Resources for independent language learning: design and use

Author: Ciel Language Support Network


This handbook discusses individual learning styles and how best to support them; the selection and design of self access independent language learning materials; the types of resources available along with their location and organisation; and also tandem learning; the role of the language assistant and language exchanges.

Table of contents


This handbook

A rich language learning environment offering a variety of carefully chosen, well-presented and easily accessible resources will allow learners to work according to their individual interests, needs and learning styles. It will provide a context in which learners can develop a range of language and transferable skills and which will complement classroom-based teaching.

In this handbook we aim to give a brief overview of individual learning styles followed by a discussion of the criteria for selection, design and use of independent language learning materials. We will consider in more detail the role of conventional materials (print, audio and video), electronic and human resources.

Dispelling the myth

We would also like to take the opportunity to bring up an issue which has been raised in a number of institutions.

Given the costs of traditional face-to-face teaching, it would seem that a move to self-access or independent language learning is often seen as a cost-effective solution for HEIs looking for savings in costs and staff time without any sacrifice in quality. However, the CIEL team would argue that a move away from classroom-based teaching to a wholly self-access model may not always provide the expected results for one or more of the following reasons:

1. Independent language learning does not necessarily save staff time

  • finding appropriate, up to date, commercial, self-access language learning materials is not always possible and staff need considerable time and expertise to develop their own;
  • learners working on their own need support from the learning materials, the technical, and clerical team, the librarian, language learning advisor and teacher, and may not make satisfactory progress without it.

2. Investment and maintenance costs may be high

  • materials and equipment will need to be updated on a regular basis if the learning environment is to be maintained at an appropriate level;
  • new technologies tend to have a shorter shelf-life and higher replacement and maintenance costs than older analogous equipment;
  • security of equipment and resources is an issue which has possible implications for staffing.

3. Students and teachers have preferences

  • given the choice, learners profess to prefer the interaction of the classroom to learning on their own. This may change when distance learning is able to offer similar, if not enhanced, benefits;
  • teachers also enjoy face to face contact;
  • learners need and enjoy a varied learning experience in terms of manner of learning, medium (conventional or computer-based) and location; whole class, group and independent learning work all have their place.

Within the constraints of a conventional higher education setting (one not primarily established to deliver an open learning curriculum), experience has shown that a mix of classroom and independent learning approaches offers the optimum learning experience for the greatest number of students. The suggestion that somehow a well-stocked self-access language centre or suite of computers is a cheap alternative to classroom teaching remains somewhat of an unsubstantiated myth.

1 Learning styles

1.1 Individual style

Each learner has their own, often very individual, style of assimilating new information. Honey and Mumford (1992), for example, distinguish between four learning styles. The reader might recognise themselves amongst the following types:

  1. the activist - a learner who is happy to 'have a go', who prefers to play an active part (and is not afraid of producing language).
  2. the reflector - a learner who needs to observe (language) patterns before they will attempt to use a new construction.
  3. the pragmatist - a learner who will pick up new ideas and immediately seeks to find a practical application for them. In the context of language learning this type of learner will immediately try to integrate any new vocabulary or structures in to their language production.
  4. the theorist - a learner who needs to link any new learning into their theoretical knowledge of the world. In the context of language learning a theorist will first seek out grammatical rules or the morphology of vocabulary before they feel confident in using the newly learnt language elements.

Scharle and Szabo (2000: p.17-19) further identify learners who are primarily auditory (hearing), visual (seeing) and kinaesthetic (sensing bodily movement). Other dimensions they mention include extraversion and intraversion (i.e. attitudes to others), deductive or inductive (preferred routines of logic), concrete, analytical, communicative and authority-oriented.

Scharle and Szabo (p.23) give an example of an interview activity (p.23) which encourages learners to analyse how they like working (individual, pair or group work), what sort of learning materials and media they prefer (textbooks, music, magazines, audio, video etc), what type of learning activities, they enjoy (drills, games etc.), who should lead the activity (teacher or learner), how they would like the work evaluated (in words, in marks, once a month, not at all etc.) and how they would like to be corrected (not at all, only in writing, face to face etc.).

1.2 Supporting individual learning styles

Learners will obviously be able to learn most effectively if they are able to choose activities and materials which best accord with their dominant learning style but care must be taken with the choice available. Tomlinson (2000: p.320) argues that our concern to provide self-marking activities with focussed feedback for use in independent learning has meant that they are normally far from individualised. They have led to a narrow choice which favours only those who are 'analytical, visual and independent' (those who like to focus on discrete segments of language, see the language written down and work on their own). He suggests that these type of activities are necessary but more open-ended activities with exposure to authentic language would suit the experiential, global, kinaesthetic learner (who likes to learn by doing and who prefers to respond to the overall meaning of language).

Dexter (1999: p.62) gives suggestions for teaching/learning activities which highlight the link between 'sensory acuity' and the development of language skills. For example, In order to practice speaking skills visual learners might like to create dialogues and stories from pictures or use paintings as a speaking prompt; for their writing skills, auditory learners might like to practice reading by recording their own reading and speaking by discussing a radio programme, kinaesthetic learners might like to write short drama sketches or act out a story.

A well-stocked language resources centre, providing a comprehensive range of materials and activities in a variety of media, will be able cater for the needs of a wide range of learners but less sophisticated learners might need help to determine their preferred learning styles and to reflect on how they can learn most effectively from the resources available. This training could be done through discussion in class (as in the interview activity described in section 1.1 above) or in consultation with the learning advisor.

2 The selection and design process

This section discusses some of the criteria for the selection and design of self-access independent language learning materials. Section three will discuss in more detail the advantages and disadvantages of conventional and electronic resources, while section four will look at the exploitation of human resources.

