Language Learning & Technology
June 2016, Volume 20, Number 2
Copyright © 2016, ISSN 1094-3501 129
TECHNOLOGY AND THE FOUR SKILLS
Robert Blake, University of California, Davis
Most L2 instructors implement their curriculum with an eye to improving the four skills:
speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Absent in this vision of language are notions of
pragmatic, sociolinguistic, and multicultural competencies. Although current linguistic
theories posit a more complex, interactive, and integrated model of language, this review
article points out where computer-assisted language learning (CALL) can contribute to L2
language growth in terms of these four skills, especially if carefully situated within a task-
based language teaching (TBLT) framework. New technologies coupled with a TBLT
goal-oriented approach ultimately push learners to combine speaking, listening, reading,
and writing in ways that resemble more closely how they normally engage with the digital
facets of their own lives.
Keywords: Task-based Instruction, Computer-mediated Communication
APA Citation: Blake, R. (2016). Technology and the four skills. Language Learning &
Technology, 20(2), 129–142. Retrieved from http://llt.msu.edu/issues/june2016/blake.pdf
Received: December 20, 2015; Accepted: February 7, 2016; Published: June 1, 2016
Copyright: © Robert Blake
Second language (L2) researchers tend to frame learning in terms of the opportunities to engage in
interactions or to respond to communication breakdowns in ways that prime the language acquisition
pump (Gass, 1997). However, language instructors in the trenches—when they evaluate the curricular
design of any textbook, course materials, or computer program—attend to more traditional measures and
ask if the four skills have been adequately addressed: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
Understandably, language instructors are primarily interested in the practical applications of any given
technological tool or textbook, rather than the pursuit of an L2 research agenda. Within this context,
computer-assisted language learning (CALL) programs and activities have drawn praise from all quarters
for supporting online reading using multimedia glosses (for an excellent review of the literature on CALL
glosses, see Chun, 2006) and stimulating cultural knowledge through authentic online materials and web
quests, as has been well documented in the literature from the last two decades (e.g., Blake, 2013). CALL
activities that support collaborative writing have also been examined carefully in the literature (Oskoz &
Elola, 2014a). But instructors routinely voice serious doubts as to whether CALL activities can foster L2
speaking and listening development, preferring to believe that these activities are the exclusive domain of
the classroom, where face-to-face language exchanges can occur. Even in the arena of computer-mediated
communication (CMC), researchers have frequently emphasized the persistence of the text on the
screen—which is to say, the act of reading—as one of the most important affordances offered by the
computer (Kern, 2015). Nevertheless, videoconferencing contributes directly to improving L2 speech and
is now being analyzed more closely by researchers for its benefits concerning L2 speech production.
In this review article, we will examine some of the advantages afforded by CALL with respect to the four
skills and pay particular attention to speech production and listening comprehension, two areas where
serious doubts about CALL’s efficacy still linger among the profession’s rank and file (Felix, 2008).
Although not explicitly mentioned or specified, cultural knowledge is assumed to be an inherent part of
these four skills. With these practical issues in mind, we will begin with a brief review of task-based
language teaching (TBLT) as implemented within a technologically supported learning environment. We
will first examine CALL in light of the more complex issues of speaking and listening, before moving on
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to review the more familiar ground of CALL reading and writing.
TASK-BASED LANGUAGE TEACHING
The notion of task is central to implementing any language curriculum that addresses the four skills,
whether in the classroom or online. What do instructors want their students to be able to do at the end of
the course or lesson with respect to speaking, listening, reading, and writing? González-Lloret (2015)
describes language tasks with a phrase taken from Dewey’s (1938/1998) ideas on experiential learning:
tasks represent learning by doing. Willis (1996) defines a language task as “a goal-oriented activity in
which learners use language to achieve a real outcome” (p. 53). They can do this by solving a problem,
doing a puzzle, analyzing a text or video from a particular genre, playing a game, or sharing and
comparing experiences. Accordingly, language tasks involve communication that is meaning-oriented and
as authentic as possible and goal-oriented so that the learners’ performance can be directly evaluated
according to how well the participants achieve the desired outcome.
