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Principles of CALL

In this text, the basis for using technology to support language learning comprises four central components:

  1. language learning principles, which overlap with
  2. task engagement principles, which are included in
  3. The Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) technology standards for teachers and learners (Healey,  Hanson-Smith, Hubbard, Ioannou-Georgiou, Kessler, & Ware, 2011), which address
  4. guidelines for technology use in educational settings.

These four components are explained below.

Principles of Classroom Language Learning

Any language lesson should focus on what is known about how languages are learned. The salient principles of language learning include:

Comprehensible Input

What we know is that language learners need a lot of comprehensible language input (Ellis, 2008), and that this input is generally effective for learning when it is just above the learner’s current level of understanding. Although some teachers (and learners) believe that non-native speaking peers do not provide useful input for learners, negotiation with other language learners in the target language may be at precisely the right level for beginning students. In more advanced stages of learning, students should have access to sympathetic fluent (not necessarily native) speakers who are willing to adjust their language to the students’ ability.


Learners need multiple forms of input and a variety of ways to express themselves as they try on a different language and culture and possibly even a new way of approaching knowledge and the learning process. Although many educators still focus on comprehensible input as the most important element of language acquisition (e.g., Krashen, 2004), the SLA research is clear that opportunities for meaningful output are just as important (see Ellis, 2008, for a list of contributions that output can make to language acquisition). The focus here is on the term meaningful; the research shows that activities such as uncontextualized grammar drills and error correction are often not worth the time spent (Folse, 2016; Reber, 2011; Ur, 2016). Studies show that meaningful output can help learners notice the forms they are using and thereby support language fluency and accuracy (Leow & Donatelli, 2017; Schmidt, 1990).


Noticing means an explicit focus on language forms and their related functions and meanings. However, too much focus on form in the format or drills or lectures, or a focus on form that is not meaningfully integrated into the tasks at hand, can make it difficult for learners to actually use the forms. Focusing explicitly and consistently on grammar drill and practice may actually work against some students’ natural learning tendencies (Pinter, 2017).

Social Interaction

Although individual practice (e.g., in homework or as flashcards) may help learners master certain elements of grammar or vocabulary, more effective learning takes place when learners can use language actively and creatively with other people, or social interaction. Anyone who has struggled to learn a foreign language has probably had the experience of successfully completing grammar exercises but then being totally tongue-tied when trying to  form a simple request in the target language. To prepare learners to perform in authentic settings, they must be allowed to practice in social settings.


Language learning is supported by feedback, which includes scaffolding and explanation rather than just encouragement or the location of an error. Scaffolding, as defined by Hawkins (2008), is relevant support that is provided by “a more capable other” who knows the student’s learning goal and how the student might reach it.  In other words, scaffolding should be tailored to the learner’s needs to help the learner advance to a higher level; important to effective scaffolding is personalization, because not every student needs the same scaffold in order to learn. Likewise, some learners need much more support and guidance, and sometimes a very different approach than others, to enhance learning.

Task Engagement Principles

Having opportunities to learn language, even those where all of the components are supported, does not mean that students will learn. In addition to including language principles, classroom tasks must also be engaging so that learners will take the opportunities offered to them.

Although the literature proposes a variety of constructs that comprise task engagement, it indicates that overall the most salient features of an engaging task are that it is/does the following:

  • Authentic (learners perceive it as connected to the real world)

For our purposes, an authentic task is one whose topic, process, content, or other element learners perceive they will use outside of class in their real world or that parallels or replicates real functions beyond the classroom.  Students who perceive a task’s how and why will also be more attentive and more motivated to learn. Even the much maligned grammar drill and practice can be engaging if learners see it as enabling them to use language outside of the classroom.

  • Interesting (one or more aspects of the task hold deep interest for learners)

Input that is interesting and meaningful is more likely to become actual language intake and be processed by the learner than input that is uninteresting and unconnected to students’ lives. Many teachers do not know what their students are interested in, but they can find out and integrate the ideas into tasks.

