu.com

Virtual English school for students enrolled at University in Catalunya. Offers several possibilities online such as Self-study over the Internet plus written language, asynchronous oral language (offline conversations), online oral language via voiced chat (assessment and conversation in real time), complete oral language (in real time and offline) or complete communication (oral and written language), previous appointment required. Complementary classroom conversation is also available at certain fixed times at the University Building or Official Language Schools. Levels available: B1 and B2 of the European Framework (3rd and 4th in Official Language Schools)

www.thescec.com/aloud/live.htm

Offers live conversations with a teacher. No webcam required, just a microphone. Not available at the time of writing this article due to problems with software and server. Not a course in itself, just to practise conversation.

 

Webcams

The application CUseeMe (www.cuseemeworld.com) provides live visual communication and works with standard webcams. It seems the ideal tool to practice languages online. The webpage provides information about“CUSeeme Schools”

http://www.gsn.org/cu/_cfm/bycountry.cfm?schools_Country=Spain

This gives information about seven schools in Spain, located in Catalunya and Murcia, which have been involved in different projects using CUSeeme. The projects were carried out between 1996 and 1999 and involved several schools in Catalunya which were planning to contact English speaking schools. Nevertheless, technical difficulties have not been overcome. Some examples of these experiences at

http://www.gsn.org

Videoconferencing

The University of the Balearic Islands set up a distance learning programme aimed at students not living on Mallorca to enable students to follow both undergraduate and postgraduate courses without travelling. The programme consisted of videoconference sessions which students attended at the smaller islands’ university sites, monthly seminars and multimedia materials available on the Internet. Unfortunately, no contact address available and therefore, no more information.

Online Courses with no Online Speaking Practice.

 Zaragoza School of Languages 1, English Department

www.usuarios.com/ib316088

A practical, exam-oriented course running from October to May only. Oral sessions are carried out on site.

http://www.britcoun.org

The British Council offers online courses at Pre-Intermediate, Intermediate and Upper-Intermediate online. Nevertheless oral skills take place in British Council Teaching Centres.

Finally, a course online that, although providing online speaking practice, includes a “voice analyser”. The Rosetta Stone Online available at

www.rosettastone.com/online/data81/Help/ENG/Preview.html

Demo available, takes some time to download but it is worthwhile. Divided into skills: listening&reading combined, plus sections on listening and reading. In the speaking section you can listen to a model and record your voice, then the programme, using a voice spectrum analyser, compares your pronunciation with that of a model speaker. Interactive. Free 3-day trial. Course on CD-Rom available. Levels I and II together contain 210 lessons. Available in British and American English. Prices: personal edition cd-rom 1: $195, cd-rom 2: $225. Set including 1 and 2: $359. Classroom edition: both cd-rom 1 and cd-rom 2. $295 each.

Follow up

Implementation

Face-to-face communication has countless advantages over any other type of communication where there is no eye-contact and no instant feedback. The possibility of oral and visual interacion is what enhances communication , making it really effective. For this reason, multimedia sofware in CALL and video-audio devices in the Internet are indisputably a must when it comes to teaching oral skills.

Once this conclusion has been reached, the problem lies in finding high quality image & sound tools which are also technically user-friendly for teachers and students alike.

In this respect, this research project has led us to pinpoint the webcam as the best teaching tool available at the moment, even if we have to make allowances for blurred images and lingering sound, areas in which there is still room for improvement..

As for our Language School current online course, the decision taken by the team members goes in the same direction: the implementation of audio-video for online communication through the use of webcams, as soon as technical difficulties have been solved.

Future Projects

In the pipeline is the project of becoming familiar with audio-video software, particularly with Cuseeme ,at www.cuseeme.com, so that in the near future our students can contact other students and communicate oral and visually via webcams.

A more ambitious project involves the training of the team members in the use of Flash, at www.macromedia.com , so that we are able to design a website for the teaching of English pronunciation for Spanish speakers, focusing on the most common problem areas.

Bibliography & other references

Byrne, Donn . Teaching Oral English (8th ed.) Longman Handbooks for Language Teachers,1982

Crystal, David . Language and the Internet. Cambridge, 2001

Eastment, David ."Where are the Good Web Pages?"http://www.eastment.com/eval.html Modern English Teacher, January 1998.

Halliday, Michael. . Spoken and Written Language. OUP, 1989

Rogers "Here comes Hypermedia" Newsweek October 3, 1988

Simpson, James "Computer-mediated communication" ELT Journal , volume 56/4 (2002):414-415

Teeler,Dede & Gray,Peta. How to Use the Internet in ELT. Longman, 2000

Voiskounsky,Alexander "Teleloge Conversations" Journal of Computed Mediated Communication, Vol 2, issue 4

Wells, John . Professor of Phonetics in the University of London

Article Authors

Mª José Auría Labayen PhD
Since 1989 An English teacher at the "Escuela Oficial de Idiomas nº 1" in Zaragoza, where she has taught General English. She is particularly interested in speaking and pronunciation. She has taken part in various training seminars and workshops concerning these fields. mjauria@educaragon.org

Esther Lozano Estopañán
An experienced teacher, designer of the online course currently running at the above mentioned School of Languages, and coordinator of this research project.  elozano@able.es

Marga Mansilla Olmos
Currently teaching at the Official Language School nº 1 in Zaragoza, she has been teaching for nine years in private schools and as a free-lance teacher. Being deeply interested in new technologies applied to language teaching, as well as CALL, she plans to set up her own webpage. She has an online essay on "Hills Like White Elephants" by E. Hemingway at http://www.davidgagne.net/hem/archives/004783.shtml Mansilla@micorreo.cai.es

Authors' Teaching Institution

Official Language Schools

Public teaching institutions where EC languages are taught, and which are scattered all over Spain, based mainly in big cities and towns. Zaragoza houses three of these schools, the oldest of which is called 'nº1' , and it is well reputed for its 25- year-old-history in the field of language teaching. This school provides onsite tuition for English, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish. As well as onsite tuition, the English Department also provides distance  and online teaching.

 

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