2.1 Variety and context

The language learning resources and facilities within an institution, whether they are available in a Language Centre, Open Learning Centre, Learning Resources Centre, classroom or simple cupboard are likely to have to serve learners with a number of different leaning objectives. The materials may complement and extend work done in the classroom or they may be the primary learning resource for the entirely self-directed language learner.

The context will determine the range of users likely to use the learning resources but a varied and developing collection will satisfy the greatest number of needs. Such a collection is likely to consist of materials in a range of media (print, audio, video, computer-based materials) and may include:

complete multiple media courses (print plus audio, video or software); a library of video and audio recordings including films; materials focussing on individual language skills; grammar and vocabulary practice materials; materials focussing on the needs of learners from different discipline areas or with particular interests (e.g. French for Scientists, Business Japanese or English for Academic Purposes); exam practice materials; language reference materials such as dictionaries and grammars; area and cultural studies materials; foreign language newspapers, magazines and television, access to the internet and learner training materials.

The budget and space available will to a great extent determine the range of materials on offer but financial constraints may lead to creative solutions. For example, it is often the case that language learning materials are available in a number of different locations, including staff filing cabinets. Either these can be brought together in a new location or new technology can be used to create a virtual web-based Language Centre which 'signposts' all the resources available from the foreign language newspapers in the library to the foreign language software on the central university workstations.

2.2 Choosing materials

Buying in commercial materials will mean that a new independent learning resource can be built up fairly quickly. Further materials can be developed in-house as the needs of learners and teachers are assessed.

The materials - whether in conventional or electronic format - will be used without the direct support of a teacher and need to be carefully evaluated before purchase. Publishers may suggest that materials are suitable for a range of purposes but they may not be entirely appropriate for self-access use. The following initial checklist raises questions as to learning focus, type and length of learning task, sequence of activities, language level and learner support and feedback.

2.2.1 A checklist: twenty questions to guide selection of self-access materials

  1. What is the learning focus of a resource? What are the expected learning outcomes - the development of specific language competencies or language learning strategies? Are the learning objectives clearly stated for the learner?
  2. Is the language level of the intended user clear?
  3. Does the book/software package have an index or menu that guides learners towards the grammatical, lexical or other content of a module or is it relatively uninformative?
  4. Is there clear learning progression between modules in a course book or software package?
  5. Is the material appropriate in terms of:
    i. topic?
    ii. the language level and prior knowledge of the intended learners?
    iii. the age and interests of the learners?
    iv. the design of the language curriculum?
  6. Is the material specifically designed for self-access use? Is it self-contained or will the learner need teacher input or support? Are the instructions clear? Are there activities designed for the classroom, such as group or whole class work. Are these feasible?
  7. Can the materials be improved by the development of supplementary materials?
  8. Are the learning activities varied and appropriate?
  9. Does the material encourage reflection on progress in terms of language competence and learning strategies? How will the learner receive feedback on their activity?
  10. Is an answer key provided? Is it easy to find? How informative is it? Can one be added if necessary?
  11. If the exercises are open-ended are there suggested answers? Again, can these be added by the teacher?
  12. Is there a glossary or reference section?
  13. Is there a tapescript to accompany any video or audio recording?
  14. Can the learner meaningfully 'dip' into the material or must it be used in chronological order? Is this a problem?
  15. Is the material flexible? Can it be used in different ways by different groups of learners?
  16. Do student numbers and known demand justify the expense?
  17. Is the resource well-designed and appealing? Today's students are visually sophisticated.
    To this list needs to be added a number of practical questions:
  18. Is the appropriate technical infrastructure in place to support the use of the resource? Are there sufficient video players? Is there a remote control to access the foreign language teletext? Are sound and video cards installed in the computer? Do the multimedia computers have headphones and microphones?
  19. What are the copyright implications in the open-access and multi-site environment? Can a video or audio-tape be copied? is a site-licence needed for software? See separate CIEL handbook on copyright.
  20. If any learners have special physical or learning needs, are these catered for (see handbook 6 on accessibility issues for guidelines).

2.3 Materials development

Where appropriate learning materials are not available for purchase, in-house development may be the only answer, albeit a time-consuming one requiring expertise at a number of levels.

Depending on the medium, these skills might include: subject knowledge, awareness of language learning pedagogies, teaching experience, technical expertise and editing skills appropriate to the medium of the resource (e.g. printed text, video or web-based materials). Littlejohn (1998: pp.193, 215) proposes a framework which lists those aspects of materials design which need to be taken into account when analysing materials; it might equally serve as a framework for principles of design. It includes:

  • learning aims and objectives (which skills and what knowledge)
  • principles of selection (types of tasks, content, language)
  • principles of sequencing (sequence of tasks, content and language)
  • subject matter and focus of subject matter
  • types of learning/teaching activities (what they require the learner to do, manner in which they draw on the 'learner's knowledge, affects, abilities and skills')
  • participation (who does what with whom)
  • learner roles
  • teacher roles
  • the role of materials as a whole

Many of the issues raised in the evaluation checklist (section 2.1 above) will also be invoked during the design and development process.

Additional issues raised in the planning stages will be to do with:

  • the type of source texts used - authentic texts have face validity but their use may infringe copyright while scripted texts do not have the same appeal but the language and content can be controlled;
  • the language of instruction;
  • the general presentation.

Perhaps the most important consideration will be the choice of activity type. Sheerin (1989) in her seminal guide to the development of self-access materials gives examples of a comprehensive number of activity types which go well beyond the traditional pre-, during- and post-activity comprehension exercise. These include:

discovery tasks; study guides; cloze tests; scrambled texts; comprehension activities; information transfer; reading and review writing; minimal pairs activity; dictation; listening and sorting scrambled pictures; picture matching; listening texts with comprehension tasks; listening and reacting; listening and review writing; creative copying; marking links in a text; sentence combining; parallel texts; story writing; pronunciation practice; recognition and repetition activity; communication tasks; problem solving; quizzes; games; puzzles and crosswords.

