Web-Based English as a Second Language Instruction and Learning: Strengths and Limitations

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The increasing use of personal computing and the Internet makes available a new set of instructional possibilities. Web-based language instruction offers various innovative alternatives to conventional modes of language learning. Second language (L2) acquisition is a complex process that requires extensive exposure to the target language within a wide variety of authentic auditory, verbal, and written contexts, so new forms can be constructed and incorporated into the learner's linguistic repertoire (Chomsky, 1959). As the Internet has become more readily accessible, institutions have extended the use of online language materials and course delivery systems (Chapelle, 2001; Liu, Moore, Graham, & Lee, 2002).

Statistics regarding the increasing number of foreign-born U.S. residents demonstrate the present growth in demand for schools to provide English as a second language (ESL) programs at all levels of instruction. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that in 2004, 34 million U.S. residents were foreign-born, a 2.3% increase from 2003, representing 12% of the nation's total population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). Waters (2007) reports that between 1989-1990 and 2004-2005, enrollment of ESL elementary and secondary school students increased 150%, from 2 million to more than 5 million. Consequently, using the appropriate tools and technologies that help teach English as a second language has become critical. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly important to analyze the strengths and limitations of Web-based instruction to determine what principles and practices are most effective with ESL students.

STRENGTHS OF WEB-BASED ESL INSTRUCTION

Most ESL learners from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds generally reveal different learning strategies, attitudes, and motivations. In traditional language classroom settings, ESL learners are constantly exposed to communicative tasks in which they are expected to demonstrate their language competence in front of others. In such situations, self-consciousness and the fear of making mistakes can cause strong feelings of frustration and anxiety. The Affective Filter Hypothesis of L2 acquisition proposes that negative emotions such as anxiety or simply lack of confidence can function like a filter that blocks the language acquisition process. Therefore, for optimal learning to occur, the affective filter must be weak (Krashen, 1982).

Web-based language instruction can promote independent learning in a nonthreatening environment. Seferoglu (2005) analyzes ways computers allow learners to enjoy privacy while practicing foreign sounds and words which facilitates the mastery of communicative skills. Learners can imitate native speaker models of pronunciation while acquiring contextualized listening skills, readily available at any time. Even introverted learners can listen to their voices and use self-correction methods without being witnessed by anybody else. Online language instruction can provide a sheltered learning environment conducive to improvements in learners7 pronunciation. Learners can practice at their own pace and then demonstrate their newly acquired language skills without experiencing intense feelings of anxiety.

The adaptation of traditional language instruction to an online environment provides ESL learners with abundant opportunities for the acquisition and mastery of challenging English patterns. When compared to receptive skills, productive skills such as speaking and pronunciation have been proven to be a much more difficult process, and learners usually do not have natural exposure to the target language out of the classroom (Seferoglu, 2005). Computer-mediated instruction can facilitate exposure to the target language by acting as a tool to increase verbal exchange (Green, 2005). In online settings, ESL learners can interact with other learners and perform a variety of verbal language functions by asking questions, giving responses, sharing opinions, making suggestions, and correcting themselves and each other. …