Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
2012. Vol.2, No.3, 125-129
Published Online September 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/ojml) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojml.2012.23016
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 125
Why Asynchronous Computer-Mediated
Communication (ACMC) Is a Powerful Tool
for Language Learning
Department of Linguistics and Mod e r n Languages, Hong Kong Institute of Education, Hong Kong, China
Received June 8th, 2012; revised Au gust 22nd, 2012; accepted August 30th, 2012
Tertiary institutions are increasingly using online virtual environments such as Blackboard to upload
course content for students. However, there is still limited usage of the online blogging and discussion
tools. This study describes the language used by tertiary students involved in blogging and discussions
online. It also demonstrates learning processes observed through the interactions of participants over
time. Findings suggest that this unique discourse mode is a potentially powerful tool for language
Keywords: Asynchronous Computer-Mediated Communication (ACMC); Second Language Acquisition
(SLA); Mutually-Constructed Meanings; Incidental Learning; Linguistic Diversity
Gustafson, Hodgson and Tickner (2004: p. 5) state:
“We would like to stress the importance of discourse
analysis as a tool/method for looking closer at dialogue
patterns when researching networked learning environ-
ments and trying to explain the possible failures or suc-
cesses of such environments.”
By successes, the authors refer to the kind of learning that
takes place in an online asynchronous environment. This re-
search has analysed the discourse from thirty online forums,
consisting of around one-hundred and fifty postings (ranging
from fifty to three hundred words in length), to present the
English language used by groups of advanced learners of
English as a second language and to link this language with
processes of learning identified online. It is hoped that this
study describes why the online asynchronous learning envi-
ronment is an effective one for learning English as an addi-
The first part of this article “SLA theories of language learn-
ing and the potential of ACMC” examines language learning
theory based on Second Language Acquisition (SLA).
This provides the conceptual basis of the study.
The second part “processes of learning” uses empirical
evidence to demonstrate 2 types of social learning identified.
These are mutually-constructing meanings and incidental
The third part of this article “ACMC language product” is a
description of the linguistic diversity identified in this research-
er’s second language learning context. This section reveals that
the ACMC is a uniquely rich language environment where
differing text formats appear and spoken and written discourse
as well as differing tenors can cohabite easily, even to the ex-
tent of coinciding within clauses.
Conceptual Basis of the Study: SLA Theories of
Language Learning and the Potential of the
Social and De e per Learning
It is commonly known that Vygotskian (1962, 1978) prem-
ises focus primarily on the social construct of the human con-
sciousness. Cognitive language growth is embedded in the dy-
namics of social interaction. Consequently, learners are rarely
isolated, encapsulated knowers or doers and benefit more in the
field of second language learning through social intercourse to
enable them to use the language they learn in context. In addi-
tion, and according to constructivist thinking, groups can con-
struct meanings together through negotiation and reach higher
levels of consciousness leading to deeper learning than isolated
individuals. A significant element to these notions is that the
need for language retrieval for communicative purposes facili-
tates the learning of that language. This is inextricably linked
with the notions of “Communicative Language Teaching’ (see
Howatt, 1984: 279). Another key element is that social learning
enables the language learner to learn pragmatic uses of lan-
guage or communicative functions such as agreement or per-
suasion, evaluation or argumentation. It was Wilkins (1976)
who first published on this aspect of meaning-based syllabi
coining the term of “notional syllabuses”.
Van Lier (1996: p. 11) states:
“To learn something new one must first notice it. This no-
ticing is an awareness of its existence, obtained and en-
hanced by paying attention to it. Paying attention is fo-
cusing one’s consciousness, or pointing one’s perceptual
powers in the right direction, and making mental ‘energy’
available for processing”.
This “noticing” followed by a more focused “paying atten-
tion” encapsulates what Schmidt (1994) points out as two of the
main functions of the intra-mental consciousness (in contrast to
the inter-mental) in Vygotskian terminology: attention (notice-
ing and focusing on information) and intention (learning some-
thing intentionally rather than unintentionally while doing
something else). In other words, learners will normally only
learn a linguistic item when they are ready to do so, when their
mental lexicon is able to absorb it.