Tomlinson (2000: p.322) discusses features of good self-access/independent learning activities (see also section 1.2 above) in terms of how they develop:

  • declarative knowledge - 'conscious knowledge of the forms, meanings and systems of the language';
  • procedural knowledge - 'knowledge of how it is actually used to achieve intended effects');

and contribute to the overall education of the learner.

2.4 Packs and pathways

It is generally recognised that materials development is a lengthy process. An estimate of twenty hours of development time for a one hour computer-based activity or six hours development time for one hour's work in a conventional medium (e.g. print with accompanying video or audio recording (off-air or film clip) would be a conservative estimate. Very often, however, the materials already exist in some form elsewhere. This fact can be exploited either by the simple exchange of materials developed in another institution (c.f. the proposed Subject Centre resources database) or by the creation of cost-effective study packs or learning pathways which lead the learner through a selection of published and other materials.

A study pack might consist of a set of materials to be used by learners on an open learning module supported by some classroom teaching or contact with learning advisors. These materials might consist of a student booklet which guides learners through a mixture of units in commercial course materials, and activities which have been developed locally and provides commentaries and guidance notes written by the teaching staff - teachers and students from the Language Centre at the University of North London gave a presentation on the development and use of such a pack at one of the CIEL resources workshops. Decisions as to whether to provide answers to the questions will be made according to whether:

a. the activities are part of assessed course work;
b. staff have the time to mark the activities and provide feedback;
c. checking answers are considered to be an important part of the learning process.

In practice, a mix of practices may well be the most practical with students checking some of the exercises for themselves and submitting the rest for marking, perhaps as part of a personal portfolio (see handbook 4: sections 5, 6, 7 for a discussion of portfolio assessment).

A simpler form of pack might be developed by using 'access guides' or leaflets which indicate the location of useful materials. For example, an access sheet (printed or web-based) on telephone skills could be produced to list the books or units within course books and software where practice and guidance on communicating on the telephone might be found. The same could be done for grammatical points (e.g. using the definite and indefinite article in English), language functions and notions (e.g. comparing and contrasting, expressing time) or specific language areas (e.g. of particular interest to students of biology, business or fine art).

3 Different types of resources

Broadly, we can distinguish three types of resources for independent language learning at the present time:

  1. Conventional, mixed media resources
  2. Electronic resources
  3. Human resources

This section looks at how the first two can be exploited and, where appropriate, at some of their advantages and disadvantages. The use of human resources will be looked at in section four.

3.1 Conventional resources

Gardner and Miller (1999: pp. 96-122) give an excellent overview of the advantages, disadvantages and practicalities of stocking the self-access centre with

  1. published language learning materials;
  2. authentic materials;
  3. specially produced materials;
  4. student contributions to materials.

We give a brief summary of the points they make and add a few comments of our own. We would also recommend the book to anyone who wants a wider view of many of the issues covered in these handbooks.

3.1.1 Published language learning materials

Gardner and Miller suggest that there a number of reasons why published materials are a useful choice.

They mention such issues as:

availability, low cost (compared to the cost of teacher development time), speed with which they can be obtained, staff time saved on developing materials, assurance of quality and peer review, piloting before publication, range and focus; student familiarity with materials that have been used in the classroom, specialisation in materials such as dictionaries, planned progression and pathways through materials, variety and professional finish.

Disadvantages given include:

activities designed for the classroom (such as group work) which are not feasible for the self-access learner, open-ended activities which would normally be led, supported and monitored by the teacher, lack of answer keys; too much material in course books for learners to be able to select according to their needs; so generalised for the commercial market that they have very local, specific and up to date appeal.

There are a number of ways in which commercial materials can be adapted or made more accessible for the independent learner:

  1. Books can be customised and made more accessible by chopping / splitting them up into individual units then pasting onto card and laminating - A4 card works well with only a little glue or the page will crumple when laminated. Each unit can be bound together with the answer keys, additional activities and teaching notes which are often at the end of a book, or in another workbook. Treasury tags make useful and cheap binders although more solid methods might be longer lasting. Chopping and laminating is a labour intensive activity but preserves heavily used materials, allows for multiple use of a book and, most importantly, prevents users from writing the answers in the spaces the publisher has provided and thus spoiling the book for the next user. If lamination is not possible, cheap plastic envelopes are a viable alternative.
    If books are cut up and stuck on card three copies of each book will need to be purchased. Two copies are pasted on to card (one copy for each side of the card) and one is needed as a spare in case any components are lost. Photocopying more than a small percentage of the book would be an infringement of copyright (see Copyright handbook).
  2. Printed or electronic worksheets (delivered on disk to each student or accessed over the web) can be developed by teachers to complement and extend a course book or materials in other media. Grammar, vocabulary and general study notes can be added as well as additional activities. If the course book or materials are in the target language, supporting notes written in the students' first language will be welcomed by lower level learners - as would dyslexic students for whom it would reduce the learning load (see handbook 6).
  3. Answer keys can be written for materials where none are provided. If they are to be added to the laminated units described in 1 above, a further copy of the book could be used to write answers in the spaces left by the publisher. These could be attached at the back of each unit where they could be checked by learners after they have completed the activity - this is checking (i.e. formative assessment providing feedback) not cheating as some teachers and students have suggested! Answers could also be made available over the web, to be accessed electronically when learners are happy with their answers (as with the web-based grammar activities at where learners 'submit' their answer).
  4. Books and other materials can be colour-coded (with coloured dots or tags or perhaps or some other convention) to indicate language level, year of study, material type or even language.
  5. Pathways or guides can be developed which take learners through different materials according to their needs (see also section 2.4). Routes can also be agreed or set for each student or class by teachers and learning advisors.
  6. It is often difficult for learners to find the right place on long video and audio tapes. Some publishers will allow one backup copy of an audio tape to be made, others such as the BBC might allow multiple copies on payment of an educational licence, and dividing it into separate (and thus more accessible) units would not be seen as infringement of copyright. It is not normally possible to copy commercial video tapes at all (see CIEL Copyright Handbook). Digital access of sound or video files, whether stored on a computer hard disk, DVD or some other format, will make life much easier for the learner of the future.