More recently, Long (2014) has provided a TBLT framework in which he urges instructors (1) to conduct
a needs analysis to identity target tasks that are important to their students, (2) to classify the target tasks
into task-types, (3) to develop pedagogic tasks, and (4) to sequence the tasks to form a syllabus. In the
process of choosing and sequencing tasks wisely, Robinson (2011) cautioned practitioners to select an
appropriate level of complexity, which will vary according the number of task elements, the task length,
the allotted planning time, and the extent of the learners’ prior knowledge about the topic. Skehan (2003)
also has raised concerns that too much task complexity will adversely affect linguistic accuracy and
fluency when performing the task. He categorized the best tasks as those that (a) are carefully structured
with both a pre-planning and a post-task phase, (b) are organized around familiar information, (c) require
analysis or justification, and (d) are interactive or dialogic in nature by virtue of asking the participants to
work together (pp. 394–395).
Doughty and Long (2003), and then later, González-Lloret (2015), offer a series of suggestions on how to
adapt the principles of task-based learning to the digital learning environment. González-Lloret gives a
detailed account of how to design best practices for what she calls technology-mediated TBLT. Naturally,
the affordances provided by any particular technological tool interact with the participants’ digital
knowledge and the nature of the task itself. In other words, using technology to “learn by doing” may not
always be readily obvious or transparent; students must be trained how to use technology, even if the
overall task is understandable. In some cases, it may not be possible to port directly to the technology-
mediated learning environment every task that works well in the traditional face-to-face format. Hence,
the field uses the term affordances, which refers to the special features and functions that a particular
digital tool allows L2 learners to engage in. For instance, both tutorial CALL and asynchronous CMC
tend to allow students more pre-planning time, which can enhance speaking accuracy, support more
complexity, and possibly reduce frustration levels. Meanwhile, synchronous CMC often stimulates
students to produce more utterances (Abrams, 2003) with a fluency that more closely mirrors the
spontaneous turn-taking behavior found in real-world, face-to-face conversations.
TECHNOLOGY AND L2 SPEAKING
L2 speaking can be assisted by technology in two modes, tutorial CALL and CMC. While classroom
instruction fundamentally fosters interactions and helps students to notice their gaps in L2 knowledge,
tutorial CALL practice can facilitate memory storage of L2 phonemic and morphological contrasts as well
as assist in lexical phrase retrieval. Even CALL programs that merely present electronic flash cards can
be helpful if students also subvocalize when they are learning new words and phrases (Teixeira, 2015).
Usually, these types of programs ask students to compare their own audio recordings with those of native-
speakers of diverse accents. One obvious drawback of this type of exercise for improving L2 speech is the
lack of any feedback. Here is where programs that offer some form of automatic speech recognition
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(ASR) can play an important role.
ASR systems work best when applied to clearly circumscribed linguistic sub-domains or micro-worlds
(e.g., learning words that only deal with the family or another specific semantic domain; phrases
frequently used in public places such as banks, airports, pharmacies, etc.). Accordingly, the ASR system
asks students to carry out specific tasks, such as individual sound practice, word recognition, or short
sentence repetition (Ehsani & Knodt, 1998). Several commercially available programs provide ASR
capabilities, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking or the Dragon Anywhere app from Nuance, and TeLL
Me More, an algorithm that has recently been integrated into the Rosetta Stone online exercises. Progress
has been made in the this field, but ASR systems will still not give feedback as well as a person is able to
do, which is why CMC tasks hold the promise of being able to provide a crucially important interactive
component within the framework of a technologically-enhanced learning environment, as will be
Dictation exercises can also be carried online via the Dragon software or other programs such as Online
Dictation, Evernote, TalkTyper, VoiceAssistant, Speechlogger, or PaperPort. The Dragon app transcribes
into the L2 the best guess as to what the learner actually said. When the Dragon L2 transcription contains
errors, the learner knows that the pronunciation has deviated from the statistical norms programmed into
this app. In turn, this obliges the user to analyze and restate the utterance in a more comprehensible way,
thus providing a feedback loop along the lines of forced output as described by Swain (2000) and Swain
and Lapkin (1998). When combined with explicit instruction on the L2 sound and grapheme
equivalencies, such dictation activities stand to provide helpful practice for learners. Surprisingly, few
CALL studies or practical applications have taken advantage of dictation software, despite the obvious
affordances for enhancing L2 speaking. Clearly, the CALL field needs to look at these techniques more
closely in the future.
