Friday, April 15, 2016

The Potential of Technology in Language Education

Stephen Krashen

Presented at the International Conference on Applied Linguistics and Language Teaching) at National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, April 2016, invited panel discussion

We have not exploited the most obvious and inexpensive uses of technology in language education, but are instead encouraged to spend substantial amounts of money using ineffective and even untested commercial programs.  None of these programs that I have seen (except one, see below), makes a serious attempt to provide language students what they need the most: compelling comprehensible input. (1)

I present here some attempts to do this.

Beginning Level


Technology can help close one of the the largest gaps we have in the language teaching profession: interesting and comprehensible written texts for beginners and low intermediates, especially in languages other than English. In fact, technology can solve this problem in a very short time: I suggest we set up blogs with stories from classes around the world, to be shared with beginning level students everywhere.

We have begun to do this with beginning Mandarin, where there is an obvious lack of easy and interesting texts. The teachers involved in this project are all practioners of TPRS, a method developed by a former high school Spanish teacher, Blaine Ray. TPRS is based on teachers and students co-creating stories that are of great interest to the students and that involve them personally. Our team of teachers is sending some of the more interesting stories from their classes to one website, and teachers from ANY Mandarin class can use them, without asking permission. It is all for free.  The project has been underway for only a few months months and we already have a substantial collection.  (2) (3)

Narrow listening

Narrow listening was introduced 20 years ago (Krashen, 1996) as an extension of narrow reading (Krashen, 1981, 2000), and took advantage of the technology that was available at that time. In narrow listening, language students record proficient speakers discussing a topic of interest to the student.  The students can then listen to the recordings as often as they like, and ask similar questions of other speakers.  Repeated listening, interest in the topic, and familiar context help make the input comprehensible.

In Rodrigo (2004) fifth semester college students of Spanish listened to short (one to three minutes) recordings of native speakers of Spanish talking about topics of interest to the students; 80% said that this kind of listening was better than other kinds of listening activities they had done, and none thought it was worse. Also, 95% thought it was useful in helping them acquire Spanish.  I suspect that narrow listening is even more powerful is when students choose their own topics, and ask their own questions, that is, when it is more personalized.

Narrow viewing

Narrow viewing is only an idea right now. It is an extension of narrow listening, but adds visual context by making a video, not just aural, recording. Visual context is a powerful aid to comprehension and thus acquisition.

Videos are now easy to make for anyone with a current cell phone.

There are, of course, plenty of videos easily available on the internet, but nearly all are for native speakers, well beyond our beginning and even many of our intermediate students, and the few that are comprehensible are pedagogical, with little or no evidence that they work. Narrow viewing solves this problem.

(An early product, Destinos, a detective story in comprehensible Spanish, is still available, but Amazon lists it for $160 new and $65 used. )

Movie Talk

TPRS has taken advantage of technology by adopting Movie Talk: The idea, developed by Ashley Hastings, is simple – play the visual of a real movie with the sound off, and the instructor supplies the narration, discussion, description and dialog in a way that is interesting and comprehensible to the students (see


Intermediates are language acquirers who have reached the stage where they can understand at least some "authentic" input (made for native speakers). 

Free Voluntary Surfing (FVS)

FVS means simply following one's own interests in reading on the internet, a form of narrow reading. Readers are free to wander from site to site. FVS enables intermediates to take advantage of the vast amount of reading material available on the internet, while ensuring that the input is comprehensible and interesting, because it is self-selected.

Suggestive evidence supporting FVS comes from a first language study. Jackson, von Eye, Biocca, Barbatsis, Zhao and Fitzgerald (2006) provided 140 children from low-income families, most between ages 12 and 13, with computers with internet access. Jackson et. al. reported that more internet use resulted in improved reading, as reflected by grades and standardized tests. The improvements were present after six months of internet use for test scores and after one year for grades. The data did not support the hypothesis that better readers used the internet more; rather, internet use improved. reading.
The children in this study clearly liked web-surfing: When asked what their main activity on the computer was, 33% said it was “web search” (Jackson, von Eye, Biocca, Barbatsis, Zhao, and Fitzgerald, 2005, p. 263).
Wang and Lee (2015) studied the effect of a year of websurfing on second year university students in Taiwan who were not English majors. Students surfed for 20 minutes at a time at least once a week for one academic year.

The results of interviews revealed that the students greatly appreciated the freedom to follow their own interests. They made better gains than comparisons did on a vocabulary test, due to their superior performance on portions of the test probing knowledge of infrequently occurring and academic words.


ESLPod ( is a commercial enterprise. (I am not financially associated with it any way.) It uses a simple but I think very effective approach: ESLpod provides access to a wide variety of aural English texts that are appropriate for intermediate and advanced students, especially those who have studied English as a foreign language in school but often lack the confidence and the competence to use English in the real world in certain situations. 
Much of the ESLPod virtual library is written by the owners of ESLPod, both experienced teachers and highly accomplished scholars in language education. ESLpod offers access to its extensive library for a modest fee, and also makes transcripts of texts available, as well as cultural notes, "tips on improving your English," a glossary with sample sentences, and a discussion of idioms. ESLPod is constantly adding to its highly interesting repertoire.

I have focused here only on straight-forward uses of technology as a means of providing comprehensible input. All the suggestions presented here are inexpensive (mostly free), and are easy to use.  More ideas for the use of technology to supply comprehensible input are emerging constantly. In fact, I think we are about to see an explosion of compelling comprehensible input in many beginning and intermediate language classes.


1. I assume here the correctness of the Comprehension Hypothesis, its special case, the Reading Hypothesis, and the desirability of highly interesting, or "compelling" comprehensible input.

2. The current "Great Mandarin Reading Project" team consists of Haiyun Lu, Pu-Mei Leng, Diane Neubauer, Xiaoyan Wang, and Linda Li. I am an honorary member.  Guidelines for those wishing use the website and/or contribute are at:
Chinese can be written in one of three ways: The traditional system, used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the simplified system, used in China, and "pinyin,"  a romanized version.  The reading project accepts stories in any of the three systems.

3. As a beginning Mandarin student, I have contributed several essays to the collection, although they did not result from a TPRS in-class story. Here is one of them, 

Jiějiě hé dìdì

Big sister and little brother

Wǒ yǒu yīgè jiějiě
I have an older sister

Tā duì wǒ hěn hǎo
She is very nice to me. 

Tā zǒng shì duì wǒ hěn hǎo.
She is always nice to me.

Wǒ bù míngbái wǒ de jiějiě.
I don't understand my sister.

Wèishéme tā duì wǒ hěn hǎo?
Why is she nice to me?
Wǒ ài wǒ de jiějiě.
I love my sister. 
Dànshì wǒ duì tā bùshì hěnhǎo.
But I am not nice to her.
Tā bāngzhù wǒ, dàn wǒ bù bāng tā
She helps me, but I don't help her.
Tā gěiwǒ dǎdiànhuà, dàn wǒ bù diànhuà gěitā
She calls me, but I don't call her.
Wǒ shì tā de dìdì
I am her little brother. 
Wǒ qīshísì suì.
I am 74 years old.
Tā quishiba suì  
She is 78 years old.
Dàn wǒ shì tā dìdì
But I am her brother.
Yǒngyuǎn shì tā dìdì
I will always be her brother.

Jackson, L., Von Eye, A., Biocca, F., Barbatsis, G., Zhao, Y. and Fitzgerald, H. (2005). How low-income children use the internet at home. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 16(3): 259-272.
Jackson, L, von Eye, A., Biocca, F., Barbatsis, G., Zhao, Y., and Fitzgerald, H. (2006). Does home internet use influence the academic performance of low-income children? Developmental Psychology, 42(3), 429-433.
Krashen, S.  1996. The case for narrow listening. System 24: 97-100.
Krashen, S. 1981. The case for narrow reading. TESOL Newsletter 15:23. Revised version: Krashen, S. 2000. The case for narrow reading. Language Magazine, 3(5): 17-19.
Rodrigo, V. 2004. Assessing the impact of narrow listening: Students perceptions and perfomrance. In C.M. Cherry and L. Bradley, (Eds.). Assessment Practices in Forign Language Education, Selected Proceedings of the 2004 Joint Conference of the Southern Conference on Language Teaching
 and the Alabama Association of Foreign Language Teachers. Pp. 53-66. SCOLT Publications. Valdosta State University, Valdosta, GA.
Wang, F. Y. and Lee, S. Y. 2015. Free voluntary surfing: An extensive reading curriculum supported by technology. In: Das, L.H., Brand-Gruwel, S., Walhout, J. & Kok, K. (Eds) (2015). The School Library Rocks: Proceedings of the 44th International Association of School Librarianship (IASL) conference 2015 , Volume II: Research Papers (2nd ed.). Heerlen, Open Universiteit. pp: 488-503.


  1. One possible way to get comprehensible input in the early stages is to watch cartoons. Cartoons produced for very young children feature a strong correlation between the images and movements and the language, improving language comprehension. Also, those cartoons form a series of episodes, which make it easier for the audience as you watch more (similar effect to reading books in a series as reported by Krashen in Free Voluntary reading: New Research, Applications, and Controversies). For the specific case of Mandarin Chinese, we have the advantage of having almost every videos with subtitles. Those subtitles are an exact transcription of the language spoken in the video. In conclusion, learners of Mandarin Chinese can learn to read by watching videos.

  2. Agreed: For some supporting evidence - Lao, C. and Krashen, S. 2014. Language acquisition without speaking and without study. Journal Bilingual Education Research and Instruction 16(1): 215-221. Available at:

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