Thursday, March 4, 2010

New Online English Courses Integrate Current Research in Cognitive Psychology and Second Language Acquisition

General Introduction

Effective English courses should be based on sound research in cognitive psychology and second language acquisition. Research has shown that high levels of student engagement are "a robust predictor of student achievement and behavior in school" (Klem &Connell, 2004, p. 262). Research has also shown that language learners move through several stages of language acquisition (Krashen & Terrell, 1983). In addition, because different learners use different learning strategies, students most effectively learn when they can use their own learning strategies as well as have a chance to develop different learning strategies.

With or without the teacher’s knowledge, effective language instruction utilizes and acknowledges the above principles. In this regard there is no difference between classroom instruction and online instruction. The difference is that online instruction can pick and choose the best teachers and material to effectively teach English. On the other hand, language school materials and teachers can be hit or miss. Some programs may be excellent, but are spoiled by a poor teacher. Other programs may have excellent teachers but are spoiled by a poor curriculum. One advantage of an Online English course is that it takes the guess work out of choosing an effective English course. In general, online instruction has already proven itself to be as good as or better than face-to-face instruction (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2009). One only needs to know that the online English course is based on sound research.

The Research: Learning Styles

Learning styles is generally described as "cognitive, affective, and physiological traits that are relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with, and respond to the learning environment" (Keefe, 1979a, p.4). Learning styles can vary greatly between individuals. This becomes especially relevant when considering learning English as a second language. Reid (1987, vol.21, #1) showed that learning styles vary between cultures and age groups. As a result, identifying the learning characteristics of specific cultures and age groups has wide-ranging implications in the areas of curriculum design, materials development, student orientation, and teacher training. This is all the more important when considering that children either prefer or reject teaching content based on their individual learning strengths (Dunn, Dunn, & Price, 1979).

Researchers have separated learning styles into six main groups, auditory learners, visual learners, tactile learners, kinesthetic learners, group learning, and individual learning. Unfortunately, there is little to no research about young Asian learning styles, but research into college age ESL learners has shown that native speakers of Korean, Chinese, and Arabic are the strongest visual learners (Reid, 1987). However, self-evaluation showed that Chinese, Korean, Indonesian, and English speakers chose auditory learning as a major learning style. From this research it appears that native Chinese and Korean speakers utilize various learning styles. An effective classroom should take into account both individual and cultural variables when designing and implementing an English course. Ideally, an online English course for non-native speakers should be created by people who had plenty of experience teaching English in the learner’s home country.

Years of practice and refinement have created solid EFL classroom courses, yet the teachers within those classrooms often vary in ability to facilitate learning. The same is true of online English courses. Anyone can create a video classroom and online English materials, but who are they? What is there experience teaching in foreign countries? What is their background in second language acquisition and cognitive psychology? Nowadays, the internet is bringing the classroom into people’s living rooms, yet are these English courses pedagogically sound? These questions are important for any parent to consider. One obvious way of getting this information is to look at the company background and experience.

Although learning styles vary between individuals and have cultural characteristics, it has been shown that delivering teaching content in different contexts can facilitate language learners to use different strategies and thus accelerate learning. Smith and Rensulli (1984, p. 49) indicate that a curriculum may benefit from providing varying instructional situations to accommodate different learning styles. Thus, information presented in different contexts and situations can accelerate learning by both utilizing the students individual learning styles as well as providing chances for children to learn and practice other learning styles. The internet is the perfect tool for providing teaching content in various contexts, such as; pictures, videos, activities, games, passive learning exercises, active engagement exercises, use of different characters with different voices, various conversational contexts, animations, cartoons, action skits, and classroom lectures.

For EFL teachers, applying this information in the classroom becomes intuitive with experience and practice. In a classroom, the line between teacher and student is often blurred. The teacher learns to adapt the curriculum, methodology, and presentation to the individual nature of the class and student, and students learn to adapt to the class by learning new learning strategies as well as acclimating to an unfamiliar curriculum, teaching methodology, and presentation style. A good online English course should utilize this classroom teacher – student relationship by giving some individual control of the learning environment to the student while providing opportunities for the student to adapt to a new learning environment.

The application of this information into an online course has been difficult since most online education material has been created by software developers, not experienced EFL teachers. According to Hubbard (1992) language software designers are often unaware of teacher/student instructional concerns. However, this has now changed. Services like Pumkin Online English, the BBC's, and English Media Lab have integrated cutting edge software with their educational material.


Now that the gap between effective English teaching material and internet technology has been closed, how does one choose an online English course that suits their child’s needs? Based on the previous research, a mental checklist would be useful when choosing an online English course. Answering the following questions is a good place to start when selecting an online English course.

What is the student's age:______
What is the student's English Level:____.
Who created the Online English Course?
Educators OR Designers
Experienced EFL teachers OR Experienced ESL teachers
People knowledgeable in current cognitive psychological research OR people
knowledgeable in traditional teaching methodology
How is the teaching material presented?
In multiple contexts OR single contexts
Requiring multiple learning strategies OR just one learning strategy
Student centered instruction OR teacher centered instruction

If the answers to these questions are: I have a child between the ages of 3 and 10 who is a beginner English student. I prefer an experienced EFL teacher who is familiar with Asian language learning styles. I would like the English course to incorporate cutting edge cognitive psychological research. I believe that the online course should present the material in multiple contexts. I want my child to develop new learning strategies while still being able to use the strategies familiar to him or her, and my child should be at the center of the learning environment. If you answered the questionnaire as such, then is worthwhile to checkout. Other sites are excellent for older intermediate and advanced English students (see and, but so far none have combined teaching experience, sound research, and emerging internet technology to teach young Asian learners basic to intermediate English in an organized and systematic way.

The integration of cutting edge research into individual and cultural based learning styles, EFL teaching experience, and broadband internet technology has started to yield powerful and effective online English courses. Although this is a good place to start when searching for online instruction, there are other issues to consider when choosing an online English course. Some things to consider are; language skills taught, ease of navigation, language of instruction, amount of feedback and reinforcement, child safety, etc. These issues will be looked at in more detail in upcoming articles.

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