For second language educators, it is thus quintessential to
seek to facilitate these processes by offering a communicative
environment for their students which is language-rich. In other
words, second language learners should be exposed to a variety
of text types in both written and spoken mode, offering a wide
range of language along the discourse mode and tenor contin-
uum (Halliday, 1975, 2004). As Hatch (1996: p. 209) posits co-
herence in talk and writing is attained via overall system con-
straints on communication, by calling up generic scripts that fit
the communication situation, by knowing the structure of
speech events, and by recognizing the ways information may be
formatted in various rhetorical genres.
Krashen (1982) refers to affective barriers to second lan-
guage acquisition. These are commonly understood as the areas
involving feelings, emotions, mood and temperament. It is be-
lieved that these elements are greatly reduced in the ACMWC
environment (Lewis and Allan, 2005: p. 45). This is in part due
to the fact that access can be closed but is particularly due to
the discourse mode of asynchronous written communication
(ACMWC). With asynchronicity, students have time to reflect
upon and formulate their thoughts before expressing them and
engaging in interaction. In contrast to spontaneous and time-
bound synchronous interaction, studies have revealed that this
genre of communication enables students to produce a greater
quantity and better quality of discourse than in an oral class-
room (Ortega, 1997; Peters, 2000). They also lead to more
equal participation between students (Warschauer, 1996) and
ultimately deeper learning. In this way, it is suggested that stu-
dents might be more absorbed in the tasks and less concerned
with linguistic errors or deviances from the norm.
Material and Methods
The research objective was to:
Analyze how an online environment’s e-journaling (blog-
ging) tool and forum tool might enhance groups of 3rd year
Chinese BEd pre-service teachers’ English as a second lan-
guage learning capabi lit ies.
To meet this objective, the following question s w e r e a s k e d :
What processes of language learning can be observed on-
line? What language structures (genre types, language struc-
tures, and interactional patterns) emerge through language
use online between participants?
The research was conducted as part of the pre-service teacher
education field experience practicum at the Hong Kong Insti-
tute of Education. Students are mother tongue Cantonese
speakers who are training to be English language teachers in
primary and secondary state schools. Students are placed in
local state schools for 6 weeks during their 3rd year practicum.
They are expected to manage and deliver English as a addi-
tional language courses to their students. The online asynchro-
nous forums were set up primarily as a support line for these
student teachers during practicum. By using the blogging and
discussion forums, trainees could receive support from this
researcher who was their mentor as well as support from each
other by sharing their experiences online. Thus, the language
production and learning that took place was observed as it
emerged through communication. At no stage were participants
informed that the site had been set up for language learning. In
addition, the language analyses performed and described in this
article were conducted at the end of the case studies. Thus, this
researcher did not intentionally promote the language use de-
scribed online. Rather, the data were observed through post-
case study analysis. Further, participants were instructed to use
the sites independently, without aid from native or near-native
language users. Participants were fully aware that the use of the
sites was not part of an assessme nt cycle renderi ng it a platform
for natural, fluent language not requiring thoroughly proof-read
Three case studies of eight weeks were conducted. Each case
study consisted of eight third-year participants of a four-year
BEd (EL) degree from both Hong Kong and mainland China
aged between 20 and 25. There was a mix of male and female
students aged between 20 and 25. Pseudonyms of participants
The research was performed by this researcher in his capac-
ity as teacher educator—researcher using action research meth-
odology. Action research as Lewin (1946: p. 206) posits, involves:
“A spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle
of planning, action, and fact-finding about the result of the
Through experimentation and multiple observation of em-
pirical evidence, data were collated in research observational
note forms. Thus findings were constructed and continually
refined over time. The virtual learning environment used was
Blackboard and participants had closed access to the sites, of-
fering some privacy as only those registered could write about
their experiences and read those of their peers. This was be-
lieved to be a low risk environment to facilitate trainee critical
and creative thinking as well as cooperative and collaborative
learning. This prediction was substantiated at the end of each
case study as participant interviewees reported that they were
happy to share their views online.
A welcoming announcement was sent out to participants
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
telling them that the site would be available for support and
inviting them to introduce themselves online and to share any
views about the practicum experience to follow. Participants
were at no stage told that their language for blogging or discus-
sion would be analyzed.
After the first week of teaching, participants began posting
their weekly blogs.