Analogue audio and video recordings should be kept close to related materials. Storage of associated course materials in a plastic pack or folder might make the materials easier to access.

3.1.2 Authentic materials (materials produced for some purpose other than language learning)

Reviewing the literature, Gardner and Miller give a number of reasons why authentic materials (e.g. newspapers, magazines, brochures, lectures, games, novels, off-air recordings and films) are valuable for language learning. They:

motivate learners; promote language acquisition (see also McGarry, 1995); contribute to language immersion; provide for learners with discipline- specific or other particular interests.

We would suggest that they are also useful for putting together topic-based multiple media collections. The print materials can be kept in files or, to be more visible as well as durable, laminated (as in suggestion 1 in section 3.1.1. above) and stored together with associated video and audio recordings in storage boxes/containers (see section 5.2). These will serve as source material for projects or task-based activities but increasingly learners are using the Internet as a more ready source of up to date material that they find for themselves. Disadvantages of authentic resources include:

the possible complexity and low frequency occurrence of some of the language used; difficulties and cost of locating good materials; the need for selection if a centre is not to be overwhelmed.

To compensate for some of these disadvantages, learning notes, glossaries and activities can be developed for some of the materials, perhaps indicating the language level at which the activity is aimed (see TECLA at or for an example of a Spanish language web-based resource using authentic materials developed by Birkbeck College and the Spanish Embassy in London). Generic worksheets or activities are also useful when learners wish to select their own materials. These can consist of reviews or summaries (e.g. of an article, book, film or news broadcast) highlighting salient points.

3.1.3 Specially produced materials

Materials are often developed in-house because there is felt to be nothing suitable available on the market - although it is often also a result of the not-developed-here so won't-use-it syndrome. Gardner and Miller suggest the following as the main reasons for development:

Locally developed materials are more likely to cater for the specific learning goals (e.g. in lesser taught languages for which there is not a great commercial demand) and learning styles of the institution's learners; variety can easily be introduced and materials can be cross-referenced and pathways developed; materials can be as long or as short as necessary in order to be manageable; they are more likely be up to date; teachers developing materials will learn more about the needs of self-access learners and are more likely to be committed to the success of independent language learning.

It is also suggested that in-house development is a relatively cheap option if teachers' contracts include materials development. However, we would suggest that materials development is always a time-consuming (and therefore costly), expert activity unless some sort of template is used (as for example the development of gapped texts using dedicated authoring software). We also fear that many wheels are being reinvented across the HE sector and would encourage the sharing of resources (and good practice) between institutions.

3.1.4 Student contributions to materials

Students can provide feedback on materials through questionnaires and question boxes and are a source for needs analyses. They can act as producers of materials such as exercises and answer keys, games and newsletters, projects and displays. They can also be responsible for providing authentic resources such as letters and emails, films, newspapers and Internet addresses.

Gardner and Miller suggest that disadvantages include the need for teacher time and guidance in order to encourage learners and edit work and learner time constraints and resentment at being asked to produce materials.

3.2 Electronic resources

Electronic resources, or communication and information technologies (C&IT), include any computer-based or digital resources, from dedicated language learning software and tools to video conferencing, word-processing, E-mail and the World Wide Web. In an increasingly digital environment, they are becoming the medium of choice for a number of reasons

  • They support open and distance learning - learners can choose to use materials from around the world or can be supported or taught at a distance in either synchronous (real) or asynchronous time using, video, text or telephone conferencing, email and the Internet.
  • They offer flexible access to authentic learning environments - instead of the artificial, practice environment of the classroom, learners can, for example, use email to communicate with native speakers, carry out research on the web and read newspapers online.
  • They offer the possibility of a multimedia 'one-stop-shop' - audio and video clips, written texts and reference materials can all be located in one computer-based environment rather than stored separately in three or more different locations.
  • They allow the learner to practise in a controlled environment - using multimedia software, for example, the learner can listen, record, write and read in a life-like way and, most importantly, gain confidence before using the language in a real-life environment.
  • They promote learner independence - learners can work on their own accessing materials and support as needed.
  • They also encourage collaborative working - new technologies facilitate teaching and learning methodologies which value pair or group work through the use of task or project-based learning, bulletin boards, email, and conferencing. Learners can also share computers to work in a way that they would not share a book, for example.
  • They develop and practise a number of transferable skills that learners need for their future careers - these include IT skills, communication and group work skills.
  • They are a source of up to date materials - for both teachers and learners the Internet has become an invaluable, regularly updated resource.

There are also a number of disadvantages associated with the use of new technologies which are often forgotten in the rush to embrace innovation:

  • Equipment is relatively expensive to purchase and has a short shelf-life. An analogue language laboratory, for example, would have been expected to provide ten years' of service if properly maintained. A digital equivalent consisting of PCs would be looking fairly dated half way through this time, given the current speed of development and change.
  • It is not reliable - digital technology still seems to be a fairly imprecise science and hardware and software are both prone to errors. Computers 'crash' and specialist software - especially if developed by companies without the resources to thoroughly trial them - have imperfections or 'bugs'.
  • Some students and teachers are technophobic although most learners will benefit from a mixed diet of resources, from print to audio, video and computer-based materials.
  • Many learners and teachers do not have the IT skills needed to access computer based resources or the experience to maximise their benefits.
  • There is still very little specialised language learning material available on the market as the costs of development are high and the returns are low. The majority of what is available is for beginners and intermediate students.
  • In-house development in this area demands a high level of pedaogic and technical skill and is costly in terms of staff time.
  • Very little research has looked in any depth at the pedagogical and financial benefits of the new media. An approach which wholly embraced new technologies without evaluation of specific learning outcomes and some sort of cost-benefit analysis would be lacking in rigour.

