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When CALL Was Uncharted Territory

Posted December 2004: Claire Bradin Siskin recalls the early days of the teacher-cum-programmer and predicts a bright future. See John Higgins' article, "Celebrating 25 Years of the Teacher-cum-Programmer," Essential Teacher, Winter 2004 (pp. 22-25).

As a contemporary of John Higgins, I well remember the days of the teacher-cum-programmer (T-C-P), when we early computer-assisted language learning (CALL) enthusiasts were pretty much left to our own devices. The so-called real programmers often looked down on our technical skills.

Then: Frustrations and Thrills for the T-C-P

At one of TESOL's software fairs in the mid-1980s, I presented a humble software effort that was programmed in BASIC, which I knew only slightly. I worried about what people would think if they knew that my then-teenaged son had done most of the actual programming. I wondered, "Will people say I'm a fraud?" A colleague in TESOL's CALL Interest Section (CALL-IS) reminded me that I had designed the program and that it was perfectly legitimate for me to show it.

In those days, very few ESL/EFL teachers shared the vision held by T-C-Ps, and the sympathetic atmosphere of the CALL-IS served as a major source of inspiration and support. We were definitely in uncharted territory. The challenge was to try to figure out ways to get rather primitive computers to accomplish particular goals in teaching the language. Just the fact that we could get a computer to execute the wrong--try again method was a big thrill.

Now: Program or Purchase? It's Your Choice

Visionaries such as John Higgins and Tim Johns have helped move the field past modest expectations by expanding the conception of how computers can be used in language learning. You have only to visit a present-day CALL lab to observe that a computer is no longer a machine to be approached with reverence and fear. Typical language learners regard it as a commonplace tool, and it has indeed become a slave.

A perusal of the TESOL CALL Interest Section Software List (Healey & Johnson, 2004, reveals a sometimes-bewildering array of choices for teachers who don't want to program and prefer to purchase ready-made commercial software or download freeware programs. An equally large embarrassment of riches exists in the resources that are now accessible via the Internet. The real difficulty lies in selecting the most appropriate materials for a given situation.

In spite of all that is available, some teachers still continue to generate their own CALL lessons and activities. Just as there is no perfect textbook, and good teachers everywhere like to supplement the text with handouts of their own making, they can't seem to resist the temptation to create computer-based materials to meet the specific needs of their students. Some currently popular options for authoring in CALL are summarized in Authoring in CALL (Siskin, 2003, May teachers' enthusiasm never wane!


Healey, D., & Johnson, N. (2004). TESOL CALL Interest Section software list. Retrieved September 20, 2004, from

Siskin, C. B. (2004). Authoring in CALL. Retrieved September 30, 2004, from

Claire Bradin Siskin ( directs the Robert Henderson Language Media Center at the University of Pittsburgh, in the United States.]