Computer assisted pronunciation training has also received some attention in the field using the
sophisticated PRAAT software tools, a program that goes well beyond the level of feedback that the
Rosetta Stone algorithm offers. Chun (2002); O’Brien (2006); and Gorjian, Hayati, and Pourkhoni (2013)
have all stressed the importance of linking pronunciation instruction with training on L2 intonation
patterns as well. Again, practical implementations of this sort have been limited to date.
CMC tools, however, offer real speaking and human feedback opportunities either with other L2 learners
or L1 speakers. For example, the online program VoiceThread allows users to create collaborative online
stories illustrated with sound, images, and text from their respective world locations. When VoiceThread
slides are shared online, the creators can allow anyone with the Internet address to add comments or
answer questions posed by the project author, thereby enriching the entire task. The creator and the
instructor can always maintain control over which comments are posted by choosing the Moderate
Comments option under the publishing menu. In other words, VoiceThread permits the formation of
learning groups at a distance, a form of asynchronous CMC with audio.
Many learning manage systems (LMSs) now provide the ability to make video postings using a Flash
plugin, another form of asynchronous CMC that promotes L2 speaking practice. Instructors can use this
type of digital tool to allow students to post their best video recording through the LMS platform, which
affords them increased planning time, thereby improving accuracy, increasing linguistic complexity, and
promoting fluency (Guillén & Blake, in press)—provided that the tasks are well designed and do not
overwhelm the students.
Today’s language students also enjoy being producers of videos because they have at their fingertips a
variety of digital video tools, which they routinely use to upload recordings to YouTube. Blake and Sh’iri
(2012) described how first-year Arabic students at UC Berkeley demonstrated their speaking progress at
the end of the term by publishing their audio-enhanced final project on YouTube. Several groups of
students in this Arabic class opted for simple online illustrations as part of a storyboard with Arabic
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captions; then they recorded a narrative voiceover together with background music (a sample can be
found here). These easy-to-use techniques result in an impressive finale to a language course to the great
satisfaction to both students and instructors alike and can be viewed by the entire class with an eye to
providing feedback on L2 speaking.
Today’s synchronous CMC tools, or what many call videoconferencing (e.g., Adobe Connect, Big Blue
Button, Blackboard Collaborate, Skype, Google Hangout, Zoom), typically allow learners to exchange
video, images, and text in real time and are at center stage with respect to fostering L2 speaking practice.
Videoconferencing has become the norm for most telecollaboration projects (O’Dowd, 2007), tandem
learning experiments (Guillén, 2014), and social media exchanges (Lin, Warschauer, & Blake, 2016).
Likewise, synchronous speaking tasks regularly form part of the hybrid or fully online language
curriculum (Blake, 2011). Once again, the choice of task is all-important and needs to be carefully
thought through by the instructor so as to balance the conflicting needs of achieving more L2 accuracy,
complexity, and fluency (Hampel, 2006). Videoconferencing gives students an alternative to the type of
speaking practice that is assumed to occur solely in the classroom. In actual fact, small group
videoconferencing—for example, one instructor working with two or three students—can often evoke a
more intensive speaking experience than sitting in class and responding only two or three times in an
hour, which is the norm in most language classrooms. Naturally, the instructor must prepare the
conversational tasks ahead of time so that the students know exactly what to expect and be primed with
the appropriate vocabulary and grammar needed to successfully bring the task to completion. Some
videoconference applications even allow recording of these synchronous conversations, which can be
reviewed later for self-evaluations or peer and teacher feedback. In this way, students can gradually build
up greater fluency and smoother discourse transitions, which are important components of speaking
Speaking progress via videoconference usage, however, has not been well studied to date, partly because
defining the construct of speaking proficiency remains a difficult proposition (Hulstijn, 2011), whether in
the face-to-face or CALL context. Hulstijn (2015) has recently suggested that L2 assessment should be
divided into basic linguistic proficiency and extended or academic linguistic proficiency, a dichotomy that
might help to guide CALL researchers in the future when measuring L2 speaking progress. In Hulstijn’s
(2015) framework, an L2 student could have a well-developed sense of extended proficiency without ever
having mastered some of the core elements of basic linguistic proficiency, such as correct pronunciation
or appropriate intonation or the pragmatics of sarcasm. At present, the widely used oral proficiency
interview scale mixes characteristics from both the basic and the extended proficiency domains as part of
the rating system (Blake, 2016a).
