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Possibilities of computer assisted vocabulary teaching

The constant progress in information and communications technology nowadays necessitates the use of modern educational technological support. Devices, which in the past seemed to be impossible to implement into the foreign language learning procedure, in the present gradually replace traditional learning equipment. Multimedia computing and the Internet have provided incredible boost to Computer-assisted Language learning applications.

Teachers are in the best position to identify their students’ needs, and to evaluate what role, if any, computers might play in helping their students to learn more.

Although some English language courses contain specific, analytical study of vocabulary, there is still a widespread feeling among teachers that vocabulary is somehow best left to be ‘picked up naturally’. The general preference is for vocabulary to be learned ‘in context’. But if one starts from the position that the foreign language learner needs a range of entertaining, relevant, and meaningful inputs, and then it can be argued that vocabulary can be usefully studied both in and out of context. There are two ways of learning vocabulary, one-word forms of practice, uncontextualized vocabulary learning and contextualized or global forms of practice. The target words can be picked up without any context, but with using exercises for example, matching synonyms or antonyms with the target notion, and such activities like matching two columns of the target word and its synonym or antonym.

The advantage of exercises of this type is the comparative ease with which they can be programmed, particularly if one of the various authoring systems (or teachers' ‘toolkits’) available is used. (In essence, these are programs that ask the teacher what questions he or she wants to ask, and then produce CALL computerassisted language learning programs.)

From the point of view of language learning, an interesting feature of this sort of practice is that, in order to work out the relationships between the pairs of antonyms and synonyms, students need to put them into some sort of sentence framework in their minds. In other words, they have to work out their own contexts. This sort of mental processing of language can be expected to make subsequent recall more likely.

One effect of the contextualised form of practice is that grammar and vocabulary are generally being worked with at the same time, so that the exercises cease to be exclusively concerned with vocabulary.

A major category of contextualized exercises derives from the computer to generate study material by manipulating texts according to instructions in the programs. A popular application of this idea, which has appeared in several different versions, such as John Higgins’s ‘Storyboard’, shows a passage to the students for a few seconds, so they can get a general idea of its contents, and then puts it up on the screen in the form of dashes, with one dash for each letter.

The students’ job is to rebuild the text word by word by guessing the missing words. If they guess a word correctly, the word replaces the dashes everywhere that it occurs, so that the text is gradually reconstituted in mosaic fashion. If students get stuck, they can ask for two kinds of help, either a ‘free’ word (the next missing word and any occurrences of the same word), or else all occurrences of a specified prefix or suffix (e.g. all the –ing endings). Experience with both students has shown that this sort of practice, involving intense concentration on a short text, can be highly intriguing and motivating, both for individuals and groups.

The flexibility of the computer makes it an intriguing medium to work with, and new applications are being thought up all the time. Games and simulations, for example, show considerable possibilities for the language learner.

The exercises of both types encourage students to treat the computer not so much as a drillmaster but more as an information source, which offers hints or clues to help them complete their tasks, and which positively encourages guessing. Such an approach implies the need for a flexibility of structure so as to accommodate the varying needs, preferences, and learning styles of different students. Some like to get as many clues as possible, while others make an immediate guess. Some like to see the text first, while others prefer to work ‘blind’. Some like ‘gambling’ options, or having their score displayed, while others find such distractions irritating.

Incidentally, the computer provides a convenient test-bed for research into learning styles, as it can record, and subsequently analyze, students’ response histories.

The way in which the computer is used relates to a central problem of CALL, namely how best to integrate computer work into the overall teaching program. Indeed, the introduction of CALL into the curriculum has been described as more a pedagogical problem than a computing one. Exercises of the uncontextualized type can be closely related to the class syllabus, for the teacher can decide, for example, on what opposites are to be drilled, or which analogies should be practiced.

However, the text manipulation exercises described do not lend themselves so easily to close teacher control, particularly since the computer’s ‘randomizing’ facility is sometimes used in the production of materials, which makes it impossible to predict which words will be deleted and therefore the form which the exercise will take.