3.2.1 Overview of computer-based applications which can be used for language learning

The following table suggests a range of computer-based applications which can be used for language learning. The list is not exhaustive and will quickly date but will hopefully stimulate thought. Rough categories used in this table - tools, resources, courses - are based on those used by the TELL TLTP Consortium to describe their software (see


Language tools help learners achieve their objectives and the list is growing as technology advances. Some are available on standalone computers some depend on networked access. They include:

word processors - help learners focus on the writing process and facilitate drafting and re-drafting. If available, foreign language versions provide a target language environment. The foreign keyboard is not essential.

e-mail - links learners and teachers and can provide a good source of writing activities, exchange of information and contact with native speakers.

spell and grammar checkers/ thesauri - usually incorporated into word processors but often available as add-ons in the form of multilingual proofing tools. Far from providing all the answers, they encourage learners to reflect.

translation packages - commercial packages are variable in quality but improving along with developments in natural language processing; will be common tools in the office of the future. Some web search engines (e.g. Altavista) provide a 'translate' option for foreign language web pages but can be used to translate small amounts of text entered by the user.

concordancers - promote 'data driven learning' (see Johns and King, 1991), permitting learners to search and query large collections of texts or 'corpora' Investigation of patterns in authentic written and spoken language possible, but packages not always easy to use.

speech recognition and text to speech packages - originally designed to facilitate reading and writing for those with disabilities, they convert speech to text and vice versa (see Accessibility handbook). Not yet 100% accurate, they offer wide-ranging possibilities for language learning and are beginning to be incorporated into language learning packages.

online tuners - locate global web-based radio and TV stations via a web browser (see or via a self contained internet program sitting on the computer desktop. Provides cheap and easy access to foreign language stations. Picture and sound quality may be variable.

web search engines - useful for learners locating information for project work but demand fairly sophisticated research skills. Foreign language versions facilitate searches of foreign documents.

internet portals - web pages providing structured access to internet information and resources, see HUMBUL the JISC Arts and Humanities Gateway. Many foreign embassies provide a service.

Tools for teachers might include:

Commercial authoring programs - e.g. the WIDA Authoring Suite or the Camsoft programs which allow language teachers to input their own exercises into an existing template.

testing software -e.g. generic software from Questionmark Computing. Can be used to create multiple choice tests/cloze tests etc.

software writing tools - generic 'toolbox' approach to design/writing of new learning packages. E.g. Director, Toolbook, Visual Basic and specialist web-design tools.


Computer-based resources provide access to the target language or information about the target language and culture. Many are designed specifically with language learners in mind, the majority are not. A search of supermarket shelves or bookshops when abroad or in specialist shops at home will reveal growing possibilities. The list includes:

encyclopaedias - native language versions useful for topic work. If run locally on a computer they are easier and faster for locating items than the web. Likely to include graphics, statistical information, text, video and sound. Foreign language versions available.

the World Wide Web - is often seen as a library of authentic multimedia resources from news reports to contents of art galleries. Offers a multitude of language learning possibilities encompassing most of the tools/resources/courses listed here. Difficult to guarantee reliability of documents; often difficult to navigate.

newspapers - available on CD ROM and over the internet. CD versions can be built into an easily searchable archive, internet versions are more likely to be up to date but may not hold more than a week's archive.

grammar reference - electronic searchable grammars often linked with practice exercises. Available as a standalone package or on the web. Some web sites run free grammar clinics, responding to learners' questions.

electronic dictionaries - vary from easily searchable text-based packages to those with picture and video illustrations and pronunciation of head-words such as the Longman Interactive English Dictionary (LIED). Some web sites offer dictionaries or access to terminological databases/corpora collections.

films on DVD - Played on a PC or standard TV, they often have subtitles or are dubbed in several languages and background notes. Easier to manipulate than standard video but would need to be projected for classroom use.

books - often abridged versions of full-length books As on-screen reading is tiring, the printed book might be preferable and cheaper.

games - games are motivating and vary from very simple text-based games to those, mostly designed for native speakers, which incorporate virtual reality effects. Many of these involve players as actors in a simulation game.


Perhaps a little misleading, the term 'course' here denotes dedicated language learning software. It usually provides some degree of interactivity and automatic feedback and corresponds most neatly with the term CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning). Packages will vary from those offering practice of particular skill elements, to full courses which provide a language learning curriculum. Software may be delivered on floppy disk, CD ROM, DVD or downloadable from the internet.

focussed practice - found in packages aimed at providing a focus on one of listening / writing / reading / vocabulary /pronunciation or grammar. Often used to extend classroom learning since learners can work at own pace according to needs. Grammar and vocabulary activities are useful especially when offering alternatives to traditional text (i.e. with graphics or sound).
Pronunciation packages should allow recording and playback. Many offer graphical representation of the way individual sounds are articulated through speech recognition technology which also compares learners with a model speaker.
Listening practice software may offer transcripts and translations. Few packages offer opportunities for speaking/fluency practice.

integrated approaches - are found in packages which combine various activities and may offer online tools. E.g. TELL Encounters which offers listening practice with options to participate in the scripted dialogue, transcriptions and translations, grammar reference and practice. An integrated approach is useful for the learner working without a teacher.

