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AI for Language Learning: ChatGPT and the Future of ELT

by Brent Warner |

On the last day of November 2022, OpenAI, an artificial intelligence research lab, launched ChatGPT into the world, and launched an avalanche of concern, curiosity, fear, and hope all at once. For those who haven’t been watching, ChatGPT is a chatbot that generates incredibly sophisticated responses to pretty much any question or statement you feed to it.

Need a cover letter explaining why you’re a great candidate for that elite graduate program? Done. Need a five paragraph essay about the development of the subway system in New York City? Done. Oh yeah, in MLA format? Done and done. How might this kind of open source technology affect language teaching and learning?

Let’s take a look at a segment of that subway essay:

My Prompt: Write a five paragraph essay about the development of the subway system in New York City in MLA format

ChatGPT Response: The development of the subway system in New York City has played a significant role in the city’s growth and development over the past century. The first subway line, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), was opened in 1904, and it quickly became a popular form of transportation for both locals and tourists. In the following decades, the subway system expanded rapidly, with new lines and stations being added to serve the growing population.

One of the key factors in the development of the subway system was the need to alleviate congestion on the city’s streets. As the population of New York City grew in the early 20th century, the streets became increasingly congested with streetcars, buses, and automobiles. The subway provided an alternative mode of transportation that could carry large numbers of people quickly and efficiently. It also allowed for the expansion of the city beyond its crowded downtown area, as new subway lines were built to serve the outer boroughs.

In the decades following the opening of the IRT, the subway system continued to evolve and expand. In 1940, the city’s three major subway companies, the IRT, the Brooklyn…

For many teachers (including me!), the first response right out of the gate was some serious hand-wringing. After all, if we believe that writing is the best way to refine and develop our thinking, what will happen if we no longer need to write? Will thinking soon disappear? It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole, but today I’d like to look up to the sky and imagine some possibilities.

And what better way to imagine some of the possibilities than to ask ChatGPT itself how we can use it to help multilingual learners of English. Below are some of ChatGPTs suggestions when I asked it how it can be used to help English language learners:

My Prompt: How can ChatGPT be used to help English Language Learners?

ChatGPT Response: There are several ways that ChatGPT can be used to help English Language Learners

First, ChatGPT can be used as a tool to practice speaking and listening skills. ELLs can have conversations with ChatGPT, which will respond with appropriate responses based on the input it receives. This can help ELLs become more comfortable speaking in English and improve their pronunciation and vocabulary.

My first thought on reading this response was “I got you! ChatGPT doesn’t have speech recognition!” but upon pressing (by asking for clarification), ChatGPT suggested that you can use pretty much any device with a microphone to transcribe your spoken English into the prompt box. Once the responses are generated, students can use screen reading software to verbalize the response. So here, ChatGPT is partially correct. While students may still have to deal with technology that doesn’t recognize their answers in speaking and listening, it will give them responses that can handily simulate a conversation, allowing for a tireless, fluent companion that students can practice with.

ChatGPT Reponse (continued): Second, ChatGPT can be used as a writing assistance tool. ELLs can use ChatGPT to generate ideas and receive feedback on their writing. ChatGPT can also provide grammar and spelling assistance, which can be particularly helpful for ELLs who are still learning the rules of the English language.

This is a big one. Many teachers have already become accepting (sometimes reluctantly) of the fact that students will use tools like Grammarly to support their writing. Like it or not, ChatGPT can give students many of the same responses that I would have given to them. Let’s look at some of the feedback it gave when I plugged in a recent student written paragraph and asked it to check the grammar:

If my goal as a teacher is to help students learn, then should I withhold access to the same information until the timing is convenient for me? Some teachers might look at this and ask if they’re even relevant anymore. I would suggest that the answer is yes, but our focus will shift on helping students develop even deeper critical thinking skills in English. Less motivated teachers who just want to teach grammar may be weeded out over time, but those who are ready to take deeper dives will get the opportunity to mentor students on their path to becoming confident and autonomous English users.

ChatGPT Reponse (continued): Third, ChatGPT can be used as a way to expose ELLs to different types of language and discourse. ChatGPT can generate responses in a variety of styles and genres, such as formal and informal language, which can help ELLs become more proficient in using appropriate language for different situations.

Imagine the opportunity to turn nonacademic, informal content that is high interest and directly focused on any given student into an accessible i+1 level reading. Last year, I wrote about ways to create your own leveled readers, but with the release of ChatGPT, this can be fine tuned. Take a look at the following two examples. First, a simplification of a paragraph from the New York Times, then an “upgrading” of a simple paragraph from Time for Kids.

My Prompt: Rewrite the following paragraph so a sixth grader can understand it: A good adaptation is not one that shows total fealty to the original source material. A good adaptation, instead, is one that chooses and changes with an eye toward the essence of that material. Luchino Visconti’s 1963 adaptation of “The Leopard” by the Italian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa is not faithful to every beat of the 1958 novel. But it captures its essence: the story of a changing society and those soon-to-be-left-behind as relics of a dead world.

ChatGPT Reponse: An adaptation is when a story is changed into a different form, like a movie or TV show. A good adaptation is not just a copy of the original story, but it keeps the most important parts and changes other parts to make it work better in the new form. For example, the movie “The Leopard” from 1963 is based on a book from 1958, but it doesn’t follow every detail of the book. Instead, it keeps the main idea of the story, which is about a society that is changing and people who are left behind.

My Prompt: Rewrite the following paragraph so it is appropriate for a 12th grader: I don’t know how they do ski slopes or other kinds of racing courses. In football, there’s a grid and there are certain distances, and the field is a certain size. The wonderful thing about golf course architecture is that it’s ever-changing.

ChatGPT Response: I am not sure how ski slopes or other types of racing courses are designed. In football, the field is set up in a specific way with a grid and certain distances. However, one of the great things about golf course architecture is that it is always changing and adapting.

These are only brief examples I asked ChatGPT off the top of my head. With time and experience, both teachers and students will start to discover the ways they can hone in on building specific skills, reduce time wasted on content that doesn’t engage students, and learn and understand language concepts that have traditionally been evasive in the English language classroom.

Without a doubt, there are going to be problems with plagiarism and ghost writing, and there will be many who will simply throw up their hands and proclaim that they don’t need to study anymore, because look what ChatGPT can do! As teachers, it will be our responsibility to help students see not only what this type of AI can do for them, but what unimaginable futures it can build with them.

The conversation around ChatGPT and similar technologies is only in its infancy. This post is only meant to open the conversation, and opinions, thoughts, concerns, and possibilities will only increase as awareness builds. We also cracked the door on the conversation over on the DIESOL podcast with my cohost, Ixchell Reyes, and professor Eric H Roth in Episode 76. I encourage everyone to join in on this conversation as we are at ground zero, and we have the opportunity to shape the future of education here!

About the author

Brent Warner

Brent Warner is a professor of ESL at Irvine Valley College in California, and an educational technology enthusiast. He is co-host of the DIESOL podcast, the only podcast with a specific focus on EdTech in ESL. He frequently presents on the crossroads of technology and language learning, focusing on student engagement and developing learner autonomy. Brent likes his coffee black and his oranges orange. He can be found on LinkedIn at @BrentGWarner.

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