Whatever the evaluation framework used to study synchronous CMC exchanges, it should not be inferred
that videoconferences can be carried out just like face-to-face conversations. After all, with CMC
exchanges the computer and the computer screen mediate the entire communication experience. Ware
(2005) and Ware and Kramsch (2005)—and more recently Kern (2015)—have convincingly warned the
profession that the interface profoundly affects the conversational dynamics. Students and instructors
alike need CMC training to help to avoid, or at least come to understand better, any intercultural
miscommunications that might occur as a by-product of using the computer medium. As always, well-
designed tasks improve student outcomes by promoting successful and satisfying online exchanges—
videoconferencing being no exception.
TECHNOLOGY AND L2 LISTENING
Much of what is presented here on the topic of listening draws from what Hubbard (in press) has
addressed more thoroughly in his article on CALL and listening. We agree completely with Hubbard’s
assertion that the explosion of native-speaker authored content on the web has been the most significant
recent change for listening practice. This is a direct result of the rise to prominence of the Internet where
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L1 speakers routinely author materials for other members of that same speech community, providing an
emic representation of their respective cultures (Blake, 2013). YouTube in particular, provides an
unending source of authentic materials of varied genres that can be shaped into individual playlists under
the control of the instructor. However, this public video collection puts a heavy burden on the instructor
who needs to frame these materials linguistically and culturally in ways that will be meaningful for L2
learners. Without pre-listening help, the Internet’s rich multimedia materials, aimed at other L1 speakers
of that language, will most probably overwhelm the L2 learners. Once again, the nature of the tasks
designed around these YouTube materials is critical for successful comprehension. These authentic online
materials contain high amounts of “flavorful” language (e.g., collocations, sayings, idioms, innuendos,
humor, and sarcasm), something about which learners typically have a limited understanding given the
incomplete language exposure inherently supplied by the classroom environment.
Instructors should carefully craft their curricular tasks around these online materials so as to address their
students’ linguistic difficulties as well as the content complexities. Pre-listening activities are a sine qua
non in order to frame authentic videos with the necessary cultural background and, in turn, deal with the
illocutionary intent of the authors. Pragmatic considerations (something almost never taught in the first or
even the second year of instruction) also deserve explicit attention when preparing students to listen to
authentic videos. Fortunately, there are CALL programs that allow instructors to annotate YouTube
materials in order to create exciting online listening activities, such as Zaption or Thinglink (the premium
version of which allows annotations for videos as well as images). These programs allow users to
annotate YouTube videos with questions, comments, and comprehension checks. More elaborate online
listening activities can be designed from scratch with authoring systems such as Adobe Captivate, but the
learning curve for the instructor is considerably higher. As always, instructors carry the burden of
deciding how students will use these materials: which words are to be glossed, what cultural information
is essential to understanding the video, which pragmatic and sociolinguistic considerations are assumed to
be common knowledge for the listener, and, most importantly, what follow-up activities can be generated
beyond the mere act of aural comprehension so as to continue to put into practice the specific language
routines learned during the listening activities. Obviously, the intent in this pedagogical approach is to
lead the L2 learners through the reiterative processing stages of comprehended (not just comprehensible)
input, intake, uptake, and finally, output (Gass, 1997).
In preparing YouTube materials, target-language captions can be easily added to the viewing screen.
