March 2023Reviews

Book Review: Online Language Teaching in Diverse Contexts

By Molly Godwin-Jones, Learning Design Specialist at the Language Flagship Technology Innovation Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa

Friedman, R. and George, A. (Eds.). (2022). Online Language Teaching in Diverse Contexts. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 

In 2020, the COVID pandemic forced educators around the globe to adapt the way they teach with the emergency shift to online instruction. Language learning was no exception to this phenomenon, and some instructors struggled to quickly change modes in this new environment. Online Language Teaching in Diverse Contexts, edited by Rachel Friedman and Angela George, grew out of the need to help teachers navigate this new territory through a series of workshops held at the University of Calgary beginning in summer 2020 and culminating in an online conference in March 2021. The workshops offered instructors the opportunity to learn from more experienced colleagues who had been teaching languages online or using digital resources before the pandemic, leading to the Conference on Teaching Additional Languages Online for participants to share their experiences. This volume builds on the presentations from the workshops and the conference, offering both teaching practices from years of online teaching experience and new approaches to online language learning. This volume would find an audience not only with language educators who have less expertise in online instruction and graduate students beginning their teaching careers, but also with anyone who wants to include effective approaches to online teaching in their language curriculum. 

The volume comprises ten chapters, each of which grew out of a different conference presentation or workshop session. The first chapter by Catherine Caws began as the keynote address for the Conference on Teaching Additional Languages Online in March 2021. In it, Caws reflects on her 20 years of experience in “teaching and promoting language learning in online or hybrid contexts” (7). She situates her experience within Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) research, reflecting on ways in which these fields have developed or changed, especially with regard to the COVID pandemic. Caws concludes her chapter with a section on the importance of digital literacy highlighted through two European projects she is involved with: the e-lang and the e-lang citizen project. These two projects rely on the social-interactional approach, which suggests that “the meaning of an utterance is shaped by the social interactions in which it occurs and that, as a consequence, a co-construction of meaning occurs through interactions” (18). Both e-lang and e-lang citizen encourage learners to learn about digital literacy by engaging in real-world tasks, illustrated by an example using Twitter. These projects provide students with the opportunity to learn about digital literacy as well as their second language (L2) in an authentic, interactional context.

Chapter 2 by Joe Terantino focuses on establishing communicative context in online language learning. Terantino discusses how establishing context through real-world tasks and using authentic tools can help learners develop their communicative competence. He uses Hymes’ (1974) SPEAKING model as a template for creating context, and gives multiple examples of specific tasks that utilize this model. Terantino describes three stages in establishing communicative context for online learning: “identifying the purpose and type of communication, contextualizing input, and contextualizing learning tasks” (30). The chapter concludes with a discussion of the benefits of establishing communicative context in online language learning. This chapter would be beneficial for those educators struggling to determine authentic tasks for students to complete online, as it provides suggestions and examples based on ACTFL’s World Readiness Standards that incorporate the concept of a communicative context.

In the third chapter, Noah McLaughlin discusses metacognition in online language learning. This chapter is a treasure trove of practical advice and useful examples of how to implement self-reflective activities and Integrated Performance Assessment (IPA) in the online context. Throughout the chapter, McLaughlin describes his “metacognitive ecosystem” (46), the ways in which he incorporates reflection, learning strategies, goal setting, and more into his novice and intermediate asynchronous French classes. He specifies how he incorporates interpretive and presentational speaking with reflective scaffolding and how it is assessed. His students experience culture through “Cultural Excursions” (54), which may be, among other options, attending an event on campus, interviewing a native speaker, or eating at a French restaurant,  and also include an element of self-reflection. McLaughlin highlights his students’ success and their focus away from traditional scholastic measurements (such as grades) in support of adapting this model of metacognition in online language courses. Given the abundance of useful suggestions in this chapter, it would be a helpful resource for any instructor who, whether based on program goals or personal decision, would like to incorporate more elements of self-reflection in their courses.

The fourth chapter by Randall Gess describes using a speech corpus approach to teaching French phonetics in an online course. Gess provides an overview of his course, which uses a French speech corpus and the phonetics software Praat to help students notice phonetic details in examples of spontaneous speech and also improve their own pronunciation. The course implements a mirroring technique through several “ear training” and “mouth training” (60) projects intended to scaffold student learning and ultimately lead them to better overall pronunciation by comparing recordings of their own production to that of native speakers from various francophone countries. Students learn basic linguistic features as well as how to transcribe recordings. Gess discusses the synchronous and asynchronous aspects of the course in great detail. According to student self-reflections, the course had a positive effect on students’ production, as well as their overall confidence in speaking with native speakers. The online format of the course afforded participants the opportunity to engage with recordings in a setting similar to a traditional language lab, that is, without interfering with surrounding classrooms and with instructor control over what students hear. For instructors who want to focus on phonetics training, whether in person or online, this chapter provides an overview of one approach to improving student pronunciation using technology.

Chapter 5 by Ganna Pletnyova offers a clear and straightforward introduction to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles and how they can be integrated into online language learning. It is a useful chapter for those new to this concept who want to incorporate flexible curriculum and student choice into their courses. Pletnyova discusses learning technologies that are helpful in applying UDL concepts in an online course, given the flexibility and multiple options they afford. She discusses choice of media, using choice boards, and group projects, giving examples of each that can be easily created and added to an online course. The chapter concludes with some reflection questions to help guide instructors in their use of UDL and learning technologies.