Each week a new forum was added to the sites and this was
used for weekly reports and discussions. This researcher acted
as online moderator inviting participation and facilitating inter-
action if required.
At the end of each case study, threads were collected for
textual analysis and research findings written up and evaluated.
In this section, the processes of language learning observed
are presented. These processes relate to the SLA characteristics
noted above e.g., social and deeper learning, noticing, and risk
Processes of Learning
Mutually Constructing Meanings
Student A: “I wonder whether it is necessary for teachers to
write lesson plans for EVERY SINGLE lesson. I know that it is
helpful to spend time preparing learning materials for students
and to plan beforehand the objectives and structure of lessons.
Yet, is it a must to put down detailed steps and the time each
step takes in a lesson plan”?
Student B: “I don’t think for teachers who are already over-
whelmed with their overloading work, writing lesson plans for
every single lesson is not necessary. However, it is important
for us—student teachers—to write enough lesson plans, so that
we can learn to carefully plan what to do in a lesson, see
whether it works out and reflect on how to improve it for the
next time. I guess this is just a process every teacher has to go
through. Once we feel that we don’t need to write it anymore,
we don’t have to write it. But I guess it would still be good for
experienced teacher to write some lesson plans from time to
time for lesson imp r ov e m e nt s”.
Student C: “I agree with Tian that we, student teachers,
should write lesson plans in the preliminary stage of our teach-
ing. Every time we revise our lesson plans based on our accu-
mulated experience, we are making progress”.
In this excerpt of interaction, it is possible to see the lan-
guage construction process. The first student commences the
topic of discussion. Then student B replies. Student B’s re-
sponse is in non-academic language. In contrast, student C
encapsulates what B discusses by defining B’s meanings: “pre-
liminary stage” is used for “student teachers”; “revise” is used
for “reflecting on how to improve it”; and “accumulated ex-
perience” is used for “a process every teacher has to go
through”. All of these terms used by student C are improving
the conceptual and academic content of B’s responses by sum-
marizing them or remodelling them to improve them. This
makes the dialogue a construction zone. This is therefore a
good example of how participants can learn from each other
online for second language acquisition to occur. The language
used by B was non-academic. In contrast, C’s language was
academic and B’s noticing of these language items has been
facilitated through communication. This is further discussed be-
low as part of “incidental learning”. In a way, this is a form of
scaffolding language as C is helping to raise B’s awareness of
more complex ways of communicating the same ideas. This
therefore reveals C’s awareness of B’s zone of proximal devel-
opment. C is guiding B to use more complex language. Other
examples of refining language or retuning it to teach it were
continuously remarked during the case studies.
The following originates from a discussion on teaching read-
ing in the secondary school classroom. The online interaction
takes place over a period of 2 days.
Trainee 1 states : “I got a big problem—students found the read-
ing I gav e them too difficul t. I looke d up the words o n odd nu mber
pages for them and I went through the 1st paragraph with them
together in class too but they still found it too difficult.”
What follows then is a discussion between her and her trainer
during which the trainer states:
Trainer: “You can pre-teach any crucial vocabulary initially
and inform them that it’s not necessary to comprehend every
single word to enjoy the story. If the language is problematic,
the text might be too difficult but there’s no harm in trying the
book out—why don’t you should select 2 or 3 short extracts for
students to read over the holiday and then go through those as
a shared reading when you’re back”?
A previously vicarious participant adds to the dialogue:
Trainee 2: “I told students they didn’t need to know all the
words. I don’t think they had thought about it before. Then I
gave them the essential vocabulary and I read students a page
of a graded reader of Birthday Girl” by Haruki Murakami.
They said they liked it even though it was difficult. So it can
help to tell them they don’t need to know everything ”.
Trainee 1 replies on the same day: “I could try a graded
reader if the level is too difficult.”
This is then rounded off by trainee 2, also on day 2, who
states: “Good idea! Didn’t think of telling you about graded
Trainee 1 has been guided to try out a new idea for reading
instruction through her peer’s postings. However, as the peer
admits, the mention of a graded reader was not meant to be a
learning point. In other words, in an online environment such as
this, unplanned learning can occur. This particular example of
learning is not at the word level but rather at the ideational level.
