Towards a framework for expansion and collaboration: A web-based multilingual grammar resource

Authors: Steve Cushion and Dominique Hémard


The paper aims to discuss: the use of an authoring package designed to produce interactive web-based CALL materials that integrate text and the spoken word; provide hands-on experience in the use of the authoring package; the integration of interactive web-based language teaching material into daily practice.

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Table of contents


This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


There are a large number of language teachers producing Web-based computer assisted language learning material for their own use and some of this work is a duplication of effort. While this work will have been done by using many different authoring systems, the nature of the Web is such that these can be easily integrated in a way that appears seamless to the user. There is a solid case for a pooling of on-line resources in such a way as to enable the whole language teaching community to benefit from our collective efforts which could perhaps be facilitated by the Subject Centre's 'Materials Bank Project'.

Over the past four years, the 'Interactive Language Learning' project from the Department of Language Studies at London Guildhall University has developed an authoring tool capable of producing a variety of Web-based interactive exercises. This software has been used to produce a considerable amount of support material for the teaching of French, Spanish, German and Arabic which integrates text with the spoken word. This material has been integrated into the department's daily teaching practice in such a way as to reinforce and enhance traditional teaching methods. This paper looks at the development process, considers the importance of evaluation and user feedback on the final product and suggests ways in which our work can be part of a collaborative effort to expand the available Web-based resources through collaboration. This will be illustrated by a case study, based around the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931, which integrates text, audio and images with previously written grammar exercises, all with the intent of reinforcing the teaching of the past tenses in French.

The 'Interactive Language Learning' authoring system started from a desire to create CALL material that matched the teaching material already in use and could therefore be incorporated into daily practice in such a way that it would be immediately relevant to the teaching programme, could enhance and complement traditional approaches while, nevertheless, being an integral part of the learning process. The main principle was one of using technology to empower the teacher and ensure that pedagogical concerns always triumphed over technical considerations.

Requirements analysis

Previous research had led to a list of student and teacher requirements for CALL material that did not reflect any real contradiction between the perceived needs of the two groups.

Students required, above all, ease of use and robustness. Given that many language students have a limited previous experience of computer use, but are likely to be accustomed to the Internet, the use of the familiar interface of the Web browser makes them feel comfortable. The system must be robust, as students become understandably confused and angry when confronted with unexplained crashes. Another major factor is user control. The students using the material need to feel that they are in control of the situation and dislike the feeling of being trapped in any situation from which they cannot escape. This required careful planning of the hypertext links and always providing a means of exiting the interactive exercises. Accessibility is a crucial issue and the Web-based nature of the approach fulfils this requirement. The material can be made available in computer labs within the institution, for use both in the classroom and during open-access sessions. Access can be gained via the Internet externally or cut onto CD-ROMs for those students with their own computers to use at home without needlessly enriching the telephone companies. Relevance to the main teaching programme is essential as students have little time or inclination to pursue areas of study that do not directly affect the outcome of their degrees. The fact that the teachers can author their own material to directly complement the course of study obviously helps this search for relevance. It has proved necessary, however, to go further than this and to integrate the use of CALL into the assessment procedures in order to reinforce use of the main resource. This had not been the original intention, but subsequent experience has proved that this is another way to make the assessment process a valid part of the educational process rather than just another hoop for the student to jump through. The next version of the 'Interactive Language Learning' authoring package will enable on-line assessment. Lastly, the students wanted multimedia interaction, not in the sense of needless embarrassing gimmicks or irrelevant animations, but rather multimedia material which fitted into and aided the learning process. Recent advances in technology have enabled the practical integration of sound into interactive Web-based exercises and go a long way towards achieving this end. There is, however, the need for some more work before video really becomes a practical proposition.

Teacher requirements are easier to define and centre on the ease of use of both the authoring process and the subsequently produced material. They clearly wished to stay in the word processing style of environment with which they were most familiar and liked to have a similar interface when recording sound for the audio exercises. Ease of use for the students, the main consideration discussed above, clearly meant ease of use for teachers who could then occupy themselves with educational rather than technical considerations. The other issue is one of resources, a perennial problem in an education system universally considered to be under funded. It is in this context that the process of collaboration and sharing can be seen to be essential. To successfully use CALL in teaching, there is a need for a critical mass of material. Starting this process may seem discouragingly difficult, but if there were a large bank of already prepared material, the most appropriate of which could be adopted for instant use, the task of individual teachers merely becomes one of authoring material specific to their needs. This material can then be added to the common pool.

The case for expansion and collaboration: designing a Web-based grammar resource

Over the last five years, there has been a noticeable expansion of on-line language learning material including both text and grammar-based resources, developed to meet pedagogical as well as institutional needs. An indication of the extent of this development is provided by Felix's survey (2001) which presents some useful examples of websites for language learning. Typically, these sites offer on-line support for existing language and language related courses with a varying degree of interactivity provided by Web-based authoring tools.

However, if an increasing number of sites are now available, they also vary considerably according to the range of expertise and resources which have been tapped as well as their subsequent use and accessibility. For instance, Felix (2001:189) mentions the noticeable spread of commercialisation turning originally free sites into fee-paying on-line resources, thus creating a fine demarcation line between well and poorly funded sites and possibly between high and poor quality ones, although little evidence exists, as yet, to support this corollary. Furthermore, aside from the type of access provided, language learning websites can also be of limited use to those who seek to exploit such ready-made material for their own purposes. Indeed, existing sites have often been designed as on-line support on the basis of specific course-based requirements and objectives and, as such, are not necessarily adaptable or applicable to other outside needs. Ultimately, even if 'piggybacking' (Felix 2001: 189) on other people's work can be made to be more profitable or creative with the greater availability of generic language material and some limited use of templates for interactive exercises and related activities, the fact remains that little serious collaboration exists between educational institutions to capitalise on the Web's potential.


Interestingly, collaborative work on the Web is often organised on the basis of well-established institutional models and does not appear to be particularly adapted to or to even benefit from the Web's interactive potential. In most cases, participating institutions or individuals are required to input identified data, such as lecture notes or grammar exercises, which are then pooled into a global bank of resources and then made accessible to a specific audience or restricted to participants. Whilst recognising the real value and convenience of combining efforts and resources together to reach a critical mass of material, little inventiveness is to be gained from such collaborative projects. The range of grammar exercises may be extended and, indeed, grammatical explanations may be approached differently, but such interactivity still remains predictable and limited by the authoring tool being used and confined to being considered and used in a very traditional way. The same can be said of text-based material. Whilst electronic reams of lecture notes can be found and, no doubt, printed by interested parties, thus usefully increasing accessibility and usability, little attempt is made to better exploit the Web's hypertext linking facility so as to improve textual presentations and methods of delivery.

Beyond the hypertext link towards a structural model

Web-based writing and delivery should go beyond the simple transfer of electronic information and even if 'pretty much everyone can pick up the basics of HTML' (Veen 2001: 74), such a systematic approach should be resisted. Similarly, websites should be more than just a collection of language learning material, assembled together according to the principle of supply and demand, without thought for the users and their goals leaving them to wander aimlessly. The Web has much more to offer at the level of user interaction through an understanding of its architecture and at the level of data inputting through a better collaborative exploitation of its inherent modularity. It is within this perspective, that collaboration will be at its most effective.


Structure: why use the Web?

Firstly, beyond the traditional text, Web-based delivery gives the author an opportunity to conceive structured presentations of the relevant textual data, thus facilitating exposure and understanding by deconstructing the original material into manageable, screen-contained, blocks of information. McAleese (1999: 9) suggests that structuring amounts to a pre-processing of information designed to help generate browsing towards achieving a goal.

Behaviour: how to use it?

The Web can combine and highlight different patterns of interactivity, therefore providing different types of behaviour, depending on the activity and its purpose. In particular, it enables the mapping of the pre-processed information into an acceptable structure through contextual and support links (Grabinger & Dunlap 1996) thus ensuring purposeful and personalised navigational paths across the on-line environment according to users' needs. For instance, the Web is particularly useful and effective when linking both language as medium and language as message. For example, the use of directional links within interactive exercises can be appropriately combined with associative links to relevant content-based material, therefore reinforcing a particular grammatical point or contextualising an explanation or an application.

Representation: where to find information?

By following simple design guidelines, ensuring consistency for navigational and information presentations, user interaction is facilitated by the use of maps and indexes for easier orientation and referencing (Nielsen, 2000).