While captioning might blur for the researcher the division between listening and reading skills, Borrás
and Lafayette (1994) have shown that simultaneous L2 captioning results in better listening
comprehension and better subsequent performance on related speaking tasks—what Plass and Jones
(2005) subsequently dubbed the act of dual processing. In a more recent study of video captioning,
Winke, Gass, and Sydorenko (2010) confirmed the positive vocabulary and comprehension effect for L2
captioning with Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, and Russian learners.
Other technological options abound for preparing listening activities. For example, Cárdenas-Claros and
Gruba (2012) mention the use of captions, transcripts, input enhancement (e.g., fonts, size, and color; also
see Chapelle, 2003), electronic glossaries, links to dictionaries, or speed control for slowing the speech
rate. The research on each of these different options remains scarce and, at best, has yielded mixed
results. Much depends on the proficiency level of each individual learner in question, as well as a myriad
of other individual factors that routinely plague and confound the evaluation of L2 learners’ development
(Blake, 2016a). Clearly, more CALL listening research is in order with respect to determining the
optimum conditions for stimulating listening comprehension. Likewise, instructors rarely know how to
package authentic materials in order to create effective listening activities for their students. Students
need practice on the vocabulary of the selection they are about to hear as well as background information
or brainstorming about the topic at hand, which may be completely outside their own life experiences. In
addition, they need to receive continuous training if they are to take advantage of the changing array of
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affordances offered by these new technologies. New technological features are not intuitively clear, even
to the younger generation of students.
In the future, we can expect technological innovations that will allow us to stop captioned videos at will
by simply clicking on the captioned words so as to link directly to dictionary glosses. Glossing has been a
standard feature of CALL reading research and practice, but not much exploited in listening activities.
Students need training too in how to use these features. Jin and Deifell (2013) reported that only 21.3% of
students in their study used the L2 glosses for listening as opposed to 73.9% for reading.
While YouTube and web pages have been the focus for most of this section, Hubbard (in press) also
mentions content curation, the collection of enriched media for the learner organized by topic, language
level, and other features. As with a museum, a media collection hosts videos in categorized groups and
sequences, often accompanied by pedagogical support. Examples of curated collections are Brigham
Young University’s Arclite Project, Berkeley Language Center’s Library of Foreign Language Film
Clips, ELEclips for Spanish, or CLILstore, a multilingual media project funded by the European Union.
Clearly, the options for L2 listening practice that give the L2 learner considerable autonomy abound and
are limited only by the instructor’s knowledge of how to put together sound pedagogical tasks to
accompany the videos. In a TBLT approach, the linguistic level of the videos can be higher than what the
learner can produce, but the task can be fitted to correspond to their learner’s present abilities. As always,
the learners themselves need to receive training on how to study on their own with these materials, which
is the message that the proponents of learner autonomy have been trying to get across to the profession for
some time now (Guillén, 2014; Schwienhorst, 2008).
TECHNOLOGY AND L2 READING
Text-based reading has been a constant on the web, even with the recent multimedia versions of Web 2.0
that enhance pages with images, sounds, and video clips. Godwin-Jones (2015) rightly points out “Much
of the activity in globalized online spaces is within genres that are exclusively or primarily text-based”
(p. 11). Accordingly, L2 reading has been the skill that CALL research and practice has consistently
highlighted. In fact, one of the most frequently mentioned CALL advantages—both with respect to
tutorial CALL and CMC—has been the notion of textual persistence, because the text preserved on the
computer screen permits L2 learners more time to process unfamiliar linguistic structures (Payne, 2004).
With specific reference to reading skills, CALL researchers have focused in the main on the effects of
glossing or dictionary lookups within a computer-supported or mobile-assisted environment. Lingua.ly, a
commercially available online glossing program, provides definitions with audio for French, English,
Spanish, German, Arabic, Hebrew, Italian, Dutch, Russian, and Portuguese. Users double-click on any
word on any web page to look up words using a special plugin available for the Chrome browser.
Knight (1994) and Karp (2002) carried out some of the earliest vocabulary studies, in which they reported
that L2 students preferred to access simple definitions in their L1, rather than spending time making sense
of hints, multimedia glosses, or other deep processing strategies. Later, Chun (2006) corroborated these
student preferences for using simple glosses as a way to finish the reading assignments in a timely
manner. However, preferences are one thing, reading comprehension is another. Neither of these
previously mentioned studies evaluated the learners’ reading comprehension or processing strategies.