The text manipulation practices in particular have the advantage of offering students a considerable degree of control over how their learning takes place, and intriguing problems for them to solve, with a degree of help from the computer when it is required. As for teachers, they are unlikely to find the computer lightening their workloads, for it is a medium which offers new opportunities for innovative language teaching and learning.

An ideal CALL courseware remains not an alternative but a complementary tool in reinforcing classroom activities. Apart from relying on the ability of educators to create suitable CALL courseware, the effectiveness of CALL depends on the teacher's readiness to adopt new attitudes and approaches toward language teaching. The teacher should avoid being sceptical about the use of computer in language teaching and begin to re-evaluate his methods in the light of computer's tremendous teaching potential and boldly address to the challenges offered. The computer can best assist teachers if it is seen not as a replacement for their work but as a supplement to it. The computer will not replace the language teachers, but, used creatively, it will relieve them of tedious tasks and will enable students to receive individualized attention from both teachers and machines to a degree that has hitherto been impossible.

A number of studies have suggested that explicit instruction has an important effect on student vocabulary learning, though researchers disagree on the form such instruction should take. As regards such instruction in the classroom, some have suggested that teachers ask students to produce words or phrases associated with an idea or concept. Others have emphasized the provision of semantic contrasts between words through the use of examples; still others have backed the use of techniques designed to compel students to negotiate meaning, as in deciding the kind of context in which a particular word might be appropriate [3, p.15]. Other studies [4, p.59-63] have focused on the degree to which explicit instruction should foreground different aspects of a word, such as semantic content, pronunciation and graphic form. In addition, significant theoretical work has centred on the semantic unrelatedness of target words [5, p.6971]. Essentially, teaching words with similar meanings may thwart learners in their attempts to map form onto meaning. However, of crucial importance is the fact that researchers remain divided in their interpretation of the results of such studies.

Recently, incidental vocabulary learning has received renewed attention within SLVA research. As with explicit vocabulary learning, incidental vocabulary learning must be defined clearly before it can be discussed in any meaningful way. Other methodologists [6, p.176] suggest that “incidental vocabulary learning” occurs when “learners are focused on comprehending meaning rather than on the explicit goal of learning new words”. Proponents of incidental vocabulary learning often point to research results that demonstrate vocabulary acquisition in the absence of vocabulary-based directives from teachers or researchers. Often, exposure to vocabulary is thought to be sufficient to trigger acquisition.

In one such study, conducted by Rott [7, p.216], differential exposure to vocabulary items affected the vocabulary development of English native speakers learning German. Specifically, students exposed to words two times in the course of reading fared as well on measures of vocabulary acquisition and retention as those exposed to the same words four times, though both groups performed far worse than a third group that saw the words six times. Rott’s study addressed the relationship between “target” word frequency and vocabulary acquisition. The exposure to a target vocabulary word six times or more triggered acquisition of the word significantly more than did an exposure of five times or fewer. In effect, her study established six occurrences as the numerical determinant of target vocabulary word acquisition in an incidental context.

As important as resources for vocabulary learning are, some researchers have argued they may be of little use without student attention to learning. Specifically, Schmidt [8, p.71], among others, has maintained that learning cannot occur without attention. In other words, in the context of vocabulary learning, students who have not been directed to attend to the form of a word or who do not notice and/or negotiate the meaning of a word will not learn a word. However, the attention students can give to their learning depends on several factors.

As cognitive load researchers have demonstrated, resourceand processing-based constraints limit such attention. In fact, working memory is constrained in terms of both capacity and duration. In a vocabulary study, then, the greater the number of unknown words to which a student is exposed at one time, the greater the demands placed upon working memory, and the higher the likelihood that learning will be hindered and longterm retention blocked. If the demands placed upon working memory are reduced, learning should improve, inasmuch as such a reduction will facilitate increased information storage in long-term memory.