3.2.2 Choosing the right technology

There are a number of pedagogical and practical issues worth bearing in mind. Some may be more or less important depending on a particular teaching and learning context but pedagogical criteria should, if possible, drive the selection process. Practical issues, however, can impact on the possibility of achieving pedagogical objectives.

Tables 1 and 2 in Appendix 1 raise some of the pedagogical and practical issues worth considering when evaluating a particular technology or technology-based resource. As a useful checking exercise, establish appropriate selection criteria, by deciding on the relative importance of each factor and ranking it accordingly. Add other factors as appropriate.

4 Human resources

When language learners are learning in an environment or country where the target language is not used on a regular basis and where classroom contact time is limited, they need to exploit all possible resources. Human resources are amongst the most authentic sources of language at the learner's disposal. This section describes a number of possibilities, the reader will derive other ideas from their own context - in many cases it is only a matter of exploiting them.

4.1 Case study 1: the language and teaching assistant, University of Southampton

Traditionally, the language assistant has provided the input for the Modern Languages conversation class - a class which has been more or less successful in encouraging interaction with native speakers depending on:

a. the degree of integration with the rest of the language curriculum
b. the expertise of the language assistants - and very often the degree of support and training they themselves are given
c. the motivation of the students

Several years ago, larger class sizes and decreased contact hours for French language specialists led to a rethink of how both the learning experience and contact with the target language could be maximised. It was decided to convert the French Seminar room which had been used for large class teaching into a French resources room modelled after the main Language Resources Centre but staffed by the language assistants. The seminar room contained a small glassed off area which continued to be used for conversation classes whilst the rest was equipped with reference and learning materials, newspapers and technical equipment (satellite television, video/audio equipment and computers linked to the School of Modern Languages network), so that learners could use the room for private study, group work or consulting the language assistants. The experiment worked very well, in that the room was well used and student commented favourably.

Even though, the School of Modern Languages has since changed campuses and moved into another building, much of the original concept has remained and evolved. The French language assistants and the French teaching assistants (research students with some teaching responsibilities), are now responsible as a team for managing all the resources and activities within the French Resources Room. They develop or collect any materials linked to their teaching but most importantly, they provide a "permanence" or native-speaking presence throughout the week. Students - mainly Modern Language specialists but not exclusively - come and bring language or country specific related questions, they come to chat (in the target language) catch up with their favourite "TV soap" (often a habit picked up whilst on Residence Abroad) or just to use the room as a comfortable place to work as a group or independently. The assistants also continue to organise and run conversation classes.

The concept of the language resources room as a place to expect contact with the target language has also expanded to include the development of a German Resources Room and the SPLAS (Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies - including Catalan) Resources Room. Each room has been organised differently by the language assistants as a team and are delightfully different in feel. They are also managed slightly differently depending on the number of assistants available - and how much cover they can provide - and on the activities taking place in the room.

The SPLAS room may well have resource-based language classes taking place - but no conversation classes; these take place elsewhere. The resource-based classes involve group or individual work around materials developed for a language module and use the assistant as a further resource.

The German room has a conversation area used for conversation classes whilst students wanting to work independently can work quietly in the other parts of the room. The French room still has a separate conversation area but since this has no ceiling the groups of learners using the rest of the room have to work fairly quietly.

Each year during the same week of the first term we carry out a user census of the main Language Resources Centre and of the individual resources rooms (users are counted every hour and 1420 were counted in Week 5 of Semester 1, 2000/1). This gives us an opportunity to see how the rooms are being used and allows us to fine tune or drastically change what we are providing. The course evaluation questionnaires provide a similar function. We might have expected less use of the main Centre as a result of the new resources rooms but this is still well used by language learners from around the University as well as students of Modern Languages.

The development of the resources rooms have provided a base and a focus for authentic communication within the target language and for supported independent learning but there have been further welcome advantages. The assistants are well placed to provide learner training, especially in the use of technology. They now play a key role in student induction week when they introduce the new students to the language learning resources available in the resources rooms and the main Centre. They give a succession of target language "tours" on the Saturday morning (after the Freshers' Ball the night before!) and the students carry out a paper-based exercise which encourages them to look in more depth at the resources. This is the first time that the students have heard the foreign language in induction week and the sessions are very well attended despite the weekend early morning timing.

Additional benefits to the assistants of all these developments, seen from the outside at least, have been the creation of a team spirit both within and between each language group.

4.2 The language exchange

At a time when most universities are seeing large numbers of incoming exchange students, there are many benefits in encouraging language exchanges between learners who want to make progress in each other's language. These exchanges can be carried out formally - the Student's Union may well be involved in arranging these in significant numbers for all the overseas students. Usually the problem is not in finding sufficient numbers of foreign students but in finding sufficient English native speakers to partner them. Experience shows that not all language partnerships are long-lasting as both sides can lose enthusiasm fairly quickly.

At departmental level, formal language exchanges may be fairly time-consuming to set up and monitor but might be easier if arranged between classes where there are native speakers of each language, e.g. between a French class and an EFL class of a similar language level where there are significant numbers of French speakers. The notice board is also a useful place for learners to advertise and find themselves a partner. All it needs is the title - 'LANGUAGE EXCHANGES' - and the notices will appear. At the end of Week One of Semester One, the following notices appeared on the Southampton Language Centre notice board:

Open quoteI'm a Spanish student and I would like to
exchange conversation with English people.
Victor 0380 523 946
Close quote

Young French male, willing to help you out with
French conversation skills.
Fee negotiable!
Phone 077 326 7450
Close quote

Open quoteITALIAN
I'm an Italian student. If you want to learn Italian I can teach you.
You can call me at this number 0380 546 870
or send me a email to
Donata Close quote

My name's Max. I'm from Geneva (Switzerland).
I'm looking for a partner to exchange
conversation. I offer conversation in French
in exchange for conversation in English.
If you are interested, you can contact me on
077 6785 987
Close quote

Ingles - Espanol
Espanol - Ingles
Soy ingles y estoy buscando un intercambio.
Si estas interesado, por favor,
mandame un email:
DavidClose quote

I am an Italian student and would like to
teach Italian in exchange for English.
If you are interested call me on 077154564.
Ask for Fabio Close quote

I am a Spanish student looking for an
exchange with an English student.
If you are interested in it please call me.
Beatriz 02380 257 889Close quote

4.3 Tandem language learning

Tandem learning demands a little more from a partnership than a conversation exchange is likely to do. In a tandem learning partnership (Little, 1996), both partners need to be sufficiently autonomous so that they can plan, monitor and evaluate their learning and know how to exploit the native speaker competence of their partner. It is recognised that this is not an easy task and that learners will need a lot of support and guidance from teachers.