Chun (2006)—after completing a series of studies (see Chun & Plass, 1996)—showed that vocabulary is
best remembered when learners also receive a picture or video gloss in addition to the translations of
unfamiliar words. Yanguas (2009) has confirmed the positive effects for combined glosses (i.e., text and
picture) with respect to vocabulary recognition and, more importantly, has also found a positive effect for
The results from Yanguas (2009) are significant for reading research because they separate vocabulary
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development from reading comprehension. Before that, both Grabe (2004) and Chun (2006) had pointed
out the crucial distinction between learning new L2 vocabulary and the development of word recognition
fluency or automaticity, the latter being a requisite for developing reading skills. In other words, no one
doubts that explicit multimedia CALL instruction benefits L2 lexical growth (Arispe, 2012), but fluent
reading skills are impacted by a number of complicated factors—in particular, L1 reading levels, L2
language proficiency, and background knowledge of the reading topic in question. Although the first two
factors are out of the instructor’s control, topical knowledge can easily be addressed through the use of
advance organizers. Chun (2006) has counseled teachers to include a large battery of pre-reading
activities in order to prime students for what they will encounter working autonomously with CALL
reading activities. This is excellent advice, which once again leads the instructor into following a TBLT
approach for CALL reading.
Kern (2014, 2015) has argued, most convincingly, that reading (and writing) on the Internet involves a
new type of mediation by the computer, which necessarily changes the nature of this activity in both
subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For instance, most students today use Wikipedia as their sole reading
source (Godwin-Jones, 2015), which is clearly not a good thing when one of the goals of L2 learning is to
develop critical thinking along with a more multilingual identity. With specific reference to the four
skills, Allen (2003) and Blyth (2014) have argued that the lines between reading and writing are being
further blurred by Web 2.0 since users can comment or elaborate on someone else’s written entries,
thereby creating a practice of collaborative reading and writing—what Allen (2003) calls wreading. Blyth
(2014) refers to this interactive reading activity as digital social reading and he employs eComma
software to allow L2 learners to share the cognitive load of interpreting foreign language texts. Godwin-
Jones (2015) notes that there are a number of digital services that facilitate this type of social reading
online, in addition to the standard array of blogging tools: for example, Goodreads, Ponder, and
LibraryThing. In other words, reading online no longer needs to be a static, solitary activity, but can also
entail collaborative digital writing, the last skill to be analyzed here.
TECHNOLOGY AND L2 WRITING
At the outset of this article, we noted that language teachers have always recognized the usefulness of the
computer for reading and writing. For many instructors and students alike, writing offline on the
computer is the only way to compose a text of any significant length. With respect to online writing, the
Internet facilitates collaborative writing via electronic discussion forums, blogs, wikis, shared documents
(e.g., Google docs), and an array of writing tools available within today’s LMS platforms—not to
mention Twitter or Facebook for shorter text entries. Oskoz and Elola (2014a) and Kessler, Bikowski, and
Boggs (2012) have extolled the virtues of using social digital tools as part of a multimodal and staged
approach to collaborative writing.
Over the last decade, the CALL field has seen a veritable explosion of studies dealing with social CALL
and CMC writing, although this form of textual exchange reflects and reinforces language characteristics
very similar to those of oral speech (Payne & Whitney, 2002). Despite the close associations with the
language of oral registers, CMC constitutes a form of writing, nonetheless. The study by Kern (1995)
perhaps marked the first important CMC study documenting that L2 learners wrote more turns when
using the Daedalus Exchange networked software than those students talking face-to-face. His study was
followed by a spate of articles that primarily focused on CMC as a vehicle for carrying out negotiations of
meaning from an interactionist perspective (Blake, 2000, 2016b; for an excellent review of synchronous
CMC studies from this period, see Sauro, 2011). Within a sociocultural framework, CMC continues to
provide a forum for students to engage in telecollaborations with native speakers at a distance, with all of
the multicultural challenges or misunderstandings that might arise during these written exchanges (Belz,
2002; Lomicka, 2006; O’Dowd, 2006, 2007; Ware, 2005; Ware & Kramsch, 2005). Academic writing,
nonetheless, is usually thought of as something separate from these CMC exchanges.
