The Use of Interactive Self-Test Resources for English Vocabulary Development


In the field of CALL there are three main teaching methodologies that have been identified by Warschauer [1] .  The first to evolve was the behaviourist model which can be likened to the way Pavlov’s dogs were taught to respond to stimuli.  In this, students study and revise, study and revise until the language structures presented become internalized. In this model the form of language is usually of paramount importance while meaning is subsumed.  However, for many aspects of language teaching there continues to be debate as to whether this style of learning allows students access to the knowledge in a real life situation.  In the 1970s the communicative model became the new paradigm.  Here exercises, and the language presented, need to be grounded in context.  In addition, grammar is often presented implicitly rather than explicitly allowing for discovery techniques to be utilized.  The currently fashionable approach is integrative.  This includes courses where CALL activities are closely linked to the curriculum as well as ones where the entire course may be structured around the networked communication that computers can offer.  An example of an integrative academic writing program could involve the use of the Internet for research, e-mail for consulting experts, newsgroups (or more likely discussion boards) for inviting debate and then web-authoring for the simple publication of the finished article, perhaps with a CGI e-mail form or survey to encourage feedback from peers.

In discussing CALL as it currently stands, it has to be noted that generally language instruction is carried out face-to-face and the use of computer labs is most often carried out under the supervision of some form of facilitator.  As many language teachers are trained in the delivery of general courses there is an understandable imperative that all four macro-skills should be practiced.  Reading, writing, listening and speaking have equal importance in this style of delivery.  With current technology, notably low-connection speed in areas where distance education might be most useful, the spoken aspect of courses is currently impractical.  A few websites offer downloadable ActiveX objects which allow for students to record their voices onto their hard drive.  However, these are more for pronunciation practice or heavily structured stimulus-response exercises than conversation practice.  For this main reason the use of online learning for completely integrated language courses seems impractical or even unfeasible.

Mike Smith and Urai Salam [2]   of Melbourne University carried out a small survey of commercially available online courses to discover if any were viable alternatives to face-to-face courses.  There were a wide range of offerings, from amateur websites designed by teachers to almost corporate level communication hubs and content management systems.  Some of the more professional examples required students to have web cams and used Windows Net Meeting as the software for video conferencing.  However, this obviously requires a consistent and fast connection, while the quality of the content could not be guaranteed.  Not surprisingly the conclusion was that current offerings are of little value.

This opens up the dilemma of how it is possible to use the advantages that online delivery offers in the facilitation of language acquisition.  It can be seen that currently there is little opportunity for the creation of a complete language course.  Taking this into consideration it is possible to fragment the whole of a language into individual outcomes and competencies.  It is possible to have English for TOEFL, English for Academic purposes and English for Business within conventional language schools and the same can apply to online courses.  Breaking it down even further it is possible to have courses for academic writing, Cambridge Exam grammar or even just academic vocabulary.  This document will outline the use of interactive self-testing exercises to enable students to improve their vocabulary.  The primary aim of the course will be to give EAP or university students flexible ways to access some of the more important items of academic vocabulary as defined by a university word list [3] .  As far as possible the examples should be grounded in an authentic as possible context.

Similar sites

The importance of English as an International language brings advantages for the design of online resources.  The primary one is the fact that there is an extensive, or exhaustive, array of materials which are freely available on the Internet.  Although much is of dubious quality there are some highly professional offerings which can be used, and for the purposes of instructional design, evaluated.

1)  Unstructured resources

Most of the English language instructional sites available on the Internet are for self-access, they provide reference and self-testing resources grouped by skills and content.  In the main there is no particular progression in terms of difficulty or the way that content evolves, fundamentally there is no underlying structure.  This can be seen to be due to the fact that few English learners are ever true beginners, at some point most nationalities which have ready access to the Internet will have had compulsory English classes.  To a large extent what these students need is delivery which is tailored to their needs, or a wide variety of content from which to choose from.  Although there is a current fashion in EFL for courses and assessment to work towards outcomes this does not seem to fit so well in the poorly defined realms of general English.  This is another consideration that makes the design of an online course difficult.