  • Provides opportunities for social interaction (conversation, cooperation, and / or collaboration with peers, teachers, experts, and others)

Social interaction is one of the foremost learning principles across all kinds of learning, and it holds special significance for engaging language tasks because it is a main feature of both engagement and language learning. Important to both is that the interaction is based on two-way give and take rather than one way where either only one person is talking or no one is listening and responding. To date, technology does not provide a creative, responsive interactive; however, this feature is on the horizon.

  • Supports challenge/skills balance (includes choices of challenge)

The amount of stress or pressure that helps students learn effectively is different for each person. Language learners should feel comfortable

enough to take risks with the target language, but they should not be put to sleep by overly simple-minded tasks and exercises. Educators can create optimal stress (eustress or good stress) by matching the degree of

difficulty, or challenge, to the students’ skills (Cziksentmihalyi, 1990), giving them enough difficulty to keep their attention while providing them with tasks that are possible to complete.

  • Supports autonomy/structure balance (includes choices of task aspects)

Many language classes push learners along a rigid schedule requiring a certain number of book chapters, exercises, and essays in a given amount of time. This teacher-directed syllabus may be effective for some students, but it may ignore the needs of others. Allowing learners to control some aspects of a task can make them much more likely to engage.

  • Includes effective scaffolding ( a range of resources, including just-in-time feedback)

Like social interaction, feedback is an important aspect of both language learning and engagement. Some students work more slowly than others, and some need more or less guidance for different tasks. Giving students the right amount of time and administering appropriate feedback are among the most difficult but also most important conditions to meet.

A teacher can shout “listen to me, listen to me” to try to get students to pay attention and learn (we have seen this happen), but giving students an interesting, authentic task that they have the skill, support, and time to complete is much more likely to be effective for learning.

TESOL Technology Standards

Additional guidance for planning, implementing, and assessing CALL comes from the TESOL Technology Standards (TTS) for language teachers (TTS-LT) and language learners (TTS-LL) (Healey et al., 2011). These standards present concise, evidence-based guidelines for teachers to consider what they and their students need to be able to do with and through language and technology. The TTS provide four evidence-based goals, along with related standards, performance indicators, and contextualized examples, that can guide CALL task development. The three overall goals are presented in Figure 1.1.

Goal 1: Language learners demonstrate foundational knowledge and skills in technology for a multilingual world.

Goal 2: Language learners use technology in socially and culturally appropriate, legal, and ethical ways.

Goal 3. Language learners effectively use and critically evaluate technology-based tools as aids in the development of their language learning competence as part of formal instruction and for further learning.

Figure 1.1. Learner goals from the TESOL Technology Standards (Healey et al., 2011).


Further, the TTS-LL address the call for language learners to acquire 21st-century skills (P21, n.d.) that include:

  • Knowledge acquisition (e.g., organizing, recording, understanding)
  • Problem-solving (e.g., defining, selecting, evaluating)
  • Critical thinking (e.g., drawing inferences, synthesizing, integrating, distinguishing)
  • Production (e.g., creating, developing, transferring)
  • Inquiry (e.g., asking questions, translating, developing research skills)
  • Communication (e.g., communicating, participating)
  • Creative thinking (e.g., thinking differently, applying).
  • Digital literacy (e.g.,  information literacy, media literacy, Information and communication technologies (ICT) literacy

The standards do not speak to specific tools because tasks should consider the range of possible CALL technologies. In other words, the principles and standards can be implemented using many different techniques and tools, and some of these will be presented throughout this text. As you read the following real-life examples, note how the projects meets the principles and standards for CALL.