4.3.1 Face-to-face tandem learning

At several UK universities, tandem learning has been developed over some time. At Sheffield, face to face tandem learning is organised for home and overseas students of the University. Students can carry out conversation around themes suggested by bilingual worksheets devised by the Modern Language Teaching Centre and attend weekly sessions of Tandem Learning in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian (see 'As well as language practice, a tandem pairing also offers the possibility of a genuine intercultural exchange'.

There are also accredited tandem learning modules, e.g. are supported by regular joint attendance at tandem advice sessions and a learner log which includes:

  • a statement of the agreed learning goals of both partners
  • an account of the agreed correction processes
  • a record of any modification to these undertaken in the light of experience or advice
  • an assessment of the extent to which both partners have met their learning goals

Assessment is on the basis of course work, a tandem portfolio and a spoken evaluation (8-10 minutes) of the semester's work.

4.3.2 Email tandem learning

An email partnership is perhaps a more realistic way of finding sufficient partners for those wanting to learn in tandem. The International Tandem Network ( was launched in 1994 and now offers a tandem email partner agency in a growing number of languages. Learners can be encouraged to find a partner to follow up and research work being carried out in class (on a particular them or topic, for example) or for more general language development. The Tandem Network suggest to learners how they might benefit from an e-mail tandem partnership:

  • 'You can improve your knowledge of the foreign language. And you can learn lots of new things about your partner, your partner's mentality, beliefs, ideas, country, culture, etc.
  • You learn by using your partner as a model - what (s)he writes has a similar function to texts in a language learning book. You learn, for example, new, useful phrases and vocabulary. Also, (s)he might use expressions and sentence structures which you once learned and thereby remind you of that which you had learned before.
  • You learn by your partner helping you to understand that which (s)he has written. For example, when you are still having difficulty understanding even after using a dictionary, then you can just ask your partner.
  • Your partner aids you in learning by helping you to express what you wish to say. You could, for example, write something in your native language and then ask your partner how (s)he would express it in the foreign language.
  • You learn by your partner's corrections of your texts. But you determine yourself what and how your partner should correct.
  • You profit from what your partner knows by asking him/her questions, by reading his/her accounts of things and by discussing various topics'.

Learning advice includes tips on: how to get started; what learners should talk about; when to use which language; how to correct the partner's texts; how to learn from the partner's texts; how intercultural learning can be promoted; how to translate in tandem; how to write letters in tandem.

4.4 The native speaker resources assistant

A number of self-access centres use visiting students to staff their centres on a regular basis. They can serve a dual function for those that cannot afford a full complement of resources staff at all times of the day in that they provide a relatively cheap staffing option whilst providing a target language resource which learners can be encouraged to take advantage of. A booking system for conversation practice or help with other aspects of language work can be set up if there is likely to be heavy use.

Whilst this is a good way to provide contact with the target language for both parties, it is likely that the assistants will need some good training if they are to be effective. They will also need to be clear about the aims of their job.

4.5 The language learning advisor

Many institutions have recognised the need to provide local support for learners who now spend much of their time working independently. Whether they are teachers or specially trained, language advisors can help the student to assess learning needs, develop appropriate learning strategies and set achievable goals irrespective of the language to be learnt. They can also act as link between the taught course delivery and the self-access environment by advising on ways to integrate independent language learning and in the selection of appropriate resources. The FDTL SMILE Project (Strategies for Managing an Independent Learning Environment) ( langinst/smile) have developed considerable expertise in this area and have worked with a number of HEIs to develop models of use appropriate to their own context (see handbook 5, section 2). SMILE have suggested that the advisor might provide any or all of the following tools:

skills, time management, goal setting, understanding grammar etc), interactive collaborative activities analysis of needs; learner profiling; analysis of learning patterns; development of study plans and learners diaries/portfolios; organisation of learning circles or tandem learning networks; provision on learner training workshops (listening strategies, reading, mnemonic.

4.6 Language surgeries

In many institutions, teachers (not trained advisors) are available for a few hours a week to give tutor support, language learning and language specific advice. These surgery times, are not always used as fully as they might but could be co-ordinated and advertised centrally by the language department for the benefit of both specialist and non-specialist students.

In some institutions, EFL staff provide short one to one tutorial sessions as part of their in-sessional English for Academic Purposes provision. The staff gain a great deal of expertise in supporting students and could possibly extend this support within existing frameworks in order to provide a generic language advisory service to all language learners.

