HomeDigital technology & MultimediaComputer Mediated Communication: Bridging the gaps between writing and speaking

Computer Mediated Communication: Bridging the gaps between writing and speaking




Teenage girl typing on her laptopFollowing on from her first post about Computer Assisted Language Learning, Zoe Handley considers the technologies used by language learners to communicate with educators and other learners.

Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) is the broad term for technologies which allow language learners to communicate with other learners or native speakers through text or audio.

Including e-mail, discussion forums, text messaging, chat and conferencing, CMC has attracted a lot of attention because of its potential to break down Krashen’s (1982) acquisition/learning barrier. According to Krashen, there is a qualitative difference between the subconscious process of acquiring, or ‘picking up’ a language, through interaction with native speakers and the conscious process of learning a language in a classroom through focused activities. While acquisition results in learners ‘knowing how’ to use the language, learning results in learners ‘knowing about’ the language – and apparently it is not possible for learned knowledge to become acquired knowledge.

Chat – text vs oral

The potential to provide students with opportunities to engage in acquisition particularly applies to synchronous voice chat – the type of chat which allows learners to engage in real-time conversations with native speakers.

Consequently, research has focused on comparing chat and face-to-face conversations to assess whether chat provides learners with the right conditions for acquiring language. Does it provide opportunities to negotiate meaning, for example?

Research by Lee (2001) confirms that chat does indeed allow learners to engage in these forms of interaction. In fact, it has been observed that in text-based chat, learners are more likely to focus on form than in face-to-face communication (Warschauer, 1997).

Text-based communication

There are, however, differences between voice chat and face-to-face conversations, and between text-based CMC and the writing produced in other contexts. Some of these differences raise concerns over how appropriate it is to use CMC with language learners.

Perhaps the greatest concern is that the text which learners encounter in CMC is rather informal. This is particularly true for text-based chat, which is characterised by abbreviations, non-standard orthographies and many features of oral language. ‘Netspeak’ is also much more fragmented than writing, and characterised by colloquial non-standard grammar too.

The use of non-standard language has received a lot of attention from the media, who have prophesied a decline in literacy and degeneration of language as a whole. However, the use of such forms is not new, and non-standard forms are not as commonly used in CMC as one is led to believe. Further, recent research in the field of first language literacy suggests that text messaging might improve students’ reading and spelling abilities (Plester et al., 2009).

Oral communication

There is also evidence that the oral nature of text-based CMC might have benefits for language learning. Two studies from our recent review of research on the use of new technologies in EFL exemplify this.

The first study which took this view (Satar and Ozdener, 2008) compared the effects of text and voice chat activities on students’ speaking proficiency and foreign language learning anxiety. The activities were: information gap, problem solving, jigsaw and decision-making.

Participating in either text or voice chat led to improvements in the learners’ speaking proficiency. Most interestingly, learners who participated in the text chat activities were more confident when faced with the possibility of conversing with a native speaker – more confident than those who’d participated in the voice chat activities. Satar and Ozdener, therefore, suggest that it might be beneficial for low proficiency students to begin with text chat activities before progressing to speaking activities.

Discussion forums

The second study (Chandrasegaran and Kong, 2006) focused on the potential of discussion forums to harness learners’ argumentation skills – that is, to raise learners’ awareness of their ability to present arguments in oral debates so they can reuse those skills in expository writing tasks.

They found that while the learners had difficulty presenting their arguments in expository writing, they could indeed express and support their stance on discussion topics in online discussions. Chandrasegaran and Kong therefore suggest that debates in online discussion forums could be used to capitalise on students’ speaking skills in writing activities.


In summary, the oral nature of text-based CMC could prove very useful. As well as allowing learners to engage in acquisition, text-based CMC can be harnessed to bridge gaps between learners’ writing and speaking skills, and vice versa.

Chandrasegaran and Kong  (2006). Stance-Taking and Stance-Support in Students’ Online Forum Discussion. Linguistics and Education.  17 (4): 374-390.
Krashen (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon.
Lee (2001). Online interaction: Negotiation of meaning and strategies used among learners of Spanish. ReCALL. 13 (2): 232-244
Plester, Wood and Joshi (2009). Exploring the relationship between children’s knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. 27: 145-161
Satar and Ozdener (2008). The Effects of Synchronous CMC on Speaking Proficiency and Anxiety: Text versus Voice Chat. Modern Language Journal.  92 (4): 595-613.
Warschauer (1997). Computer-mediated collaborative learning: Theory and practice. The Modern Language Journal. 81 (4): 470-481

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  1. I have found the studies in the progress of language learning with CMC, very interesting. I would not have assumed that it has the potential of helping new language learners to prepare for realtime speech. Thank you

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