Example 1

► In developing a systems analysis and design project for precollege international students in an intensive English program (see Egbert & Jessup, 2000), the teacher focused on students’ interests (they were college-bound business majors), their needs (to learn the vocabulary and culture of U.S. business, to work on all four language skills), and their abilities (academic language competence ranging from intermediate to advanced*). The students were asked to build Web pages for organizations in the community. They had the opportunity to choose a client from among several that the teacher had lined up ahead of time or to find one themselves. During the project, learners received language input through activities such as participating in interviews with their clients, reviewing Web pages of organizations similar to their clients’, talking with their teams and their class, and listening to technology lectures. Learner teams interacted with their native-English-speaking clients at least three times—during an initial interview about the organization, an interview after the initial page development, and a final review after the project was completed. The teacher organized the teams and provided a loose structure for the activity, but learners controlled their work process and the design of their Web  pages. The teacher also led workshops for the project’s technical aspects and provided support for learning difficult concepts, vocabulary, and skills. The teacher and the class provided feedback on the initial designs and the completed projects. Throughout the project, learners used language for activities such as summarizing their interviews, preparing graphic layouts, and compiling a final portfolio of their projects.

This computer-enhanced language learning project integrated the principles and standards in many ways.  The task provided useful skills, content, and contacts for learners in an authentic, real-world setting. Learners interacted with peers and with native English speakers who were an authentic audience because they, too, had a stake in the outcomes. Learners had many different ways to express themselves and many sources of language input— listening, speaking, reading, writing text, and creating graphics. They worked with flexible timelines, technical support, and comprehensible feedback from clients, peers, and the teacher. Furthermore, the task provided a number of opportunities for learners to make choices, and they always had a reason to listen to each other. In addition to integrating the principles for effective and engaging language learning, Example 1 also demonstrates appropriate uses of technology in language teaching and learning.

Example 2

► Learners in an elementary school in an EFL setting were working in small groups studying vocabulary that they had to know for a quiz. Rather than having them memorize the spelling and definitions of the words by recitation, as they usually did, the instructor had taught the students to use the Crossword Generator (2018) and other tools from ESLactivities.com. The students used the software to create word puzzles that they and their peers could use to practice the focus vocabulary. Although crosswords were the most popular, the students also felt that the Hangman and Bingo  puzzles that their classmates had made were helpful for learning vocabulary.

Instructors may not be able to choose their students’ goals, but they often have wiggle room in how these goals are met. In the setting described in Example 2, while using the software and the products of their computer work, the students were thinking intensively about (noticing) the vocabulary, working for and with an authentic audience (their classmates), interacting socially, and receiving feedback from peers and the teacher. Students also had choices about which puzzle type to make and how they would define the vocabulary words. This simple change in the way this task was structured made vocabulary learning more fun and motivating for the students and it proved an effective language experience.

Guidelines for Using Educational Technology in Language Classrooms

Providing learners with tasks that focus on language and engagement is crucial to CALL, but it is  only part of the process. When designing instruction for CALL contexts, teachers must also consider how to use technology so that it supports  effective learning. The five guidelines described below, compiled and summarized from the educational technology literature, are similar to those for general educational technology and mainstream classroom settings, but they may be applied differently in language learning contexts. Computer support that is considered effective in the language classroom may differ considerably from that in a music or history classroom, where language is not the focus. Nonetheless, all of these guidelines are important components in any classroom where language is central.


  1. Use technology to support the pedagogical goals of the class and curriculum.

Teachers using computer labs and even class laptops are often assigned a specific day and time that their class will use the technology, regardless of whether it fits into the teachers’ current learning plan. Admittedly, administrators have a duty to make sure that resources are distributed fairly and that they are used as much as possible, but they are often less concerned with how well the technology supports learning. Rather than designing instruction to use  the technology and to learn technology skills (a technocentric approach), the technology use should be subordinated to the learning goals. In other words, teachers should not use the computer simply for its own sake.