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The act of both personal and collaborative academic writing, whether mediated by the computer or not,
should ideally involve an iterative or staged process that constantly recycles analysis, design,
development, implementation, and evaluation (Caws, 2012). Obviously, CMC tools can be used to foster
collaborate work and feedback at these various stages of the writing process, as the study by Oskoz and
Elola (2014a) illustrated. Writers, whether in their L1 or L2, seek to produce texts that are coherent, well-
organized, rich in content (including a critical sense of multicultural knowledge in the case of L2 writing),
appropriate with respect to rhetorical and genre conventions, and accurate with respect to linguistic and
pragmatic norms. Clearly, these goals are a moving target where frequent revisions and rewritings are part
and parcel of the process. Any digital tool that helps L2 learners engage in the reediting process is bound
to produce improvements over the long run, as long as learners are engaged in this iterative design
process. A blog puts more emphasis on personal writing with the occasional reactions from other readers,
while wikis or Google docs facilitate a more collaborative product. Today’s digital tools combine aspects
of writing and reading, as we have already commented above, while also creating a sense of audience.
This, in turn, tends to stimulate more effort, if not better writing, from L2 participants (Yoon, 2008;
Oskoz & Elola, 2014b).
Certain CALL tools and strategies can be particularly helpful for L2 writers, starting with a mention of
corpus tools and concordances (Yoon, 2008). Vocabulary size, no doubt, impacts all L2 performance with
respect to the four skills and, clearly takes considerable time to grow (Cobb, 2007). Corpus tools and
concordances, however, can fine-tune word usage at any stage of L2 development, especially during the
revision stages of writing (Gaskell & Cobb, 2004). Godwin-Jones (2015) recommends the multilingual
corpora offered by Linguee as an immediate way to improve L2 writing. However, using a corpus such as
Linguee to this end is not readily intuitive to students; they must be trained how to use a corpus to search
for the correct lexical phrasing and, in the process, find the frequent collocations that will imbue their L2
writing with a more authentic feel. For example, following a TBLT approach, the instructor can ask
groups of students to investigate via Linguee which prepositions go with a particular list of verbs—one of
the peskiest grammatical problems when writing in a foreign language because of its idiosyncratic nature.
When it comes to finding the appropriate L2 collocations, Linguee is a goldmine, but it takes a bit of extra
searching to squeeze out valuable linguistic information.
Another context where Web 2.0 tools benefit L2 writing comes from asking learners to create digital
stories. Oskoz and Elola (2014b) had their students explore storytelling by using iMovie or FinalCut.
Their students used a variety of digital tools to plan and revise the plot, the script, and the staging details
for their stories—an excellent example of learning by doing. The end product was both a multimedia and
literary (i.e., scripted) artifact—or in the researchers’ own words, an instantiation of 21st century
writing—which respected the conventions of this genre. The final products were published on YouTube,
which allowed the rest of the class to read and view the projects and reflect further on content, form, and
L2 language usage.
Sauro (2014) explored the genre of fanfiction—online networks of fans of books, movies, or musical
bands (e.g., the Sherlock television series, Harry Potter books, Sakura manga and anime)—to engage her
L2 students in reading and writing. To her mind, the goal-oriented and highly social activity of fandom
more closely resembles what students are actually doing in real life, which gives the class activity more
meaning and personal investment. All the while within the fandom task, students are problem-solving and
negotiating new L2 multicultural spaces. Jenkins (2006) has defined a fan as someone who transforms
viewing into a cultural activity as part of a community with others who share a common interest.
Consequently, fandom reading sparks writing and sharing, stimulating more reading, writing, and sharing
in an ongoing cycle. Popular topics, such as the Harry Potter series, have spawned multilingual fandoms
with production details, commentaries from the producers and actors, and podcasts along with new digital
tools that facilitate the interactions among fans (e.g., Fiction Alley; Memory Alpha; Viki; Subtitle
Creator). Fandom foreign language participants often translate or subtitle a series before the official
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versions are released, generating a sophisticated linguistic effort from the fans and a model exercise for
the L2 classroom.