The sixth chapter discusses cultural portfolios as a way of engaging students in culture online. It presents two perspectives: that of an instructor and researcher, Rachel Friedman, along with testimonials from two student participants in an Arabic cultural portfolio project, Yasser Katib and Meghan Munro. Friedman first provides an overview of teaching culture in language courses, then describes the elements of her cultural portfolio design. The benefits of this project include engaging students in constructing knowledge in an area of interest to them, helping students understand how their own culture affects their views of the target culture, and developing a deeper understanding of the target culture. As Friedman’s design also requires that students somehow engage with the target language in their assignments, the portfolio also contributes to greater target language knowledge. The chapter describes how online and at-home activities can supplement in-person experiences, especially in the context of the COVID pandemic. The student testimonials are moving explanations of how each student became deeply involved in the subject they personally found most interesting, and provide strong evidence in support of implementing cultural portfolios. As culture is a crucial component in any world language classroom, this engaging chapter would be helpful to any language instructor, especially if teaching online, as a guide for incorporating elements of culture in a way that still supports development in the target language. 

In the seventh chapter, Ana Paula Huback reflects on aspects of remote language course design based on her experiences during the COVID pandemic. Huback discusses adaptations made to her university-level Portuguese course in the switch to remote learning, including details such as redesigning traditional assessments, establishing classroom rules among students, addressing students’ socio-emotional well-being, and incorporating asynchronous activities and online resources. She provides specific examples of these changes, such as replacing in-person essay writing with shorter and more frequent Padlet posts, and supports her motivations for doing so by citing recent research on online learning. While it is now likely safe to assume that all language instructors have at least some experience with online learning due to the pandemic, this chapter is a useful resource for those who may need more guidance on the nuances of switching to online instruction and how to adapt in-person activities to an online setting. For those who will be continuing to teach online, this chapter is a helpful source for foundational concepts on setting up a successful online course that considers all aspects of students’ needs, including social and emotional.

Chapter 8 by Yasuyo Tomita and Yujeong Choi provides an overview of SLA theory and how it can be practically incorporated into classroom activities through the examples of first-year university-level Japanese and Korean courses. The authors discuss various aspects of online instruction and how they are supported by SLA theory, such as using the virtual whiteboard and annotation features of Zoom to introduce non-Latin characters, completing online dictations with students muting themselves to individually practice imitating the phrase, using breakout rooms for communicative activities, and recording skits of roleplays or songs created by students, among others. The chapter also offers sections on corrective feedback and assessment techniques. Research on SLA is incorporated into the descriptions of activities in such a way that those new to this field of research (such as graduate students, for example) would be provided with a solid introduction to key concepts. 

The ninth chapter by Eleonora Buonocore and Angela George examines collaborative experiential learning projects in university-level Spanish and Italian language courses before and after the switch to remote learning. While most previous research on collaboration and experiential learning has focused on intermediate and advanced learners, this chapter includes information on incorporating such projects at the novice level. The chapter begins with an overview of both collaborative and experiential learning, which sets the stage for the authors’ projects involving both aspects, or what they call “collaborative experiential learning”. Buonocore and George describe the results of an environmental scan that examined the current practices in collaborative experiential learning in Spanish and Italian courses at universities in Canada and the US. From this, they describe examples of such projects in their pre- and post-pandemic classrooms, including modifications that were made in the switch to remote learning. The results of the collaborative experiential learning projects are supported by frequent reports from student evaluations that demonstrate the projects’ effects on student confidence in speaking, student’s comfort level when using the target language, and creating a sense of community. For instructors looking to add an engaging collaborative experience to their classrooms, such as having students record cooking videos in the target language, this chapter can serve as a guide for what elements to consider when designing such projects. 

In the tenth chapter, authors Justin P. White, Paul B. Mandell, and Anel Brandl discuss ways that three beginning university-level Spanish courses were transformed in the shift to remote learning while still preserving the courses’ comprehensible-input design. They discuss input-based materials in the online format, including affordances offered in the online delivery mode that are not available in face-to-face classrooms, as well as grammar instruction in remote learning contexts. The chapter then discusses ways of encouraging student output in both written and oral modalities in either asynchronous or synchronous sessions. In the chapter’s conclusion, the authors consider ways to best utilize synchronous class sessions and include interactive activities. The chapter is a useful overview of how to design an effective curriculum for online courses, including which activities are most efficient in asynchronous versus synchronous sessions, which has implications for instructors who may be considering a move to hybrid classes.

Overall, Online Language Teaching in Diverse Contexts is a practical and helpful resource for those instructors who still have questions about online language learning and design. The chapters are accessible and cover multiple aspects of curricular design, from cultural portfolios to integrating grammar instruction. This book would be a useful tool for a graduate teaching seminar for future language instructors, in that it offers specific examples of the practices mentioned while basing the proposed activities in SLA research. While we have all had to adapt to emergency remote teaching during the COVID pandemic, this book demonstrates that there are advantages to considering an online or hybrid approach even once the pandemic is over.

One thought on “Book Review: Online Language Teaching in Diverse Contexts

  • Hello and thank you very much for the comprehensive book review. I think its content could be useful for me and the teachers I work with in the Foreign Languages Department at the university. However; I would like to know if you know about any recent research regarding the impact of online teaching in the student´s actual learning.

    Best regards and thanks again for the excellent review.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *