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Oral Proficiency and Task Design in CMC by Erin Conlon and Don Williams

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Oral Proficiency and Task Design in CMC: A Literature Review


Erin Conlon (9618344) and Don Williams (8137202)


1.  Introduction


Given the importance of communication in language education, it is no surprise L2 researchers are interested in computer-mediated communication (CMC) as a means of supporting L2 studies.  As a new area of research, CMCs affordances in developing L2 oral proficiency and the influence of task design are not as well documented as in face-to-face (f2f) learning environments.  This review will explore some of the current issues in this topic in an attempt to answer the following questions:


  1. What does the literature tell us about L2 oral proficiency development in CMC? 
  2. What are the implications for task design when integrating speaking skills practice into an online learning environment?


Starting with the theories underpinning the research, we discuss the current thinking on the affordances of different types of CMC for L2 oral development and their implications. We then move onto a treatment of the different modalities possible in CMC before exploring specific aspects of task design in relation to oral production. This review will conclude with a summary of our findings.


 2.  SLA, Spoken interaction & CMC environments


The SLA & CMC research contains many studies discussing the centrality of interaction (Heins et al 2007; Lin 2014); in order for language learners to improve their spoken L2 skills, certain interactions need to occur in the discourse between L2 learners and their interlocutors (Heins et al 2007; Wang 2010).  Following on from the view that SLA requires appropriate input and output (Krashen 1985; Swain 1985), Long´s (1996) Interaction Hypothesis underlines the importance of an environment which allows for negotiation of meaning.  Pica, Halliday, Lewis & Morganthelar (1989, p.65) define negotiation of meaning as “an exchange between learners and their interlocutors as they attempt to resolve communication breakdown and to work towards mutual comprehension”. It is during this process that language – fluency, syntax, morphology - is developed.  Similarly, the work of Vygotsky (1978) suggests it is key for L2 meaning to be made in “an active, creative and socially interactive process” and works best situated in authentic contexts (Ruschoff & Ritter 2001, p.206). SLA theory suggests receiving comprehensible input, negotiation of meaning, noticing gaps in their own L2 repertoire and producing modified output as a result are fundamental in SLA processes (Swain & Lapkin 1995; Lightbown & Spada 2006). 


Online language education has taken its cue from this research (Satar & Ozdener 2008). Online educators need to foster interaction in CMC which provides learners with chances to notice language, negotiate meaning, and modify their output. Furthermore, tasks should be authentic and promote collaboration, so educators require careful consideration of the affordances and limitations of CMC.



3.  Differences in Affordances of ACMC and SCMC and Their Relation to Oral Production


Researchers have noted that different CMC tools afford different interaction possibilities and qualities (Wang 2004).   In order to analyse whether oral development in CMC is possible, and how task design affects it, it is important to look at the output and interaction of the learners. However, a majority of the focus has been on the affordances of CMC or the student perceptions of learning, resulting in relatively few studies that offer empirical evidence that such activities result in the improvement of oral language production outcomes (Golonka et al. 2014, Hampel & Hauk 2007).


3.1 Interaction and Learning in Asynchronous CMC (ACMC)


 A review of the literature suggests that ACMC benefits interaction in that it reduces the anxiety students may feel in a f2f or synchronous context, resulting in more risk-taking and involvement from learners (Beauvois, 1997; Cho and Carey, 2001; Charle Poza, 2005; Sun, 2012). Furthermore, the lack of immediacy in ACMC affords more self-reflection of language errors, thereby shifting from teacher- to student-led learning (McIntosh et al., 2003; Yaneske and Oates, 2010; Gleason and Surovov, 2011). In terms of student perceptions of learning, studies have also shown that ACMC produces generally positive perceptions of skill improvement in students (McIntosh et al., 2003; Gleason and Surovov, 2011; Sun, 2009 and 2012), even if such feelings are not corroborated through more formal assessment (Sun, 2009 and 2012).


However, ACMC also has limitations. Abrams (2003) found students lost motivation in ACMC compared to SCMC due to the time delay in responses; McIntosh et al. (2003) reported similar frustrations. Students also expressed increased anxiety when participating in oral ACMC because they didn’t like the sound of their voices (McIntosh et al., 2003; Yaneske and Oates, 2010).