In an earlier study with a sociocultural framework, Lam (2000) has provided a case study of how
transnational CMC communities can facilitate L2 writing in English. CMC interactions in a L2 not only
foster the development of multicultural identities, but also allow individuals to construct their own textual
voice and choose their own social roles. Lam viewed the process of constructing a new L2 community as
a metaphor for CMC. Through the CMC exchanges in this transnational group, the focal student
encountered and then learned to use multiple forms of textual discourse: advertising talk, business talk,
teen talk, pop culture talk, emotional advice, and religious sharing. The CMC community gave this
student a sense of belonging to the English-speaking world. In short, CMC writing in L2 holds out the
promise of doing much more than stringing words together; it’s a way of finding your third place (i.e.,
neither an L1 nor an L2 identity, but rather a bilingual identity) in a multicultural world (Kramsch, 2009).
Categorizing linguistic knowledge into four skills might be simplistic, given the current state of linguistic
theories (Guikema & Williams, 2014). After all, phonetic segments are now analyzed as part of larger
articulatory gestures. Lexical choices have become filters or constraints that determine syntactic
constructions. Corpus data mining is now preferred over positing trees diagrams. Individual words
combine with other words in probabilistic ways to form collocations, rather than being freely inserted into
deep structures. Competence is no longer just grammatical but also communicative (Hymes, 1974),
symbolic (Kramsch, 2009), and relational (Kern, 2014), ruled by pragmatic, sociolinguistic, and cultural
considerations. Accordingly, measuring language proficiency and L2 development resists being reduced
into a simple set of discrete categories such as speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Just as the
various linguistic subsystems are now recognized as being interactive, theories about L2 learning are
primarily interactionist (Gass, 1997) and, therefore, the concomitant learning processes mutually
influence one another. Our evaluation measures, however, have not yet caught up with these new insights
and language models. Hulstijn (2011, 2015) argues that speaking, listening, reading, and writing are not
self-contained proficiency modules that can be adequately evaluated in isolation, although the profession
still demands it.
Not surprisingly, the practice of CALL itself no longer deals with digital writing as separate from reading,
nor implements speaking practice in isolation from listening. And, again, as the sociocultural theorists
would remind us, none of these activities should be separated from the notion of multicultural competence
and the construction of a bilingual identity—what Kramsch (2009) has called finding the third place vis-
à-vis the L1 and the L2. The TBLT approach implicitly seems to recognize this more integrated view of
language, even when particular grammatical structures are being targeted. TBLT language practice—
assisted by CALL or not—springs from the users’ needs, goals, language use, and reflections. In most
cases, TBLT results in a tangible outcome or product with the emphasis always on creating or
understanding meaning. In this review, we have tried to pick out the most salient aspects of speaking,
listening, reading, and writing, pretending as it were, that these modalities function autonomously. Quite
naturally, instructors continue to think in these terms when putting together a language curriculum, but
making the effort to construct sound TBLT activities will help to shift the focus to a more integrated
implementation of L2 learning with an impressive array of CALL tools standing at ready to help.
CALL is now framed in a much more multimodal context where learners enjoy greater agency and
autonomy to produce language through digital forms. Speaking tasks will now involve listening and
writing as well, as students produce and post their videos. Listening will entail reading captions, linking
to glosses, and reflecting on cultural differences; and writing will be carried out in stages that leverage
collaborative chatting, wikis, videoconferencing, and repeated negotiations of their multicultural
competence and linguistic proficiency. For language instructors, then, CALL may represent a Brave New
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Language Learning & Technology 138
World, not without its conundrums and perils (Kern, 2014), but an environment well worth taking
advantage of its affordances for L2 learning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Blake (PhD, University of Texas) is professor of Spanish linguistics, author of Brave New Digital
Classroom, 2nd edition (2013), and co-author of El Español y la lingüística aplicada (2016). He was
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