How Webquests Support Speaking Skills In Language Learning Education Essay

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Nowadays the Internet and computer technology have penetrated all aspects of our life: e-mails, online commerce, e-government, and even online education has become a common convention, for example: online language courses. Especially most school children and young adults cannot imagine their lives without them, considering the time they spend playing videogames, texting on mobile phones, and surfing the Internet to find information for presentations or other assignments. They are 'digital natives', a term suggested by Prensky (2001) which means they were born into this e-environment and used to have access to the world wide information resources. In comparison to their teachers, 'digital immigrants', lacking technology fluency and who have to adjust themselves to the upgraded situation (Prensky, 2001). The situation, where two generations should find mutual understanding and common language in order to achieve successful education process. I think we should take advantage of this tendency and involve learners into education with great opportunities which the Internet can present.

The reason I chose webquests for support teaching speaking skills in second language (L2) learning is I consider webquests to be a good example, where contemporary L2 learners can integrate their computer skills for L2 oral communication development through cooperation with peers during devising a webquest as well as presenting it. I focus on bilingual (Russian, Kazakh) 19-20-year old L2 learners, studying International relations at the university, the level of English is upper-intermediate; I think webquests meet their needs to develop oral skills very well, because webquests encourage cooperative learning, therefore stimulates interactions in L2. Also webquests provide motivation, encourage critical thinking skills. Learners required not only restate information they find, but also to transform it in order to achieve a given task.

The aims of this paper are to investigate how webquests can facilitate teaching and learning speaking skills in second language learning.


Definition of webquests

A webquest, as termed by one of the originators of the learning activity, Bernie Dodge, is 'an inquiry-oriented activity in which some or all of the information that learners interact with comes from resources on the Internet'. (1995:2). He further differentiated between short-term webquests, which extend through one to three class periods, and long-term webquests, which extend between one week and one month (Dodge, 1995). In addition, he identified six critical attributes that a well-designed webquest should include: an introduction, a task, information sources, a description of the process, guidance on how the information should be organized, and a conclusion (Dodge, 1995). A webquest is commonly built around interests of students who work in small groups by following the steps in the webquest model to tackle the problems, propose hypotheses, search for information with the web links provided by the teacher, analyse and synthesize the information using guided questions, and present solutions to the problems. Students are often assigned with certain roles in the group. By working on the topics in the area in which they assume a role, students collectively contribute to the understanding of the issues with considerable breadth and depth. The teacher scaffolds learners through the whole learning process using a structured approach. The ongoing, formative assessment which often takes the form of rubrics, is used to evaluate students' learning, the purpose of which is to help students grow rather than cataloguing their mistakes (Tomlinson, 1999).

Design of webquests

Several researchers have emphasized the importance of webquest design (Dodge, 1995; March, 2004, 2006). These researchers noted some issues to be taken into consideration by teachers or webquest designers, who should make sure that webquests contain the six critical attributes mentioned above (Dodge, 1995, 2001), are motivating to students (March, 2004), function as authentic scaffolding tasks (Dodge, 2001; March, 2004), include an organized list of relevant sites to ensure meaningful use of potential Internet resources (Dodge, 2001; March, 2004), assist to systematize the use of Internet resources, and facilitate work in organized cooperative groups (March, 2006). I think these issues are undoubtedly very important, and also I find the topicality of webquests should be considered as well.

A good webquest will begin with an introduction, which motivates the students, introduces the topic, sets the stage for the whole activity and provides any necessary background information. Therefore, activates background knowledge of the students. As Anderson et al. points out, "every act of comprehension involves one's knowledge of the world as well" (1977:369). The role of background knowledge in language comprehension has been formalized as schema theory (Rumelhart, 1980), which has as one of its basic principle that text, any text, either spoken or written, does not by itself carry meaning. Rather, according to schema theory, a text only provides guidelines for learners as to how they should retrieve or construct meaning from their own, earlier acquired knowledge. This previously acquired knowledge is called the learner's background knowledge, and the previously acquired knowledge structures are called schemata (Rumelhart, 1980). According to schema theory, comprehending a text is an interactive process between the learner's background knowledge and the text. Efficient comprehension requires the ability to relate the textual material to one's own knowledge. Comprehending words, sentences, and entire texts involves more than just relying on one's linguistic knowledge. Although schema theory refers mainly to reading comprehension, I think activation of background knowledge is very important both in offering incentive and in better comprehension of the webquest task as well as its performance.

Instructions of the webquests are very significant. The students have to be told what the end result of the webquest will be, what task they must perform and what their end product should be. The instructions, therefore, need to identify clearly the steps the students should go through in order to accomplish the final task and should provide scaffolding for organizing the information gathered during the activity.

Task-based learning

Also a clear list of online resources the students will need to access in order to perform the task needs to be provided. Given that websites often disappear, the teacher needs to check before the webquest begins that all the sites required are still current.

Students should be told in advance how their performance on the webquest will be evaluated. For example, presentation of the final product and cooperative group work.

A final summary should set out what the students have accomplished by completing the webquest. This may also provide information on additional opportunities for extending the activity or doing further reading or research.

There are plenty of ready-made webquest available, which teachers can use. However, many teachers prefer to design their own in order to make them relevant to their students' interest and abilities. There are several factors which should be born in mind to produce a webquest:

- the age, level and linguistic ability of the students

- the vocabulary which will be needed to complete the task

- the teaching context into which the webquest is to fit

- the strategies to be practiced

- the genre of the texts to be used

- The content

- the linguistic and non-linguistic objectives

- the available web resources (Grisolia, 2008)

Advantages and disadvantages of webquests

Researchers have also identified basic benefits of webquests, such as aiding to systematize Internet inquiry-based learning (Godwin-Jones, 2004), increasing learners' motivation and involvement in class (Halat, 2008), assisting learners to organize and employ the knowledge gained (MacGregor & Lou, 2005), conferring efficient scaffolding in cooperative group learning, and encouraging learner autonomy (Lara & Reparaz, 2007). Ikpeze and Boyd (2007) argue that webquests help bridge the gap between content literacy and technological literacy. Learners are not just learning to deal with technology, but were using the technology to enhance their learning. Moreover, I consider webquests to be advantageous in language learning, because they can be used as a meaningful problem solution, encouraging students to use target language during the process as well as through presenting the final product of a webquest.

Although in a monolingual class learners tend to speak L1 within a group during the colleting the necessary information, discussing the given topic and negotiating between each other, I think the teacher can encourage the students to use L2, highlighting it as a key element of the webquest accomplishment.

Other researchers have determined some drawbacks in the webquests application. For instance, Sen and Neufeld (2006:56) found that learners did not particularly enjoy working in groups and would have liked to have had the option to work on their own on the webquest task. Luke (2006:79) reported that students considered that the enhanced learner autonomy provided through inquiry-based instruction had negative effects on students' motivation. Some of these students asked for more conventional lessons, including a focus on grammar and vocabulary. Some students also became bored with the routine use of this instructional method and even felt it was a ''waste of time'' (Luke, 2006:80). These types of conclusions evoke that teachers need to carefully design and fulfill webquest tasks to make sure that students will effectively accomplish the task and will be highly motivated to do so (Dodge, 1995, March, 2006).

The information overload problem may also affect on the learners. Students have to answer questions via consideration of several Internet sources. So they can be overwhelmed by the amount of information to be searched. Kuiper et al. (2005) concluded that learners' cognitive capacities and linguistic abilities should be considered as crucial factors.

Cognitive overload can also be caused because text, pictures, sound, and movies are presented simultaneously (Mayer, 2001), and learners must split their attention between these different sources and integrate them for comprehension (cf. Schnotz & Ku¨rschner, 2007). Learners can also get lost in hyperspace; and users can encounter major difficulties with the search for information at times. Therefore, I think, the teacher should take into account learners' cognitive capacities and linguistic abilities.

In addition, the information found via the Internet may not always be reliable and it is often not suited to the ages or reading levels of young learners. These difficulties may make it difficult for learners to stay focused on the task at hand and, thereby, actually hinder the student's learning process.

Speaking skills

The complexity of learning to speak in L2 is reflected in the range and type of subskills that are entailed in L2 oral production. Learners must simultaneously attend to content, morphosyntax and lexis, discourse and information structuring, and the sound system, as well as appropriate register and pragmalinguistic features (Tarone, 2005). In an interaction that typically involves speaking and comprehending at the same time, L2 speakers need to self-monitor so that they can identify and correct production problems at the pace of a real conversational exchange. Research on the characteristics and development of L2 oral skills has shown conclusively that communicating in an L2 is a cognitively demanding undertaking, not to mention that the success of an interaction often depends on production quality (McCarthy and O'Keeffe, 2004). Thus, speaking in an L2 requires fluency, accuracy, and sufficient lexicogrammatical repertoire for meaningful communication to take place.

Hedge (2000) identifies four learners' needs for speaking activities: contextualized practice, personalizing language, building awareness of the social use of language and building confidence.

Contextualized practice focuses on making clear the connection between linguistic form and communicative function. In other words, presenting situation in which a structure is commonly used. For instance, using modal auxiliary verbs 'might', 'could' through describing possible outcomes of the activities taken by an international organization.

Personalizing language is very essential when students express their own thoughts, ideas, feelings and opinions. It can undoubtedly be motivating as well as makes language more memorable. For example, discussing the topic the students try to persist in their opinions, give reasons and convince in the accuracy of the programme.

Practicing social use of language is very important in understanding appropriateness of social behaviour, which tends to be interpersonal rather than language issues. If a learner fails to comply with social convention about how to start or close a conversation, it can cause offence of an interlocutor.

Building confidence in students for making them to produce language quickly and automatically does certainly depend on the teacher. The teacher should create a positive climate for classroom communication by giving opportunities for learners to practice more speaking in L2. For example, encouraging to speak in L2 during the process of webquest performance as well as presenting a final report for the class.

Social Constructivist Learning Approach

The focus of my study is to investigate how webquests can support speaking skills in language learning. Therefore, I consider webquests to facilitate oral skills improvement through experience and the interaction between students communicating in L2 during implementation and presenting the webquest project. Given the significance of the social context in which oral interaction takes place and cooperative positions of students negotiating and reflecting on their own performance, collaborative computer use and the importance of intercultural competence, the use of webquests for communicative language development relies mainly on the theory of social constructivism as expressed by Vygotsky (1978), Lantolf (2000), along with Bandura's social cognitive theory (Bandura, 2005). Throughout the continuous use of explicit dialogues (and their internalization in the students' own knowledge) based on results from webquests, students learn to manage themselves in real-like communication situations (Turcotte, 2005) and then in reality.

In other words, in the process of learning L2 the learner is considered as holding internalized knowledge of L2 which is mentally processed to result in the acquisition and use of the target language. The cognitive processes are stimulated when new information is presented. The learner's prior knowledge assists in this new information to be comprehended well. The learner will then use memory, cognitive and metacognitive strategies and mental procedures to construct or re-construct internal representations to match the target language (Simina and Hamel, 2005).

Within that cognitive process, the learner's prior knowledge hence plays a key role as the L2 is constructed in relation to it. The learner's prior knowledge consists of his mother tongue (L1) and a general knowledge of the world. The L1 provides an insight into how language is structured and therefore it inevitably works as a point of reference in L2 learning.

The belief that where two languages are similar, positive transfer will occur, while, where they are different, negative transfer or interference will result, constitutes the so-called Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis (CAH) (Ellis, 1994). As language is culturally and socially oriented learners need to rely on their experiences to understand its meaning and use. Thus, the more distinct cultural differences between the two languages are, the more learners have to modify their interpretations to match the target language.

Nevertheless, there is the belief that learners create hypotheses about the structure of L2 on the basis of the input they receive and build a 'hypothetical grammar' which is tested internally or when learners produce an output (Corder, 1976). This 'hypothetical grammar' is what Selinker (1972) called interlanguage. Interlanguage is based on personal interpretations which vary from individual to individual. Therefore, the interlanguage each learner builds is unique, showing that individuals construct knowledge on their own by gathering and processing information, which is the basic tenet of constructivism.

However, we cannot disregard the role of interaction in the structure and modification of the learner's internal interpretations of L2. It is through the interaction with others and the learning materials that learners receive input, form and test hypotheses in order to acquire the target language. According to the general theoretical framework developed by Gass (1988), learners receive input in the form of aural and written information in which they notice features due to the saliency of the features themselves or their own prior knowledge. If the perceived input becomes comprehensible, it is associated with the learners' prior knowledge. This input does not become part of the implicit knowledge until it has been fully integrated. The learners' output, oral or written, will allow them to reuse newly integrated hypotheses, check their validity and reform original ones. If the output, which is the overt manifestation of the process of language comprehension, leads to a misunderstanding because it fails to fit the target language, learners will receive feedback or there will be negotiation of meaning.

All these point to a process where input becomes output and output becomes input, and so on and so forth. According to constructivist accounts, with regard to the skills of listening and reading, learners receive input which they process through a variety of cognitive operations in order to construct a representation of the target language which they finally verbalize in the form of aural and/or written output, i.e. speaking and writing.

For example, classmates help through interaction to increase their knowledge in relation to the situations that the student will have to experience in future. A sample of this would be the repetition of conversations between team manager, secretary, researcher and encourager (Appendix 1 presents a specific case with a webquest based on international organizations, combating economic challenges they are facing). The fact that students have to correlate with other students for presentations and meetings benefits social interaction and increases motivation (Kennedy, 2004). The benefit of using webquests in this way is that students are required to cooperate with others in order to solve problems (Milson, 2001). For example, given that they are going to research a particular international organization and evaluate the its effectiveness of the efforts to help developing countries, they will have to interact with each other to discuss programmes of the organization, prepare outlines which summarises their plan to help developing countries. In this way, webquests favor project and cooperative learning because when "learners work in pairs or in teams, they find they need skills to plan, organize, negotiate, make their points, and arrive at a consensus about issues such as what tasks to perform, who will be responsible for each task, and how information will be researched and presented" (Moss and Van Duzer, 1998). In the case of International relations students, they can help one another with exploration, stating the results and rehearsing the presentations. However, teachers should make a special effort when preparing webquests to ensure they choose an appealing and interesting topic, make clear plans, include research tasks, and emphasize oral production.

Webquests promote scaffolding in the sense that the information made available to the learners for each step of the task helps them gradually become self-reliant. Webquests use scaffolding in order to engage learners in higher level cognition (March, 1998). By breaking the task into smaller pieces and asking students to undertake specific sub-tasks, Webquests are a learning scaffold allowing different degrees of guidance through their design. Finally, learners are also given the opportunity to reflect on what they have learned and discuss possible extensions and applications of the gained knowledge. Consequently, all these characteristics make webquests an ideal socio-constructivist CALL environment (Simina and Hamel, 2005).

Taking a closer look at a specific webquest we can see how SLA can be enhanced and how some social constructivist principles are embedded in its design. In case of classroom-based lessons, the selection of a webquest is determined by the interests, needs, capabilities and styles of the learners it is aimed at. Even if there is not one suitable for a specific target group, that should not worry teachers who would like to incorporate them in their curriculum because they are easy to create and/or modify accordingly. For the purpose of this paper, we will focus on "International organizations dealing with economic challenges facing developing countries" Webquest which was designed by Sean White (2000) for 9th Grade of the US school. I decided to modify this webquest for upper-intermediate students of English, because I consider it to meet interests, needs, capabilities and styles of the students I work with.

In this webquest students have to report on the international summit regarding the actions taken by an international organization in order to help developing nations to combat economic challenges they are facing. Students have to work in groups of 4 people and prepare a report describing the international organization, its membership, programmes and their evaluation. The report should be presented by using Power Point, as well as creating brochures or newsletters. By presenting their work to the other students in the classroom students have the opportunity to see the different perspectives chosen by each team in approaching the task. As students complete the webquest, they will become aware of how their individual work has affected their group's final product. Using the links provided they will also have the chance to discover the history, structure and activities of international organizations and at the same time practise and improve computer and language skills. Searching the Internet for information in order to produce a report or a brochure indicates the connection of discovery with learning-by-doing for effective second language learning. It is important that students can not only improve reading comprehension, summarizing and rewriting but also they can improve computer skills such as word processing, picture manipulation and page design. Furthermore, the tasks allow the employment of cognitive, metacognitive and social strategies such as planning, organizing and processing information, monitoring and cooperating.

Looking more closely at the components of the particular WebQuest, we can see how the social constructivist principles are embedded to enhance SLA. The home page is colourful and full of pictures creating a pleasant and motivational environment. The pictures are used to activate the student's relevant schemata. In the introduction section there is also a quiz for students to check what they already know about international organizations, again activating students' prior knowledge and enabling them to associate new information with it. The task section not only assigns the roles each student has to play and the tasks they have to accomplish but also makes explicit the skills students will improve by being engaged in the activity. That makes students more conscious of their learning process. With the assignment of the roles, each student is responsible for the learning of the other and good cooperation is required for the completion of the tasks. This also allows students to work on their own, develop their different abilities and at the same time share their knowledge with their partners.

Collaboration is essential because through social interaction within the team constructive learning can occur. The Resources section provides links that point to websites where students will find all the information they need and the Process section describes each step students have to follow for the completion of the tasks. A planning diagram is also provided for students to organize the information they collect. Thus, there is a kind of scaffolding but this guidance is limited to a certain extent as students are encouraged to work on their own.

In the evaluation section there is a rubric for the evaluation of the students' work. The conclusion allows students to reflect on their work and proposes an extension of their research.

Finally, the credits section includes references, other resources and cognitive tools students might need, such as, for example, an online dictionary.

Why webquest?

Language acquisition is fostered if it occurs in a safe, supportive and, most importantly, contextualized environment. Webquests are a good means of contextualizing the language because they have a direct link to the students' field of specialization, they are fun, and provide students with new knowledge.

Groupwork is highly respected when implemented opportunely. Whereas traditional lessons tend to be monotonous and grammar or vocabulary-oriented, cooperative environments are encouraging and provide more chances for oral interaction. According to the webquest structure the whole class is divided into small groups in order to perform the task. Hence, in smaller groups, students would have more practice than in a whole class situation.

Classroom structures and timetable structures can contribute positively or negatively to the accomplishment of such projects. The length of lessons can be essential especially when learners are involved in collaborative work entailing access to internet resources. The standard 90-minute university class is commonly sufficient for the students to complete a part of the project. The quality of the internet communication can be an issue during the class; some students might find the technology difficult to access or hardly enjoy accessing resources. Therefore the teacher should prepare extra materials that can be used as a back-up for the lesson. For example, hand-outs with information on international organizations, brochures and so on.

Some students might be aggravated by the 'untraditional' approach of the project, student teams and collaborative learning can difficult for students whose learning preference is for a more individual style. In this case the teacher should find a middle ground, trying to involve the whole class into the project.

In a few recent studies, the use of WebQuests has been specifically examined and compared to other forms of instruction. Gaskill, McNulty, and Brooks (2006), for example, compared the use of WebQuests to conventional instruction in two intervention studies. In the first study, WebQuest and conventional instruction conditions in the study of science were compared in a high school history setting and the conventional instruction condition was found to produce higher learning gains than the WebQuest condition. In the second study, university students in a WebQuest condition were found to gain just as much knowledge as university students in a conventional instruction condition. Differences between the conventional instruction conditions in the two aforementioned studies could well explain the discrepant results, but it is also important to note that the comparison of teacher-based versus computer-based interventions does not appear to be very fruitful. As Reinking (2001) argues, it is not likely that the computer is going to disappear from schools, which means e in our opinion e that it is more fruitful to study just how the computer environment can best be used to contribute to education, and be integrated into classroom instruction rather than compare computers to teachers.

The teacher's role in webquest implementation is very important. First of all, the teacher selecting or designing a webquest, carefully puts in perspective all variables that may influence the learner's learning, including social, psychological, cognitive, developmental and so on. Further, the teacher should state clear and explicit tasks to the students. During the process of webquest implementation by the students the teacher scaffolds and provides guidance for appropriate seamless learning process. Also the teacher takes control over the task performance, for example, encourages the learners to speak in the target language during discussion on the topic. The teacher monitors the progress of each team member for their perception of learning and after evaluates according the selected criteria. I think, in the process of delivering the webquest both the learners and the teacher are developing the ability to surf the Internet with a clear objective, learning to select and retrieve information from multiple sources, developing the skills of collaborative work and strengthen intellectual skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Therefore, the teacher is developing professionally as well as understands the whole process her/himself.

The main objective is not only to qualify teachers in the use of technological devices, but to also provide them with a range of pedagogical and sociocultural knowledge that helps them to understand, criticize, design, apply, evaluate and control educational processes by using technologies.

Assessment of webquest project work

As has been seen, the use of webquests in language learning has been addressed in many professional publications and articles. As in the example presented in the appendix, evaluation is a significant element because project-based work requires considering whether the goals have been achieved and how. Assessment processes are very important for International relations students, because prospective professionals are required to communicate in the target language.


This paper addressed the use of webquests to develop oral skills in L2. The webquests should not be seen only as the major teaching and learning tool in L2 acquisition, it is evident that they can be very effective means for providing students with a lot of interaction opportunities in realistic settings, thus making the learning experience meaningful, experiential and very motivating. The approach hereby presented brings two types of benefits to the students: on the one hand, the learner's competence in the use of both computers and Internet; on the other, the improvement of their language skills in aspects such as fluency (diminishing their anxiety in communicative situations), active vocabulary increase and ability to use a foreign language. Furthermore, this approach allows to developing critical thinking in the choice of Internet resources, at the same time, autonomous thinking by analyzing, contrasting information (such as programmes of international organizations), while receiving feedback from the net itself and classmates. The language aims and the procedure are structured to assist speaking skills. These types of activities highlight the application of the social constructivist theory more specifically since there is a clear relation between the students' communicative and social interaction through critical thinking, dialogue and activity cooperation which reinforces individual, pair and group learning in the shape of an internet-based dialogue. It is in this way that students restructure their knowledge and communicative competence. This process must be observed by themselves and the teacher as a means of controlling, verifying and motivating language learning. Hence, evaluation has a significant value in the process.

Although the paper provides sound foundation in the topic, further research is necessary. In this sense, it will be interesting to see whether webquests have a real influence on longer-term learning and computer (and Internet) literacy, and how much conversation webquests may stimulate as measured by vocabulary and fluency. It would also be advisable to verify whether all the language skills required in this sort of project will be of use for the professional when he or she graduates and takes a real-life job. The only problem that many higher institutions may have now is the availability of the necessary technological equipment but even this may no longer be a problem. In this respect, the extensive use of mobile devices such as mobile phones or i-PODs will surely be reflected in the increasing use of the Internet for communication and information in education and language learning. Further research on the topic may include: the study of teacher-student roles in this approach to webquests, the face-to-face interaction between students; the use of different technological devices for similar outcomes; the progress and willingness to speak more in a foreign language of students compared to that of students who do not follow the same approach but do analogue pair-driven exercises. Therefore, the field is still open to advances but especially so in terms of the application of new technology-driven approaches to foreign language teaching and learning, a field in which many foreign language teachers feel unfamiliar.

In the Google free-search condition, children were left to search for themselves whereas in the WebQuest closed-search condition, children were presented a series of relevant Internet links. To study individual variation, the role of gender, cognitive capacities and linguistic abilities was determined. Moreover, children's attitudes and perceptions towards the computer were explored.