September 8, 2014
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Okon Effiong, Qatar TESOL President; Qatar TESOL

The quest to go beyond conventional borders is the driving force behind innovative classroom practices. Language teachers can either opt to remain within the safe confines of acceptable classroom practices or push into uncharted and sometimes risky territories. It is only by doing the latter that learners can be offered a new window through which they can view their own learning experience. In an effort to promote foreign language (L2) oracy, often, the confluence of teacher intention and learner expectation can result in positive learning outcomes. In effect, if learners can be provided with opportunities, not only to speak L2 in class, but also to revisit and evaluate their output later, this might help them to reflect more on their effort and impact their subsequent performances. Therefore, using digital voice recorders (DVR) to promote oracy could create an interactive, collaborative, and communicative learning environment within and beyond the classroom.

The effectiveness of technology in L2 learning is rarely in doubt, because powerful multimedia and Internet technology can provide learners with authentic language exposure and meaningful practice. For example, Ducate and Lomicka (2009) used podcasting to help learners to speak outside the class, and Lan, Sung, and Chang (2007) used a combination of video camera and voice recorder to capture learners’ reading activities. Furthermore, mobile phones have been used in the language classroom to promote vocabulary learning (Stockwell, 2010), and the students in Lu’s (1999) study report that practising pronunciation and intonation using voice recorders was more effective than listening to the teacher.

A few years ago, when asked to recommend a mandatory undergraduate course textbook, my response was that the students should spend equivalent amount of money on a DVR. Having previously used a textbook where, more often than not, students would conveniently “forget” their textbook at home, the assumption was that ownership of a DVR would increase learner motivation and participation in classroom oral tasks. The focus was not to measure specific language gains from the use of a DVR in terms of fluency, complexity, and accuracy, but to determine the DVR’s utility value and effect on learner attitude.

Research Question
How does the use of a DVR in the L2 classroom influence learners’ attitude to speaking English?

This study, which was carried out in a private university in Japan, involved 216 first-year undergraduates. This group comprised 123 male and 93 female students from six disciplines, namely: Japanese literature (38), Japanese history (30), history (30), Shinto (45), communication, (30) and education (45). To emphasise ownership of the learning process, the course assessment criterion was decided by the students. When presented with three options (end-of-semester test, regular monthly tests, and portfolio management), all chose portfolio management because it was the least anxiety-provoking. It involved recording and assessing weekly classroom speaking tasks, with the best eight counting toward individual students’ final grade. Student-nominated topics, such as high school days, friendship, love, campus life, and family life, were jointly agreed upon one week prior to discussion. In class, the chosen topic was broken down into subtopics to provide more speaking opportunities. Students got into mixed gender groups of four with their DVRs in standby mode. It is worth mentioning that nobody ever “forgot” to bring his or her DVR to class.

Although students were advised to buy inexpensive DVRs within the recommended price range (US$30), many purchased the more sophisticated brands, resulting in more than a quarter of the sample population having DVRs with a USB adaptor. There was therefore no difficulty in having at least one member in every group with a USB-enabled DVR. This facilitated copying the recording to the teacher’s laptop soon after the task. During the task phase, all DVRs were switched on, and each member of the group captures not only his or her contribution, but utterances of all the group members.

To minimise first-language (L1) usage during the task implementation phase, planning time was given which, according to Ellis (2009), has a beneficial effect on fluency. During the planning phase, minimal use of the L1 was permitted to facilitate pretask discussion. At this stage, the DVRs were on standby mode, but switched on during the task phase, and participants take it in turns to speak. Participants were aware that the assessment would be based on both quantity and quality of their L2 utterances. For this reason, they were to ensure efficient turn-taking to allow for equitable contribution from all group members. This would also dissuade one or two individuals from dominating the proceedings. Each student could speak for up to five minutes in L2. At the end of the task, the content of the USB-enabled DVR would be transferred to the teacher’s laptop. This worked seamlessly in all six classes. At the end of the semester, the students were given time to reflect on the learning experience through a survey. The responses were compared with those obtained from the survey administered at the beginning of the course.