The Web is particularly good for modularising activities as these can be realised as separate entities and linked together according to an agreed architecture at a later stage. This modularised approach is to some extent adopted, albeit unwittingly, when, for example, grammar exercises are accessed from a given website to complement or support a lesson or explanations. Likewise, resorting to exploiting content-based material from an identified site is tantamount to follow a modularised approach as links are established between different learning supports or contexts. However, whilst these methods are widely used, the real modularised nature of the Web will only be fully realised, in a truly collaborative sense, when all participants accept to play an active part in such a block-building exercise.

On this premise, let us illustrate such an exercise with the following scenario for the design of a potential module based on a theme, in this case colonialism, chosen for its relevance to an identified syllabus. Once a theme is established, it becomes possible to re-design or re-write the textual material in different interactive ways. Firstly, specific grammatical considerations, such as the use of past tenses, and lexical as well as cultural aspects of the chosen language can be identified for further contextualisation. Secondly, a structure can be created, based on the identification of various paths towards the knowledge to be acquired built upon the fragmentation of the knowledge base and appropriate links. For instance, instead of simply displaying the available information, a tree structure was adopted, in our example, as it enabled focused and in-depth browsing through the data via sub-themes concentrating on the historical but also social and human dimensions of colonialism. These ranged from the origins of colonialism to the 1931 Paris colonial exhibition and the use of human zoos. Furthermore, related information such as an extract from Cannibale by Didier Daeninckx, were added to provide greater breadth as well as a greater sense of authenticity and lived or shared experience. Additionally, these browsing paths can be facilitated and reinforced by relevant interactive exercises, contextualising a specific grammatical point or linking them to an on-line grammar database. In so doing, each fragment with its interactive exercises, such as reading, listening but also grammar reinforcement, becomes a discrete interactive part of the module under construction and can be developed separately. A model (see below) was designed to ensure the proper elaboration of the architecture for the site and integration of multimedia components such as visual and sound supports. To complete the modularised process and to consolidate the objectives of the user interaction, a number of specific self-tests can be integrated for reference and preparation for formal assessment. When completed, the theme, itself, becomes a fully-fledged module within a wider language learning context.

This is obviously a rather brief summary of what the modularity and interactive potential of the Web can achieve. As such, it attempts to demonstrate that Web-based writing and delivery is intrinsically different from the better known linear form and its development conducive to collaborative work. Were it to be developed on a larger scale, such a collaboration built on the strengths of the Web would undoubtedly enable the sustained growth of on-line language learning according to well established design principles and would be instrumental in generating satisfactory evaluative data from a wider participation across educational institutions.

Model for a modularised approach:

Model for a modularised approach

Towards an ICT strategy for on-line CALL development

An information and communications technolgy (ICT) strategy for on-line CALL development could be built on the following criteria:

  • facilitate the development of an on-line language learning resource through a modularised and expandable approach by pooling complementary staff expertise in ICT and encouraging co-operations within and beyond the UK;
  • enhance the development an on-line language learning resources by fully adopting the architecture of the Web and the design principles governing it;
  • generate evaluative data from a wider and more representative group of users in order to further improve the design of the resource;
  • establish a resource bank of on-line teaching material that any educational institution may draw from and incorporate into their own teaching program;
  • while incorporating any material produced by individuals into this on-line resource bank, initiate a discussion to plan future requirements and to commission work to fill the gaps in the provision, based upon the perceived needs of practicing teachers.


Felix, U. (2001). Beyond Babel: language learning online. Language Australia Ltd.

Grabinger, S. & J.C. Dunlap (1996). Links. In: Kommers, P. A. M., Grabinger, S. and Dunlap, J. C. (eds.), Hypermedia Learning Environments, Instructional Design and Integration. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hémard, D. & S. Cushion (2000). From Access to Acceptability: Exploiting the Web to Design a New CALL Environment. Computer Assisted Language Learning 13, (2): 1-16.

Hémard, D. & S. Cushion (2001). Evaluation of a Web-based Language Learning Environment: the importance of a user-centred design approach for CALL. ReCALL, 13, (2): 15-31.

McAleese, R. (1999)Hypertext: Theory into Practice. Intellect.

Nielsen, J. (2000)Designing Web Usability. Indianapolis, USA: New Riders Publishing

Veen, J. (2000) The Art and Science of Web Design.