Many ESL professionals are familiar with the acronym CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning), but an interesting off-shoot is ICALL (Intelligent CALL). One of my favorite examples is the WERTi system, developed by Detmar Meurers while he was at Ohio State. (To try it, log in as “anonymous” and leave the password field blank.)
This system uses XML to create three activities based on Reuters news articles: Color, Click, and Fill-in-the-blanks. The first activity makes targeted words blue, raising the student’s awareness of the targeted structure. The second makes every word clickable. When the user clicks on a target word, it turns green; mistakes turn red. The third replaces every target word with a blank that students can complete. Correct responses are again green, errors red. If users give up and ask the computer to fill in the blank, the answer is blue. Originally based around Prepositions, I suggested to Detmar that articles might also be worth practicing, so Determiners were added (more on that in a minute).
The greatest thing about this system is that the computer is exploited to create the activities, the topics of which are selected by the student. And the number of activities is virtually unlimited.
The downside is that computers are not truly “intelligent.” Consequently, a few mistakes are made. Each page is marked up in XML using the Penn Tagset. But if a word is misidentified, this will error be reflected in the activity.
Incidentally, if you want to “hack” they system to try different grammatical features, you can add the tag from the Penn Tagset to the URL. So, to change an activity from determiners to superlative adjectives, change “pos_target=DT” to “pos_target=JJS” and voila!
Some features in the tagset are probably too uncommon to be worth including; Others may not be easy to practice using these activities. But, the idea that computers can generate activities from any page on the internet is really appealing to me.