Some of the better resources available for self-access on the Internet are; Literacy Net and the California Distance Learning Project, Randall’s ESL-Lab, Professor Charles Darling’s Grammar Page and the AMES Virtual Independent Learning Centre.

Literacy Net [4] and the CDLP [5] are similar in that they both modify authentic CNN news reports for adult literacy purposes.  The story is presented in a modified full version, as an abridged version or as an outline, allowing students to choose a level of difficulty.  If the student chooses the full version of the story they can also choose to listen to a sound recording of the text (as a semi-authentic radio report), while some stories also have a Real Player movie.  The full story also has a range of JavaScript checked vocabulary and comprehension tasks, culminating in the possibility of putting an opinion on a discussion board.

One of the best things about these sites is the way vocabulary and concepts are recycled through the progression of the activities.  The main exercises rely on vocabulary which students are expected to decode through contextual clues and discovery learning.  However, if students prefer the less fashionable, and probably less effective, method of using a dictionary to find the meanings of new words there is a search box that links to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.  One useful thing about the CDLP site is that it includes information about instructional design [6] .

Randall’s ESL-Lab [7] is another American site; however, it uses audio recordings as its main form of delivery.  This is primarily as the texts are dialogues and to introduce these as a written text before they had been listened to would be inauthentic.  The listenings are grouped into different levels from beginner to academic advanced and can also be accessed by topic, which is very useful in a face-to-face delivery with access to computer labs.  It is therefore very simple to integrate them into the complete syllabus.  Each text has a sequence of multiple choice questions and also a fill in the gaps (cloze) exercise.  It is here where there is a slight problem as every exercise only has five multiple choice questions and ten gaps in the text, regardless of its length or complexity.  A variety of question types would certainly extend the usefulness of the exercise.  A further consideration is getting the right balance of bandwidth and audio quality [8] on an entirely audio based resource, especially when creating a high quality master audio file is expensive in time and effort.

Charles Darling’s grammar resource [9] is similar to many grammar text books (Raymond Murphy’s Grammar in Use for example) in that it works as a reference and also as a self-testing exercise.  Grammar topics are accessed through drop down menus on the index page.  There is also a list of all the interactive activities available.

Finally there is the Virtual ILC. [10]   This is a commercial resource mainly consisting of authentic SBS news reports and simple web research tasks, you require a password to login.  The news reports have exercises with them and can be accessed in a flexible way.  Students can choose to listen and read, listen, read and do, or listen and do.  However, from a language learning point of view it can be argued that this flexibility of delivery should be offered only after the student has attempted the exercises without textual support.  Another disappointing aspect of this site is that there is little use of interactivity or multimedia aspects.  Answers to exercises are simply hidden by drop down menus and can be easily accessed at any time.  It has to be said that the site does provide a very comprehensive range of audio files and links to useful websites though.

2)  Structured General English sites.

Some sites claim to provide general English courses.  About.com has a free beginner level course and Global English sells a range of courses.  However, Global English allows trial access to a beginner course for evaluation purposes.

The About.com [11] course shows the difficulty in creating a general English course by its lack of material.  However, from the point of view of vocabulary, the site as a whole introduces some interesting sources.  There is an extensive list of vocabulary for specific purposes here, but not for academic purposes though.

Global English [12] appears very corporate in appearance.  It offers Business and General English, and appears to market itself to companies as a way to teach employees.  It is possible to access some courses for free.  The beginner course offers downloadable software for recording your voice and comparing it to a model.  More advanced courses use discussion boards for some level of communication.

3)  Structured English for Special Purposes sites.

There are three websites of particular note in this category.  The first is an Academic Writing Module from the Victoria University in New Zealand, the second contains preparation material for the Cambridge suite of General English exams and the third is a specially developed site for International students who are studying science subjects at Victoria University in Melbourne.