2. Make sure the technology is accessible to all learners.

Because learners are individuals, CALL activities should address more than one type of intelligence, style of learning, and set of background experiences. The technology should be used to address as many of the learners’ needs as possible and be useful for a variety of instructional purposes. For example, some students prefer visual activities and others prefer verbal ones; hence, if it is not important which way the content is presented, technology that allows learners to choose whether information is presented through pictures or written text would meet more students’ needs than technology that does not offer learners a choice.

3. Use the technology as a tool.

The computer cannot actually serve as a teacher, because it is not intelligent or capable of individualized, creative thought or feedback. Turing (1950) suggested that a computer could be deemed intelligent if it could fool someone into thinking that a person rather than a machine were responding when it is asked questions. This is known as the Turing test. Technology that passes this test is not yet available in schools, although Google Assistant and other such technologies based on artificial intelligence are being developed rapidly (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2V6NHKmfnW0 for an example). The most useful way to look at technology is as a tool that supports learning in a wide variety of ways and not as a teacher.

4. Use technology effectively.

Effective means that students learn language better or faster using the technology than they would have using the tools that would ordinarily be available. Even in the mundane area of grammar drills, for example, the classroom teacher can provide a limited amount of feedback to each learner because only one student at a time can answer a grammar practice exercise and receive the teacher’s assessment. By using a grammar software package that all students can access simultaneously, however, each student can obtain instant  and appropriate (although not creative) feedback. In this case, the grammar software might provide more effective grammar practice than the teacher could in the classroom. CALL technology can perform functions previously undreamt of in the classroom, which is why CALL users are so enthusiastic about it.

5. Use technology efficiently.

Efficient indicates that technology accomplishes learning goals with less time and work for teachers and learners. For example, a listening program on a computer can instantly replay a passage while an older technology, such as the audio tape, may waste the students’ time because it requires rewinding and hunting for the right segment many times. Another example is simulation software that enables the computer to keep track of thousands of calculations that affect the outcomes. Using this software, the learner can focus solely on the language and content, while, in the background, the computer remembers scores, locations on the screen, turn taking, timing, and so on.

Language teachers designing CALL tasks should consider these guidelines; how these guidelines play out, however, will differ according to not only the course’s content, but also to other contextual features such as grade level, student proficiency level, and curricular goals. Although the idea is 20 years old, completing a WebQuest (Dodge, 1998) can be one effective way to use the computer for language learners across contexts. It uses two of the most powerful electronic tools currently available: the Internet and the word processor. A WebQuest is an inquiry-based task that uses authentic Web and non-Web resources to transform knowledge in some way. Each learner has one or more roles and is actively receiving and using language throughout the task. Example 3 shows how a group project can enable all learners to participate.

Example 3

► In Cohee’s (n.d.) Wandering the World WebQuest for ESL students, learners are placed in teams and asked to develop an itinerary for a trip with their teammates. They are to prepare travel plans for New Delhi, Mexico City, and Beijing. Within each group, one member is responsible for figuring out what to pack, one for deciding  how much and what kind of money they will need, and the third for choosing interesting tourist sites. Combining all the information they find, team members negotiate the order in which they will visit these destinations, what they will pack, how much money they will take, and what they will see. After completing their itinerary, teams write postcards home from each place they “visit.”

In this example, learners are immersed in the language throughout the task; the Web sites they visit on the Internet will be written in the target language and will provide both textual and graphical support (and possibly also musical enhancement) for students with different learning preferences and abilities. Students negotiate meaning with their teammates while solving a problem, in this case, seeking information and organizing it into an  itinerary. They communicate and receive language input both orally, as they compile team information, and in written form, as they write their postcards. In addition, giving each team member a different role to play can help to keep learners constantly on task. The students have easy access to information and can interact immediately with an authentic audience appropriate for their experiences and language level. Using these technology tools is appropriately efficient and highly engaging in ways that book research using pencil and paper cannot match for most students. Under these conditions, using CALL would likely enable effective language and content learning.


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Principles of CALL by Joy Egbert and Seyed Abdollah Shahrokni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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