In his article “From Parrots to Puppet Masters: Fostering Creative and Authentic Language Use with Online Tools”, Milton introduced and evaluated an online EFL course system that breaks away from the imitative feature of language learning in traditional pedagogies and promotes creative language use. He criticizes traditional teaching methods as norm-referenced and that learners merely parrot language use to suit the standards of exams which results in a lack language competency beyond classroom settings. He believed that incorporating online resources can provide student opportunities to for personal exploration and discovery, as well as provide teachers opportunities to give enhanced directed instructions and feedbacks to students.
Milton discussed the four tools of an online EFL course system: Asynchronous voice messaging, a discovery-based lexical lookup tool (Word neighbors), a marking tool (Mark My Words), and a “scripting” tool.
The asynchronous voice messaging tool is designed to address the problem that students in SE Asian classrooms often lack real opportunities to develop their oral English competency and thus most lack confidence in speaking English. Using this tool, students can record their voices in discussions and to model different context for speaking. They can attend to their pronunciation, intonation and other specific skills. Teachers can also record their messages to give feedback to students.
The lexical lookup tool (Word Neighbours) enables learners to check the context of the word’s usage and the collocation properties of the words by simply clicking the right mouse button.
Since the effectiveness of teacher feedback is always a contentious issue, and copious feedback is very time consuming for teachers, the EFL course system provides a marking tool (Mark My Words) for teachers to insert comments on students’ electronic documents. This tool is devised based on comprehensive corpus analyses of students’ writings investigating the differences between native speakers’ written language and the EFL learners’ written language. Teachers can insert pre-defined comments on students’ recurrent errors to minimize the required effort but they can also edit individualized remarks using word processor.
The last tool described in the article is the “scripting” tool which actively engages learners in creating animated role plays. It enables learners to type their dialogues which will be read aloud by the animated figures in standard British or American English, matching their mouth shapes automatically with the sentences. This tool provides a safe and relaxing environment for learners to try out authentic and creative language use by creating role plays about the topics they are learning. Since their scripts will be read out in the standard form by the computer, learners feel less inhibited to produce language and can compare their own pronunciation with the standard ones. It has been rated as the most interesting activity of the online course.
The online EFL course system is intended to take more advantage of the affordances of computer and the accessibility of the Internet. It effectively encourages learners to take advantage of recording devices, the research results of corpus analysis, online dictionaries, etc in order to learn English more conveniently, develop their overall language skills and creativity in language use. It also encourages collaborative activities and makes language learning more fun.
However, I think that while Word Neighbor tool can be very helpful for learners to pick up vocabularies and their usages in context, I will be careful to guide my students to use it for the appropriate objectives if i were to use the tools. If my students are lower-intermediate level and their focuses are to learn grammar and vocabulary, then I’ll encourage them to check the context and collocations when they are not certain about their usages or cannot think of a certain structure. However, if I teach upper intermediate to advance students to write informal essays or creative writings, I wouldn’t recommend them to check the usages every time they don’t feel sure. Instead, I would encourage them to judge their own use of language based on grammar rules,or just personal perceptions, and not to be confined by the common usages. Though the tool is designed based on a large vocabulary, it may still subdue learners’ creativity in language use if students rely too much on them.
( ….. I’ve deleted a paragraph about my confused understanding of the data-driven Word Neighbor tool and the marking tool. It is now appended at the end if you’re interested.)
Another flaw that I discovered in the article concerns the organization of certain contents, which may have led to my previous confusion about the Word Neighbor tool and the grammar guide.The author discussed the corpus-supported online writing/grammar guide in the section about providing feedback. The writing guide is based on comprehensive contrasted analysis of a large corpus of writing of Cantonese speakers and native speakers. However, instead of providing feedback, the writing guide is actually a tool for language practice of language problems specific to Chinese EFL learners. It is more about encouraging grammatical practice through quizzes to prevent grammar errors and providing a reference source for grammar learning in specifically a Cantonese context. In this case, the writing guide plays similar roles as the Word Neighbor look up tool. They provide correct language input, one for vocabulary acquisition, the other for grammar acquisition; both tools provide activities and quizzes to motivate learners to use; and both tools aim to develop learners’ self-reliance in discovering lexical or grammatical properties of the language. From this perspective, it makes more sense to categorize the writing/grammar guide in the section “Online Data-driven Language Learning" than in “Providing Feedback on Student Writing".
I’ve deleted a paragraph about my confused understanding of the data-driven Word Neighbor tool and the marking tool. It is now appended here if you’re interested.
To ensure that the system can offer adequate correct language input and identify common problems of learners’ intermediate language, it must be based on comprehensive linguistic analysis of learner’ language and the needs of both the learners and the teachers. The system designer seems to have considered these issues when designing the tools. However, there is a problem regarding the standards of English that may constitute a shortcoming for the system. To devise the marking tool, the author carried out analysis of a large corpus of students’ writings, contrasting EFL learners’ writings to those of native speakers, and used the native speakers’ language as the standard based on which the marking is generated. However, as English is more widely used as a second or foreign language in the world, many variational features are being considered as legitimate now. Language features or expressions that are distinct to some cultures cannot be translated appropriately to the standard English. In particular, if the learners intend to use creative but somehow grammatically acceptable expressions that do not exist in the target language, the markings generated by the system may ignore the legitimacy of variational English and may serve to discourage students from giving play to their own creativity freely. Care should be taken to avoid over-correction in the learners’ language production.