The Academic Writing [13] module resembles standard texts on the genre.  It takes students through the process of writing an essay, from constructing a paragraph to adding sources.  It culminates in a full essay with some small interactive aspects, this adds some authenticity to the whole course.  The index page is a map of the module and it is arranged in a systematic manner with topics grouped into sections and sub-sections so it can be accessed in this order.  As the knowledge presented is fairly generic many students will have been introduced to the concepts involved in face-to-face delivery so they can use the resource to consolidate knowledge.  Students with no previous academic English instruction can read the associated reference information, which you can choose to display in an HTML frame, before or after attempting the exercises.  A range of interactive exercise types are presented which have been seen to improve students’ motivation.  One problem which has been noted with this site is that, although the exercises are relevant and seem effective there does not seem to be quite enough practice material.

The Cambridge preparation site, called Flo-Joe [14] , is grouped into the three most popular levels of the tests, FCE, CAE and Proficiency.  However, once you enter the level you require, resources are grouped into skills and techniques.  Predominantly the site is devoted to writing, vocabulary and grammar development.  Computers are perfect for vocabulary and grammar exercises but the writing area is a little more interesting.  Students are able to access example writing topics on a regular basis and are invited to submit their work to a writing workshop.  Some work is selected and transferred to HTML format with aspects of interest highlighted and hyperlinked to pop-up windows.  The idea is for students to consider if the section identified is a problem area, or one which is worthy of praise.  If it is a problem they should consider why it is poor before clicking the link and seeing the advice given.  The ability for students to add practice material can be seen as a form of distributed constructionism [15] , they are able to contribute to the “knowledge-building community” in a meaningful way (Resnick, 1996).

The final site has been created by Janis Webb at VUT [16] .  There are two reasons why it is of particular interest.  Firstly, although there is simple access to WebCT at VUT it was decided that it should simply be placed on a VUT public server.  This was due to the problems involved in granting a wide range of students access to the system.  Secondly it has been subject to a particularly rigorous design, testing and evaluation procedure.  In the design phase lecturers of the science subjects were surveyed to find out the main weaknesses that they perceived international students to have.  In the main they said that basic grammar problems caused them the greatest difficulty in marking student work.  For this reason the site is composed of reference material followed by self-checking Javascript exercises.  During the development stage it was tested and evaluated by students, who found that the number of exercises on a single page was sometimes overwhelming.  From this it was decided to have a few exercises on the primary reference page, and move the rest onto new, supplementary pages.  Again, this can be seen as making the site more meaningful for students as they are stakeholders on two different levels.  The site is currently in use but feedback is encouraged for its continued development.  These facts have obviously made it successful as server statistics have shown that it is quite well used, with 15,000 hits in its first year.  This is despite the fact that it has only been promoted to International students at VUT who are studying science degrees.

Proposal.  An Academic vocabulary and Writing Course

Experience in EAP courses suggests that vocabulary is one of the important aspects of the Academic genre which can be overlooked.  EAP courses are very intensive in their nature, with a large amount of time having to be spent on producing final products in the form of essays, reports and presentation tasks.  This has the effect of reducing the time that can be spent on introducing new language structures and vocabulary.  A further problem is that pronunciation is often omitted from the teaching of vocabulary because it often seems inappropriate to drill new words with advanced level students.

General English is problematic in course design as the selection of vocabulary items can often be down to an arbitrary decision.  However, in EAP it is an easier process as there is a substantial body of research that has been carried out on the general academic corpus [17] and word lists have been constructed from this.

As students find the subject specific vocabulary much easier to learn than the general academic corpus a self-access course on the content of an academic word list could be useful for native and non-native speakers of English alike.  The Internet is the ideal mode of delivery for this material as it is possible to create a range of exercises and also link to a range of resources to allow students to reinforce and recycle items in a variety of ways.  By linking to a range of dictionaries [18] and concordancers [19] it is possible for students to learn inductively or deductively.

Resource design

Flash 5 (and now MX [20] ) was chosen as the primary tool for the design and creation of these resources for several reasons.

1)      It allows complete control of the exercise’s appearance and function.

2)      It allows for the integrated use of powerful multimedia elements, MP3, video and vector animation.

3)      When used sensibly file sizes are moderate.

4)      As it is vector based all pages can be made scaleable to make the best use of any available screen.

5)      The Document Object Model for Actionscript is far simpler to control, and has far more consistent rendering, than Javascript in a conventional browser.  This means that customized exercises are relatively simple to create.

One of the most important features in the original design was that exercises should be easy to create, that it should be an easily scaleable system.  Due to this, separate exercises are stored as simple text files which can be accessed, created and edited outside of the Flash authoring environment.    In addition the flexibility of Flash will allow for the simple extension of the system to integrate with a database by using an appropriate middleware.  This scaleability will be discussed later.

The system currently consists of six exercise types, drag and drop vocabulary/sentence matching, gap fill sentences, text ordering, cloze, proofreading and multiple choice.  In addition there is the possibility to simply deliver audio-files of vocabulary items by using the new features in Flash MX [21] .  As mentioned earlier, these audio-files will probably be of a low quality compared to expensive, professional offerings.

The planned structure of the site is to have an index page which shows different categories of the vocabulary.  When a student selects an area to study they would be provided with a secondary index where they would be given options in the way they could study the items.  In terms of discovery learning they could use the text ordering task, the drag and drop vocabulary or access a third party online concordancer (such as Cobuild or Concapp) to see authentic examples of the word in use.  If they felt that they needed to see definitions before they attempted exercises they could access integrated definitions with audio, online English-English dictionaries (Collins or Merriam-Webster) or even online translation dictionaries (which would not be recommended).  Once the items had been presented, or if students were fairly confident that they already knew the vocabulary, they could move on to the gap fill, cloze, proofreading and multiple choice activities.  This variety gives students the opportunity to select activities that suit them, or practice items several times without repetition.

As mentioned earlier, the preliminary site will be based around items taken from an academic word list.  However, to make it more meaningful to students and institutions its growth would be dependent on submissions from them.  In a similar way to Flo-Joe, student work could be used as the basis for exercises.  It could also be posted on a discussion board as a basis for linguistic improvement, mainly in terms of style and register.  Lecturers could submit exemplary work to be used as models, and also to represent a range of genres and subject areas.  Use could also be made of discussion boards for exploration of the nuances of vocabulary.  Students would be able to post questions, suggest solutions and get feedback from teachers or native speakers.

Additional features.  Instructional video.

Interactive web page exercises can be confusing, especially for those who are not used to the Internet.  Unfortunately text based instructions are often ignored by students, and instructors.  They are also not the most effective form of instruction for the explanation of visual interfaces.  Documents created from text and screenshots are better suited to the material, but they are very time-consuming in their creation.  The most suitable form of instructional media is an animated representation of the system in use.  This is very time-consuming to create using traditional Flash animation, or requires the use of expensive software.  However, there is a free Microsoft Windows Media Encoder [22] available.  This is useful for three reasons.  It allows the capture and encoding of streaming media from the Internet.  It allows for the broadcast of audio and video in real time by using a normal PC as a server.  It can therefore be used for broadcasting audio lectures.  Finally, it allows for the capture and encoding of portions of a computer screen at quite high quality and reasonable use of memory.  Flash MX also has the ability to import these files.  When the video is embedded in Flash additional components, buttons, text and animations, can be overlaid along with Actionscript control.

Possible evaluation strategies

Technologically it would be very simple to create some form of test which incorporated a wide range of the vocabulary items and would give an indication of the students knowledge, and therefore some indication of the effectiveness of the system.  However, this test would only show their ability to fill in the gaps in an appropriate way, it would not show their ability to use the items in their own writing.  A more effective measure of the course’s effectiveness would be to use concordancing software which allows new corpuses to be analysed.  The occurrence of discrete items could be tested before and after students’ participation in the vocabulary course to see if the frequency of use had been increased.  If the course was being run on a suitably equipped server it would also be possible to track the time students spent using the system, and even which types of exercise were the most popular.

This evaluation appears quite impersonal and concerned with the product of the course rather than the processes students may use in achieving their goals.  With this in mind it would be advantageous to enlist some students in more formative and qualitative research.  This could be carried out in the form of them keeping journals of the use of the resource or by interviews at various times through the course.  If this evaluation was carried out in the early stages of the development it would make it possible to decide how many words it would be possible to effectively incorporate into the preliminary course.  The seven hundred plus root words in some university lists would be overly exhaustive and impractical for students to learn over a short period.


Felix, U.  (1998)  Exploiting the Web for language teaching: selected approaches  ReCALL, Vol. 11, No. 1, May 1999.  pp. 30-38.

Holmes, G. (1999) Corpus CALL: Corpora in Language and Literature.  CALL: Media, Design & Applications  1999, pp. 239-270 

Jordan, R. R. (1997)  English for Academic Purposes, Cambridge University Press.

Levy, Mike.(1999)  Design Processes in CALL:  Integrating Theory, Research and Evaluation.  CALL: Media, Design & Applications 1999, pp. 239-270 

Nesi, H. (1998)  Using the Internet to teach English for academic purposes   ReCALL, Vol. 10, No. 1, May 1998.  pp. 109-118.

Resnick, M.  (1996)  Distributed Constructionism.  Proceedings of the International Conference on the Learning Sciences Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education Northwestern University

Smith, M. & Salam, U.(2000) Web-based ESL courses: A search for industry standards, CALL-EJ Online Vol. 2, No. 1, June 2000

Squires, D. & McDougall, A. (1996). Software evaluation: a situated approach. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 12(3), 146-161.

Warschauer, M. (1996). Computer-assisted language learning: An introduction. In S. Fotos (Ed.), Multimedia language teaching (pp. 3-20). Tokyo: Logos International.


The prototype requires the Flash 6 player and a recent version of the Windows Media Player to be installed on the client.  Although the videos are all smaller than 2MB,  a broadband connection is useful.


My resources on the VUT staff server.


The resources that have been created to integrate with the language curriculums at VUT using my Flash 5 exercise player.


[1] http://www.gse.uci.edu/markw/call.html Computer-Assisted Language Learning:
An Introduction.  Mark Warschauer

[2] http://www.clec.ritsumei.ac.jp/english/callejonline/5-1/msmith&salam.html.  Web-based ESL courses: A search for industry standards

[3] http://www.vuw.ac.nz/lals/downloadables/headwords.txt  The Victoria University of Wellington’s Academic Word List

[4] http://literacynet.org/cnnsf/archives.html  Literacy Net index page.

[5] http://www.cdlponline.org/ CDLP index page

[6] http://www.cdlponline.org/info.html The CDLP distance learning information and bibliography.

[7] http://www.esl-lab.com  Randall’s ESL Cyber Listening Lab index

[8] http://www.esl-lab.com/tutorials/lesson1.htm Notes on the design of Randall’s web site.

[9] http://ccc.commnet.edu/grammar  Charles Darling’s Guide to Grammar and Writing

[10] http://www.virtualilc.com.au/

[11] http://esl.about.com/cs/beginnercourse  About.com’s beginner course.

[12] http://www.globalenglish.com/  The Global English Homepage

[13] http://www.vuw.ac.nz/lals/div1/academic-writing/  The Victoria University Academic Writing Module

[14] http://www.flo-joe.co.uk/  Flo-Joe’s homepage

[15] http://web.media.mit.edu/~mres/papers/Distrib-Construc/Distrib-Construc.html  Michael Resnick’s paper on Distributed Constructionism.

[16] http://ceds.vu.edu.au/webbja/  Improving your writing by Janis Webb.

[17] http://www.sfu.ca/~mhod/article.html Abstract of Corpus CALL: Corpora in Language and Literature by Glyn Holmes

[18] http://dictionary.cambridge.org/ The Collins Dictionary Homepage

[19] http://titania.cobuild.collins.co.uk/democonc  The Cobuild Demonstration concordancer

http://www.edict.com.hk/concordance/  The Concapp concordancer

[20] http://www.macromedia.com/resources/elearning/article/flashmx_authoring/  Macromedia Flash MX.  Serious Instructional Authoring Tool? By Patti Shank

[21] http://www.macromedia.com/software/flash/productinfo/newfeatures/ The new features of Flash MX

[22] http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/9series/encoder/default.asp?FinishURL=%2Fdownloads%2Frelease%2Easp%3FReleaseID%3D42209%26area%3Dsearch%26ordinal%3D2%26redirect%3Dno  This is the download for the current Windows Media Encoder.  I have been using the previous release successfully.