My colleague Euline Cutrim Schmid at the University of Education Schwäbisch Gmünd and I have been working on task-based telecollaborative projects with primary school teachers of English as a foreign language (EFL) for a number of years. We have used IWB technology to allow live exchanges between pupils in French and German primary school classes in English as a lingua franca (ELF). Learners use an audio-video link and screensharing to complete information gap tasks in groups or in front of the whole class in the local classroom. Some children move objects on a page in a shared IWB file in response to information provided orally by remote speakers. A German learner may describe a funny animal with a crocodile’s head and an elephant’s body, while French listeners drag and drop the appropriate body parts to create the animal, for example, or a French “shopkeeper” will collect items from supermarket shelves to serve a German “customer.”
A task-based approach to video communication with the IWB
In our first study, we asked:
- How can an IWB support VC exchange between remote partners involving young learners?
- What types of materials, activities and teaching techniques seem to
promote effective learner–learner exchanges?
- What light is shed on this communicative situation by teachers’ and learners’ views?
And we concluded:
This study has shown that it is both possible and worthwhile for young beginners to engage in live peer communication, and that IWB-supported VC interaction offers a promising platform for this type of exchange. The analysis of transcripts of video extracts provides an impressive picture of how the teachers were able to orchestrate an extremely complex set of interactions to support their learners in the planned tasks. Each of the three examples examined in the study shows how many different local interactions were required in each classroom in order for the central dialogue between French and German learners to unfold in ways that were useful for both the active learners and those observing. Even in this first familiarization session, the teachers were able to manage the technology, both the VC equipment and the IWB software, the different configurations of learners, and the ID card task itself. In so doing, they never intervened directly in interactions and rarely provided models or translated for their learners. It is remarkable that, even in these initial exchanges with so many other concerns, there are examples of learner–learner interaction supported only by the task materials.
This leads us to the second research question concerning materials and activities. This study suggests that while the design of task-based activities is important, balancing Cameron’s cognitive and language demands with appropriate support, her third aspect, interactional demand, may require more attention. The learners in the study seemed to lack communication strategies for dealing with interactional breakdowns, and the participants in general needed to focus on the task itself and collaboration with their interlocutor, rather than on other issues such as a language learning point or a technical detail. Nevertheless, the participants were positive about the experience.
Investigation of the third research question revealed that both teachers and learners found the exchange motivating and useful, with both groups also providing ideas and goals for future sessions.
Regarding technology, it is common in ICT studies to call for more technical support, teacher training, and familiarization sessions with technology in order to iron out recurring technical problems, and help teachers to implement effective learning activities that exploit the most appropriate affordances of our ever-evolving technological environment. Such measures are clearly helpful, if not always forthcoming. It is worth considering, however, whether this understandable desire to master the technological context and make the most of its potential to support learning might not lead teachers to overorganize and micromanage interactions, to the detriment of learner autonomy.
Whyte, S., & Cutrim Schmid, E. (2014). A task-based approach to video communication with the IWB: a French-German primary EFL class exchange. In Cutrim Schmid, E., & Whyte, S. (Eds.). Teaching languages with technology: communicative approaches to interactive whiteboard use. A resource book for teacher development. London: Bloomsbury.
Teaching young learners with technology
In the next iteration, we focused on both design and implementation of tasks with the aim of balancing support for learners to complete activities with space for spontaneous language production.
This chapter has shown that new technologies can offer opportunities for meaningful language-learning experiences through authentic tasks.The various task-based activities described here illustrate the potential of technology to allow interaction with speakers who do not share a native language and to provide scaffolding to support this interaction. However, the chapter has also demonstrated that simply using new technologies does not guarantee, or even enhance, new meaning making. Our analysis of classroom interaction and teachers’ and learners’ perspectives has shed some light on a number of important aspects of technology use with young learners.
First, while the project tasks were perceived as more authentic and interactive than traditional activities, teachers and learners also expressed the desire for even greater learner-centredness, allowing opportunities for pupils to use language creatively and experiment with language. The majority of project tasks imposed a tight framework that often prevented this type of language interaction, suggesting that an important challenge with young learners is the balance between adequate linguistic and emotional support and space for learners to create. Second, in early sessions, the unfamiliar environment and technological limitations led to greater teacher mediation; by later stages of the project, the learners developed communication strategies and skills which allowed them to act more autonomously. This pattern corresponds to the implementation dip (Fullan 2001) noted earlier, and may reflect a positive effect of the teacher support in context and over time also reported in previous studies (Hennessy and London 2013, Whyte et al. 2013).
This chapter has discussed various advantages of using new technologies with young learners in the FL classroom, through the description and evaluation of technology-enhanced activities that were perceived as motivating, meaningful and productive. It calls for a stronger focus on task design and task implementation in technology-rich learning environments. Further research needs to be done on the design of technology-enhanced tasks that provide a framework for supporting young learners’ language production, while at the same creating room for the development of learner autonomy and self-directed learning.
Cutrim Schmid, E., & Whyte, S. (2015). Teaching young learners with technology. In Bland, J. (Ed.). Teaching English to Young Learners. Critical Issues in Language Teaching with 3-12 year olds. Bloomsbury.
Classroom technology for young learners
We later summarised our experience with these exchanges as follows:
Primary pupils aged 7 to 9 in Germany and France used English as lingua franca to interact with the remote class in three collaborative tasks: making ID cards, a supermarket exchange, and a breakfast invitation. Participants saw the tasks as authentic and relevant in design, but in early stages of the project, the actual implementation of these tasks did not sufficiently encourage learners to use their own resources. Transcriptions of the first CMC interactions showed high levels of teacher mediation in learner-learner exchanges. In later phases, the teachers made efforts to help learners develop communication strategies to negotiate meaning and repair communication breakdowns on their own.
Similarly, both teachers and pupils felt the planned tasks imposed a tight framework which prevented spontaneous use of language, and so later phases of the project aimed to allow more open activities. Thus, in preparation for one of the supermarket sessions, 15 German learners showed and described the content of their lunch boxes without preparation, using any linguistic resources at their disposal. Since the learners had not prepared or practiced in advance for the activity, they could not rely on memorized chunks, but had to adapt language on-line during interaction. An important challenge with YELLs is thus the balance between adequate linguistic and emotional support, on one hand, and space to create on the other.
Whyte, S., & Cutrim Schmid, E. (in press). Classroom technology for young learners. In Garton, S., & Copland, F. (Eds.) Routledge Handbook of Teaching English to Young Learners. Routledge. 2018.