In the classroom, students approach a language-learning ‘task’ from different perspectives, frequently with goals uniquely “formed and reformed under specific historical material circumstances” [1, p.191]. Students with different goals and motivations engage in distinct activities even when asked to perform the same ‘task’, which Lantolf and Thorne [2, p.238] define as an instructor’s or researcher’s “plan for language learning with its accompanying artefacts and orientations”. That is, actual language-learning behaviour frequently deviates from desired or expected languagelearning behaviour. In addition, individual student behaviour changes during the course of a task. In a vocabulary-learning study, for example, student interaction with a languagelearning tool such as an online dictionary often diverges from the use that the researcher has tried to facilitate.

Robust learning occurs when “the acquired knowledge or skill” is either longlasting or transferable, or when it promotes future learning [9, p.82]. For learning to be long-lasting, its duration must constitute days, months or years. For it to be transferable, it must be usable in conditions other than those in which it was learned, and it is said to promote future learning when it can increase the rate at which related knowledge or skills are acquired. Of course, robust language learning is a desirable objective — it is an outcome sought by students, educators and researchers alike.

Nowadays the modern society tends to keep up to date, be it developing technologies, computers or the Internet, the same concerns the modern education. The role of the technology is vast and cannot be separated from education in the 21st century. Certainly these ideas should not be overlooked by our country as well, in particular our educational system. If children grow up to be adults without the skills of independent, self-directed learning, they will be at great disadvantage during the 21st century. Students who have experienced autonomous learning are better equipped to succeed in any level of education and furthermore the workforce.

As we have already perceived in the theoretical part of the research the computerassisted language teaching provides a vast array of learning opportunities to students of all the ages and backgrounds. Students enjoy working with computers, and allowing them an opportunity to work with computers is often a motivator in and of itself. Computers are most popular among students as they are  oftenassociated with fun and games, and furthermore it is an engine, by means of which students can work and study hard. This in turn makes students feel more independent. When students are motivated, they tend to think at higher levels and learn more effectively. Student motivation is therefore increased, especially whenever a variety of activities are offered. And the variety of activities, which computer-assisted language learning offers is really large: even the vocabulary teaching software can provide the students with listening to the music, playing simple games, watching pictures and videos.

And during the analysis of the vocabulary acquisition software for junior school students, based on the methods of computerassisted vocabulary learning we proved that using computer-assisted teaching is a real efficient activity that will involve students into vocabulary learning. The analysis made it possible to figure out recommendations for better usage and efficient implementation of the software into the learning process.



  1. Lantolf J. P., Genung P. I’d rather switch than fight: An activity theoretic study of power, success and failure in a foreign language classroom/ J. P. Lantolf, P. Genung// Language Acquisition and Language Socialization: Ecological Perspectives.-2002.P. 175-197
  2. Lantolf J. P., Thorne S. L. Sociocultural theory and the genesis of second language development/ J. P. Lantolf, S. L. Thorne// Sociocultural theory and the genesis of second language development.-2006.-P.123148
  3. Lee K. Barriers to the Use of Computerassisted Language Learning/ K.Lee// http://iteslj.org/Articles/LeeCALLbarriers.html
  4. Ellis N. C., Beaton A. Psychological determinants of foreign language vocabulary learning/ N. C. Ellis// Language Learning.1993.-No4.-P.59-61
  5. Nation I. S. P. Teaching and learning vocabulary/ I. S. P. Nation// Teaching and learning vocabulary.-2000.-P.45-86
  6. Paribakht T., Wesche M. Reading and “incidental” L2 vocabulary acquisition: An introspective study of lexical inferencing/ T. Paribakht, M.Wesche// Studies in Second Language Acquisition.-2003.-P.195-223
  7. Rott S. The effect of exposure frequency on intermediate language learners’ incidental vocabulary acquisition and retention through reading/ S. Rott// Studies in Second Language Acquisition.-2004.-P.216-254
  8. Schmidt R. (1994). Implicit learning and the cognitive unconscious: Of artificial grammars and SLA. In N. Ellis (Ed.), Implicit and explicit learning of languages (pp. 165209). London: Academic Press.
  9. VanLehn K. The PSLC Theoretical Framework/ K. VanLehn// http://learnlab.org/ clusters/
  10. Beauvois M. Computer-assisted classroom discussions in the foreign language classroom/ M.Beauvois // Foreign Language Annals. 2001. № 25. P. 455-457

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