Results and Discussion
Introducing a pedagogic initiative requires proper management, and, in this case, providing sufficient technical support would have minimised the difficulty experienced by some participants. Although the high end plug-and-play DVRs did not present many technical problems, some brands required additional software for compatibility with other media. The data on out-of-class usage shows that 73% used the DVR once a week and 75% indicated their willingness to use it more than once in the future. The demands of real-time speaking are enormous, unlike with reading, where the learner can process and reprocess the language features for better comprehension. One of the merits of the DVR was the ability to replay learner utterances after class, which likely explains why 36% of the participants want to speak more in class. This partly answers the research question.

DVR allowed for self-assessment of learner output and challenged them into taking more risks with the language.

The DVR served as a feedback mechanism because participants could identify their errors during playback and self-corrected accordingly. Half of the participants claimed that they can improve their speaking ability by listening to their or their peers’ utterances. This is a further attestation to the capability of DVR as a language learning tool, because these learners benefit from the scaffolding that peer interaction provides. By listening and relistening to their speech, learners can fathom out meanings, develop conversation and negotiation skills, and become aware of other interactional features that might have seemed ambiguous in class. DVR has the potential to help the learners to discover their learning styles and preferences. Eighty-five percent admitted to enjoying this particular learning style while 15% said no, 82% stated they would be able to speak more English if they continued to learn this way, 18% stated no. Finally, 63% commented that, given the opportunity, they would use DVR in future English classes. Notably in the pre-task questionnaire, when asked “do you want to speak more in class because you can listen to your voice later?,36% said yes, 15% indicated no, 39% suggested they would like to stay the same, and 10% were indifferent. At the beginning of the semester, 38% said they were happy with their voice recorder, 34% claimed they were difficult to use, 16% were indifferent and 11% said they were not happy. This changing attitude resulting from the use of DVR adds more credence to its utility value. In sum, reflecting on the responses obtained, one can claim that the research question has been answered in the affirmative.


The findings show that all participants listened to their L2 utterances at home and are willing to utilise the DVR more. The students also showed interest in adopting the tool in future encounters with the L2, thus suggesting the motivational propensity of DVR. It was also found to be an effective error-correction tool capable of facilitating L2 learning. A great majority expressed satisfaction and felt motivated with this teaching approach. Japan is a high-tech EFL context, but it has learners with low L2 oral skills. Importantly, the Japanese students’ affinity for gadgets helped to secure their interest in this experiment. I was very fortunate to have curricular freedom, because replication might be difficult in institutions where teachers have to follow structured syllabi. Notwithstanding, the use of DVR as a teaching tool would benefit low-tech EFL contexts which lack computer technology and Internet connectivity.


Ducate, L. & Lomicka, L. (2009). Podcasting: An effective tool for honing language students’ pronunciation. Language Learning & Technology, 13(3), 66–86.

Ellis, R. (2009). The differential effects of three types of task planning on the fluency, complexity, and accuracy in L2 oral production. Applied Linguistics, 30(4), 474–509.

Lan, Y., Sung, Y., & Chang, K. (2007). A mobile-device-supported peer-assisted learning system from collaborative early reading. Language Learning & Technology, 11(3), 130–151.

Lu, D. (1999). Peer evaluation of voice recordings. TESOL Journal, 8(1), 35.

Stockwell, G. (2010). Using mobile phones for vocabulary activities: Examining the effect of the platform. Language Learning & Technology, 14(2), 95–110.

Okon has a PhD in applied linguistics. He is the president of Qatar TESOL, the chair of TESOL International Association’s Standing Committee on Diversity & Inclusion, and the coeditor of the EFL-IS newsletter. Okon has taught in Nigeria, the United Kingdom, and Japan, and is a lecturer in the Foundation Programme English Department, Qatar University.
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