Computer-Mediated Communications (A Five-Year Review of the Literature)

[This report was produced by Jerry Bicknell, a doctoral candidate in Instructional Technology, as part of a review of the literature for his dissertation.]

The use of computer-mediated communication in second or foreign language instruction still most frequently occurs in a writing context. Although audio and video technologies are beginning to emerge, CMC, including chat rooms, largely exist only in a textual form. In this environment, writing is usually less formal, resembling spoken language rather more than standard written forms. It has been suggested that such writing is similar to or may even affect spoken fluency (Beauvois & Eledge, 1996; Chun, 1994; Kern, 1997). Six of the 38 articles [in the full five-year (1993-97) literature review] investigated some aspect of language instruction via a local area network (LAN) (Beauvois & Eledge, 1996; Cahill & Catanzano, 1997; Chun, D. M., 1994; Kern, 1995; Leppänen & Kalaja, 1995; Warshauer, 1996). Except for the use of the telephone for three-way conference calls, and for pronunciation practice and evaluation in one study (Cahill & Catanzano, 1997), all of the electronic communications described in these studies took place in a text environment. One study included internet use in the form of searches via a web browser; this course was also conducted entirely electronically (Cahill & Catanzano, 1997), in all the others, CMC comprised a portion of the total instructional time. Among the elements assessed were turn taking, length of turn, writing quality, type of discourse, and students attitudes.

Chun (1994) used the Daedalus™ software with first-year students of honors German "to increase their spoken and written communicative language proficiency" (p. 18). Students attended five computer sessions of about 15 to 20 minutes each their first semester and nine sessions of between 20 and 45 minutes each their second semester. During each session, the students "discussed" a pre-chosen topic. Chun was struck by the fact that students in the class interacted directly with each other, rather than the teacher. She concludes "learners are definitely taking the initiative, constructing and expanding on topics, and taking a more active role in discourse management than is typically found in normal classroom discussion" (p. 28). She notes that students' writing in the on-line environment resembled spoken conversation, and that this type of writing might improve not only writing skills, but speaking skills as well.

Two studies explicitly compared on-line and classroom interactions (Kern, 1995; Warshauer, 1996). Kern (1995) used the Interchange component of the Daedalus Integrated Writing Environment™, which allows for synchronous, real-time interactions, with second semester students of French. Students worked in the computer lab one period every two weeks, where they responded to and/or discussed questions posed by the instructor and related to a specific reading or to a general topic found in their current lesson. Based on an analyses of on-line and in-class transcripts, Kern concluded that with the CMC application, students produced more language than in class, that they interacted more frequently, and that the quality of the output was more sophisticated than the oral environment. He also notes the increased student-to-student interactions and a correspondingly reduced role for the teacher. Notably, students who were reluctant to participate in face-to-face conversation participated more freely in the on-line exchanges. This finding is echoed in Warshauer's (1997) study.

Studying foreign students learning English at the University of Hawai'i, Warshauer (1997) also compared on-line and face-to-face interactions. He too used the Daedalus ™ Interchange software. Students, working in groups of four, interacted either at a table (face-to-face) or via computer-mediated communications. Three of the four groups showed more equality of participation in the CMC mode. Interestingly, there was a higher correlation between the students interaction and their listening scores on the Secondary Level English Proficiency (SLEP) test than on their reading scores on the test, or their length of time in the United States. The electronic discussions proved to be more complex structurally and lexically than the face-to-face sessions. Students also reported generally favorable attitudes towards the program.

Leppänen and Kalaja (1995) explicitly studied the effects of the CMC environment on student writing. In their study, five students at a Finnish university studying British and American Institutions, in lieu of meeting in class, discussed the lectures and required readings via computer, in addition to seeking on-line feedback for their initial outlines and two drafts of essays for the class. The authors note a "drastic" change in group dynamics, with students interacting mostly with each other and not with the tutor, who participated in the on-line discussions. On their papers, students also received more peer comments, which were of a different quality than the "traditional red pen" approach of the tutor.

Finally, Cahill and Catanzano (1997) used FirstClass Client™ software with a first-year Spanish course that was offered using a standard text and audio tape/workbook support, but which met entirely electronically, never in a physical classroom. By means of e-mail, synchronous chat sessions, telephone conference calls, and World Wide Web searches, students interacted with their instructor, with each other, and with authentic texts without ever meeting face-to-face. The online class was compared to an in-class group for essay quality and number of errors. The students in the on-line course had significantly higher quality essays with significantly fewer errors.


In all the studies on computer-mediated communication, increased interactions among students were noted. Positive results were also reported by at least one author for writing quality (Cahill & Catanzano, 1997). In addition, several of the researchers suggest that these text-base interactions were similar to and/or may influence oral proficiency (Beauvois & Eledge, 1996; Chun, 1994; Kern, 1997). Beyond the obvious question of the effect of CMC on students' reading and writing ability, these questions are raised: Does interaction in a CMC text-based medium improve students' aural and oral language proficiency? That is, do listening and speaking skills benefit from such interactions? Moreover, what are the effects of learning style or cognitive style on such interactions?


Beauvois, M. H. & Eledge, L. (1996). Personality types and megabytes: Student attitudes toward computer mediated communication (CMC) in the language classroom. CALICO Journal, 13(2 & 3), 27-45.

Cahill, D. & Catanzaro, D. (1997). Teaching first year Spanish on-line. CALICO Journal, 14(2-4), 97-114.

Chun, D. M. (1994). Using computer networking to facilitate the acquisition of interactive competence. System, 22, 17-31.

Kern, R. G.1995 Restructuring classroom interaction with networked computers: Effects on quantity and characteristics of language production. The Modern Language Journal, 79, 457-476.

Leppänen, S. & Kalaja, P. (1995). Experimenting with computer conferencing in English for academic purposes. ELT Journal, 49, 26-36.

Warshauer, M. (1996). Comparing face-to-face and electronic discussion in the second language classroom. CALICO Journal, 13(2&3), 7-25.

Copyright 1998 Jerome H. Bicknell