3.2 ACMC: Quality and Quantity of Output


Studies of text-based ACMC show students produce more syntactically-complex language and have an increased focus on form compared to SCMC (Ortega, 1999; Sotillo, 2000; Kitade, 2006; Hirotani 2009); also, negotiation of meaning in ACMC focused more on features of syntax (Kitade 2006). However, in terms of accuracy the results have been mixed; some studies found ACMC output to be less accurate, citing the influence of the cognitive load of more elaborate language production (Sotillo, 2000; Hirotani, 2009), whereas others found ACMC output to be more accurate (Kitade, 2006; Beauvois, 1997). In general, there were less interactive exchanges in ACMC than SCMC (Kitade, 2006; Sotillo, 2000), which Kitade (2006) hypothesized could be affected by the time delay associated with ACMC; the discourse features to promote responses initially present in the output were subsequently ignored in later posts.


Studies involving purely oral output have been substantially fewer in number (Pang and Hew 2014), and have also been more mixed in their results. Brandl (2012) found no significant difference between ACMC and SCMC in terms of complexity of language, and only a small increase in accuracy in ACMC. In analyzing output only in ACMC, Sun (2012) also found no improvement in accuracy, as students were mostly focused the content of the language. Both studies concluded that other factors, such as task type or task design, might have affected the quality and quantity of output more than the mode itself. In terms of quantity of production, motivation was a major factor in Sun (2012)’s results. She hypothesized that most students left the task until the last part of the term, suggesting weekly-based tasks as opposed to term-final assignments could improve consistency in output. For Brandl (2012), task type was the most important factor in the quantity of output; optional information exchanges produced more language than required information exchanges.


3.3 Interaction and Learning in Synchronous CMC (SCMC)


SCMC affords more similar interaction to f2f than ACMC, and therefore is assumed to have similar benefits to f2f interaction in language development (Jepson 2005). However, SCMC has been shown to decrease anxiety and increase communicative participation compared to f2f contexts (Kern, 1995; Warchsauer, 1996; Chun, 1998). SCMC can also be more motivating than ACMC, as responses to output are more instantaneous (Abrams, 2003). SCMC also offers more opportunities to print out chats or make recordings of oral interaction than f2f, allowing for deeper analysis of performance and therefore more student-centered learning (Blake 2000; Jepson 2005; Volle 2005).


Nevertheless, some studies have shown that SCMC still falls short of f2f in certain aspects. SCMC, especially in text chat, can result in multiple messages being sent simultaneously, regarding different or unrelated issues, which can result in a breakdown of communication and coherence (Jepson 2005). This results in more repair moves, but can also lower motivation. Other studies suggest that the instant nature of communication in SCMC can be detrimental for aiding oral proficiency, particularly for lower-level learners, as real-time events do not allow for planning time and reflection mid-conversation (Ellis, 2009; Blake, 2009, both cited in Lin 2014, p.22).


3.4 SCMC: Quality and Quantity of Output


Both Sotillo (2000) and Hirotani (2009) found higher accuracy in SCMC interaction than in ACMC, but posited that this could be due to the relative syntactic and lexical simplicity of the output. In terms of interaction, SCMC affords more than ACMC, with high frequency of negotiation of meaning and repair moves more of a lexical nature (Blake 2000; see Kenning 2010, p.136 for more studies). Similar to Sun’s (2012) ACMC findings, Blake (2000) posited that, in the context of SCMC interviews, attention was given more to content than form.


Myriad research that suggests SCMC results in more output than ACMC (Kern, 1995; Beauvois, 1997; Blake, 2000; Sotillo 2000; Hirotani, 2009; Payne and Whitney, 2002), and more negotiations of meaning in voice chat (Jepson 2005). However, whether this amount of output translates to gains in oral proficiency is, so far, not well-documented (Kenning 2010). For instance, Blake (2000; 2004) and Chang (2007a, 2008b) both reported incongruent findings between similar studies, thus the efficacy of this output in terms of gains in oral proficiency is not conclusive. Indeed, several researchers will only go so far as to say that SCMC does not disadvantage students compared to f2f groups (Blake et al. 2008), but that CMC is not a replacement for f2f (Kern 1995; Payne and Whitney 2002; Hirotani 2009) for oral skills development.


3.5 Implications


The literature shows that ACMC and SCMC afford different types of interaction and result in different types of output; ACMC affords learners more time and reflection to plan output, but lacks impetus and motivating contextual support, whereas the immediacy of SCMC results in more output and negotiation of meaning to the possible detriment of linguistic complexity. Despite the paucity of empirical data, it can be assumed both modes have a place in online tasks to develop speaking skills. 


Online educators need to approach CMC task design slightly differently than f2f to maximize efficacy of interaction and output. They must consider the following features of the task: linguistic and cognitive demands, anticipated amounts and types of interaction, motivation, anxiety, teacher presence, and deeper thinking skills and then decide if the planning time afforded through ACMC or the immediacy afforded through SCMC would better scaffold those factors. Teacher presence is also a factor to consider. More open-ended, student-driven tasks can compensate for lack of teacher presence, as can being explicit with task aims and deadlines; both ACMC and SCMC can result in more attention to content than form, so without teacher monitoring students should be made explicitly aware if form is a priority. Similarly, in ACMC more rigid deadlines could be beneficial in lieu of teacher reinforcement (Sun 2012). CMC also can create a more student-centered learning environment, so the online educator must consider the benefits affordances such as recording and reviewing output can have on learner's oral development.


4.  CMC Multimodality and L2 Oral Proficiency


Multimodality refers to what Kress & Leeuwen (2001) define as “the use of several semiotic modes in the design of a semiotic product or event, together with the particular way in which these modes are combined”, and we combine these modes (written, spoken, visual etc) in an “orchestration of meaning” when we communicate electronically (Kress, et al 2001, p.20-21).  However, some suggest multimodal is the wrong term, ‘bimodal’ or ‘trimodal’ being more appropriate, considering most people cannot cope with more than 2-3 modes simultaneously (Cook 2003; Blake 2005).  These new modes of communication are new ways making meaning and should be seen as features of the medium and not as limitations to be ignored or hindered by (Hampel & Hauck 2006).A common theme in the literature is that CMC multimodality cannot replicate f2f learning experiences nor can it satisfy everyone’s personal learning preferences.  However, teachers need to consider how meaning is made online by language learners in order to match the right tool to the task, and this requires being familiar with the affordances multimodality can offer (Hampel & Hauck 2006; Ciekanski & Chanier 2008;  Kear 2012).


Discussing the potential advantages and drawbacks of written CMC (Blake 2005; Hampel & Hauck 2006; Hauck 2007), studies also discuss how tangible advances in the reliability of audio/video conferencing technology have changed how online language education is viewed, especially in terms of developing oral proficiency (Jepson 2005; Hauck 2007; Hampel & Hauck 2006).  Indeed, reliable audio and video in SCMC might improve feelings of motivation, social presence and connectedness, perhaps helping levels of participation and the feeling of community (Short et al 1976; Haythornthwaite et al 2000). Furthermore, as the quality of the audio/video modes improve, real-time spoken conversations with intonation, body language, facial expression and other visual cues make multimodal interactions more accessible and less frustrating than in previous years (Ciekanski & Chanier 2008; Kear 2012). 


Payne & Whitney (2002) argued that text chat can develop oral development; it lowers anxiety by affording students more time to comprehend interaction and formulate replies, thus helping those with low working memory. However, students seem to appreciate the mix of modalities choosing how to respond to questions, e.g. orally, facial expression, text chat, icons, polling and so on, despite the teacher's best efforts to model, what they see, as desirable behaviours (Kear et al 2012).  These modes can be combined, making complex environments (e.g. audio-graphic or videoconferencing) in order to practice language skills, including speaking.  It seems that multimodality can allow L2 students to negotiate meaning and “rehearse for oral skills” for real life (Schweinhorst 2004, p9). 


However, research into using CMC multimodality for L2 education is revealing challenges (Lamy & Goodfellow 1999; Hampel & Hauck 2006).  It has been suggested that many of the earlier studies are practical How to… guides rather than empirical studies (de Freitas & Neumann 2009; Anderson et al 2006) and the limited variety of data collection methods used in many studies (e.g., interviews, questionnaires) lack depth, include small samples or lack a control group (Kear et al 2012). Nevertheless, the empirical data available shows when video is used sometimes little or no difference is reported regarding motivation, quantity, and quality of interaction (Lin 2014). This could be because dividing students’ – and teachers’ - attention between the multiple modes leaves less mental resources available for spontaneous, spoken exchanges (Chandler & Sweller 1991; Maturazzo & Sellen 2000; Rosell-Auilar 2005; Kear 2012).  


4.2 Implications


While we agree with Meskill (1999) that  “engagement of multiple modalities is…a highly positive contributing factor for the language learning process” (p.145), research into this area is limited and so can only provide guidelines.


Exploiting CMC multimodality to enhance oral proficiency requires educators trained in how to use and manage CMC tools with multiple ways of communicating. With improvements in technology, CMC can better mimic f2f interaction, but managing the text/audio/video channels might be problematic, so educators need to consider that the best interaction in CMC might not always be what is most similar to f2f. Online educators wanting to practice oral skills should not ignore text, as it can avoid cognitive overload and scaffold the limits of working memory. Moreover, students will use the tools and modalities how they want to.  Therefore, if possible, involving students in choosing CMC tools and which modalities to work with seems like a sensible part of any CMC L2 course. Overall, the online educator should approach CMC with “a skilled balance of planning and moment to moment adaptation…referred to as “disciplined improvisation…” to avoid a chaotic CMC environment (Sawyer 2004, p.16) and exploit CMC for maximum effect.


5.  CMC task design for developing speaking skills


There is consensus in the literature that creating meaningful L2 interactions via multimodal CMC can be problematic if not handled carefully (Hampel 2005; Hampel & Hauck 2006). Therefore research into the influence of specific task types in CMC is crucial to promoting L2 oral proficiency.  Task-based learning has been particularly popular choice for research into CMC task design. Batardiere (2013) suggests collaborative, task-based learning can be useful for online L2 learning, which has been corroborated by calls for collaborative L2 tasks/topics in CMC that involve real-world activities and skills, allow learners to interact with each other at the limits of their linguistic comfort zones, have more than one outcome, be goal-oriented, and possibly be self-selected by students (Ellis 2003; Pelletieri 2000; Hanna & de Nooy 2003, 2009).  Smith (2004) also found task-based CMC include increased participation, output and risk-taking.


Continuing in the trend of paucity in empirical data, research into task design’s influence on oral production in CMC contains multiple caveats stating findings are more suggestive than definitive due to limitations such as small samples. It was suggested opinion exchange and discussions were the most commonly used tasks, even though they proved to be the least effective (Lin 2014).  Task-based activities thought likely to cause interaction and affect oral proficiency were jigsaw tasks, information-gap activities and decision making tasks, and these were least used. It has also been found reading aloud might help oral development via eliciting oral performances (e.g. monologues) but lacks the cognitive demands of spontaneous, 2-way conversations (Lin 2014).  Activities like reading aloud, opinion exchanges, and open discussions might be attractive due to being relatively easy to set up and manage, but run the risk of being shallow (Rosell-Aguilar 2005), and these are not the conditions thought to foster L2 development.




Given much of the research regarding CMC and developing oral skills is suggestive and not conclusive, oral task design for CMC can be confusing. Researchers note collaborative, task-based learning might be an appropriate design if it includes task authenticity, student control and choice of topic.  Recommended tasks include information gaps, jigsaw-style tasks and decision-making tasks (Wang 2007; Batardiere 2013), however, teachers need to bear in mind the more obvious tasks to promote speaking (e.g. open discussions) might be the ones that actually encourage chaotic, unproductive sessions. Consequently, there might be advantage in being more flexible when defining teacher/student roles, implementing tasks and avoid the techno-centrist trap by focusing on the task itself instead of the mediating technology (Wang 2007).  Therefore, the teacher´s role might become more like the invisible guide or facilitator.  


 6. Discussion


In this part of the review we return to discuss our original research questions in the light of the reviewed literature.


1.  What does the literature tell us about L2 oral proficiency development in CMC? 


Using the interaction hypothesis as a theoretical benchmark, CMC has the edge over f2f learning if quantity of interaction is the ultimate goal (Beauvois 2007). However, it is not clear if sheer amount of interaction results in pedagogical outcomes. The copious number of studies focusing on CMCs affordances and student perceptions cannot compensate for the paucity of studies with empirical data in this area. Furthermore, the impact other variables, such as task design and assessment techniques, has not been adequately studied. Thus, the question of whether improvement in oral proficiency is even possible through CMC, while promising, still lacks a definitive answer in the research.



2.  What are the implications for task design when integrating speaking skills practice into an online learning environment?


Task-based learning is popular for oral practice in CMC; tasks that foster interaction between learners are fundamental, and authenticity is critical for engagement. Educators should therefore approach CMC thoughtfully as to which are the appropriate tools help students complete the task successfully.


ACMC and SCMC offer different affordances in terms of planning time, interaction types and quality of output. Teachers should consider the target interaction patterns of the task, its lexical and cognitive complexity, and the language aim when choosing which CMC to employ; for purely online learners, a mix of acmc and scmc is ideal to develop oral proficiency. Also, the multimodal nature of CMC makes interactions richer but more demanding for students and teachers, necessitating strategies and coping mechanisms such as flexibility in instructor interaction, proper training in technologies, and student-chosen content.



7.  Conclusion


Many remain unconvinced about the benefits of CMC on L2 proficiency, while others are more optimistic but relatively unsure about how to exploit the technology usefully.  There is still doubt and confusion supported by inconsistent and contradictory research findings.  What is clear from the research is that CMC, while not an immediate panacea for L2 oral development through distance learning, offers potential if used thoughtfully.




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