5 Location and organisation of resources

5.1 Location, location, location...

The siting and accessibility of the language learning resources is often crucial to their widespread use. In our experience, the physical factors that are conducive to student and staff use of resources, whether they are sited in a cupboard, Self-Access Language Centre or centrally administered library, include the following:

  • Easy to find, obvious location - self-access facilities that are well used are usually located where learners must pass on the way to other important venues or where it costs very little effort to continue in order to reach the self-access centre. E.g. near or in the Learning Resource Centre (LRC) or library or in the corridor where language teaching rooms or lecturers' rooms are located but not in the basement which is out of the mainstream traffic zone.
  • Attractive, well maintained surroundings - light, airy spaces that are open plan are more frequently used than dark confined rooms with many high partitions. An open door or visibility from the outside is also a feature which attracts students inside to work.
  • Sensible and mixed working spaces - space next to the computers or video players for a notepad, designated group viewing and group working areas, somewhere to sit and read a broadsheet newspaper in comfort.
  • Easy to navigate resources - an easily understood cataloguing system (e.g. colour coding by language and level), the storage of linked resources in the same location (e.g. topic boxes, Italian shelves, storing the accompanying tape together with the book).
  • Proximity of materials to equipment - resources located near to the technical equipment that is needed to use them, i.e. videos in the same room as the video players, CD-Roms where the computers are if they are not networked.
  • Opening hours which fit students working patterns - long opening hours are not always feasible but use will peak at certain times of the day (from around 11.00 to 16.00) and on certain days (Thursday is often busy before a slack Friday). Language learning resource held in the library/LRC will benefit from extended opening hours.
  • Some element of open access - each context will determine which materials can be available for open-access (and therefore browsing before selection) or retained behind a counter.
  • Staff presence - a friendly face to find resources, help with equipment as needed is important. Depending on size of a centre and numbers of users, the face might belong to a resources assistant (clerical/technical grade), a language advisor, resources manager, librarian, student helper, teacher or technician.
  • Technical support is imperative - equipment must be maintained and functioning in order to justify initial investment and space occupied. Students and staff who come to use the facilities for the first time need to go away feeling positive. Malfunctioning or broken equipment hinders the full exploitation of the resources available and, left with a negative initial impression many will not return.

5.2 Storage and presentation

The accessibility and appeal of materials is important if they are to motivate learners to make full use of them.

5.2.1 Storage solutions

A self-access centre is likely to contain a variety of resources in different media. Many of these will be associated in some way and will need to be stored together or near each other for ease of access. Solutions are inventive and include hanging or shelved plastic pockets (for books and accompanying tapes) and specially made tables (rather like those in a children's library) with vertical dividers giving storage spaces in which books and other materials can be stored face forward.

A4 laminated print materials and associated video and audio tapes also fit face forward easily into the medium size plastic storage boxes sold in garages and DIY shops. They are also easily transportable for both group and classroom work. (Hint: laminated materials in a box which is not full will slide around and will need a book end or something similar to keep them in place).

Library furniture catalogues will reveal many further storage possibilities including magazine storage shelves which lift up to reveal hidden storage space for back numbers. Racks used by travel companies might be used to store study guides.

5.2.2 Presentation

Presentation and finish is important to attract learners. Publishers take full advantage of colour and design in their book covers to appeal to readers and it seems sensible to use this fact to attract learners wherever possible. Storing commercial (and other) materials face forward where possible (perhaps only on a display stand as in a bookshop) uses the design to appeal and to let learners know something of the content. With the best will in the world, book spines are neither particularly attractive or revealing.

Where materials have been developed in-house, it is equally important that they are as professionally produced as possible. Badly produced photocopies can never compete with colourful, carefully produced booklets or laminated worksheets.

5.3 Cataloguing and retrieval

Some language resources collections will be incorporated within the library and will be maintained by them. The question of cataloguing in that case will not arise as a great issue since the classification system in use is likely to be that used by the library. The only problems are likely to occur when materials have been developed locally and do not fit the constraints of a system which has not been planned to accommodate them. This might be the case, for example, with a collection of topic-based documents (print, electronic, audio and video) and learning activities which could be classified individually but not as a whole.

Other resource collections may have grown organically outside the library without professional cataloguing and classification but have become so large that it is no longer easy to locate items. At this point, some level of routine cataloguing is needed - at least so that items purchased and developed are recorded in some way. This process might be one managed by the library or it might be developed by language staff to reflect the nature of the materials held and the particular needs of the users - both the learners and the staff.

When planning a cataloguing system from the outset, a number of key questions have to be asked (Booton P and Benson P, 1996)

  • What do you classify? Items only need to be classified if their inclusion adds to the learning process;
  • Is the system transparent? Is it easy to use and access? Will handouts be more effective than a computer-based system?
  • Whose categories? Is it sufficient to think only in terms of language level, main and subsidiary learning focus and topic (Sheerin, 1989).
  • One answer or many?
  • Whose system? Would a locally developed system take needs into better account?

Sheerin (1989: p. 26) suggests that the best principle is simplicity and that two interrelated questions need to be answered:

  1. How are you going to classify, i.e. what categories will you use?
  2. How will students gain access to what they need?

She also suggests that browsing is useful in selection of materials and that a too rigid card or computer-based system might not be worth the preparation time if users would rather browse the shelves. Physical organisation and labelling might become more important than the catalogues themselves - the labels on the boxes containing the laminated materials described in section 3.1, item 1 above, serve as a useful visual catalogue of their contents in the Resources Centre at Southampton.

Sheerin suggests one possible 'browsing' system would include language level (and language) and main focus (e.g. grammar, vocabulary or topic) where the items would be located according to focus (and language). The main focus could contain separate sub-categories in order to refine the system (e.g. letter-writing under Writing or Engineering under Vocabulary - this could then be catalogued as WR.lw in the first case and VOC.eng in the second).

At some point an easily accessible catalogue will prove useful for learners searching at a distance and a number of self-access resource centres have some form of searchable web-based catalogue. Booton and Benson (1996: p. 29) describe a computer-based database system which could form the base for online access.

Appendix 1: Questions to ask

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Appendix 2 Case study 2 - providing and managing resources in the open access centre

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Appendix 3 The focus group

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Appendix 4 Locating teaching and learning materials and resources

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