As long as classroom practice is discussed between stake-
holders, learning of this kind seems to be facilitated on a regu-
lar basis because issues are discussed which each member can
Incidental learning at the word or word group level did occur
also. In the excerpt above, the term accumulated experience
was used by B in a later posting. This was then followed up by
this researcher at the end of the case study. Participant B was
asked if she was aware of the term prior to the study. She stated
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 127
that she had not been and was not aware that she had used it
either. When asked about her prior knowledge of collocations
that co-exist with “experience” in this way, the participant an-
swered that she might have used “growing” or “previous” but
would not have used “accumulated”. The fact that she did use
the term “accumulated experience” in a later posting suggests
therefore that this was an example of noticing language and, the
fact that she was not aware that she had used it, suggests that
she had learned it incidentally.
Language Variety Observed in the CMC Environment
In the following section, the author will provide a description
of the language generated online by participants. If the proc-
esses of learning in Section 1 of the results occur frequently, the
language used during communication is very important because
it is part of the language that learners are learning through their
interactions. The first observation presents the text structures
used for communication. The tenor for these structures can be
both informal and formal.
The Text Types Used for the Organization of the Discourse
This first data presentation will focus on the kinds of texts
used for communication over the 3 case studies as well as the
formulaic expressions that pertain to these text types.
The CMC is most often formatted in letter form or report
form. However, within these forms, it also contains narrative,
personal recount or procedural texts. In addition, there is fre-
quently a much more interactive conversational style of dis-
course with much shorter turns taken, use of smileys and other
examples of phatic communion.
The letter format
Some users prefer to use informal letter writing styles. Others
prefer more formal letter writing style. The following are salu-
tations and closings observed:
Informal salutations: Hi everyone; Howdy; Hello everyone;
Hiya all; Hi there.
Formal salutations: Dear + name; Dear + fellow classmates;
Dear + fellow course mates; Dear all/Dear everyone
Informal closings: Best wishes; Best; Thank you; Isn’t it in-
teresting? Haha!; Hope it helps ; Talk to all of you later!;
Will keep you updated on this; Can’t think of anything more at
the moment—I will keep you updated asap; How are you all
going?^^; Interested to know what others in the group think?;
Want to know what happens next? It’s coming soon!; Tbc wk 3;
Formal closings: I am looking forward to your suggestions
and sharing; I’m looking forward to hearing from you; I hope
these ideas are useful and I look forward to hearing other peo-
The report format
A posting may also take a report format with a title such as
“Struggling with teaching”. This might then be followed by
sub-headings e.g., Classroom observations; Teaching grammar
etc. In this case, no salutation or closing is used as with the
The Writing Genres Used for Blog Postings
The letter or report format might be used as the structure of
the text but the actual language used is most commonly based
on genre types such as personal recounts/narrative descriptions
or expository texts analyzing an issue of significance or an
argumentative explaining and justifying someone’s view on
The narrative genre
As with narrative constructions, there tends to be an “orien-
tation”: “I still find some problems with my class that I am wor-
ried about”; a problem: “my supporting teacher suggested to
me that I should teach activity sheets in class as they do”. They
are repetitive drilling exercise I am afraid that abandoning
those activity sheets will offend my supporting teacher”, a solu-
tion: I will try to negotiate with my supporting teacher later
about this issue, and a Coda: “those are my reflections. I would
like to hear your advice.”
The expository genre
As with expository texts, there tends to be topic priming: I
have several concerns about teaching in a co-teaching mode,
followed by a sequencing of points expanding on the priming:
First of all, with co-teaching, every lesson must be taught by 2
people. Secondly, in terms of the organization of a lesson,
whilst one person is lecturing, the other must play a role as the
TA. Thirdly, the actual individual teaching time we have is less.
A Mixture of Conversational English and Written English
There appears to be a range of both spoken and written dis-
course features that can be used at any time in long or short
utterances. No rules tend to apply.
Written discourse grammar
However I’ve got a lot of problems Nevertheless I will work
harder cheers! ^_^
The teacher understanding the students’ needs has been
adopting a rather exam-oriented mode of teaching which pro-
vides students with loads of assignments.
Spoken discourse grammar
These can occur within a clause, a kind of code mixing: “We
need to strike a balance between drilling and meaningful tasks.
Ya the pretty blur term balance again.”
Or from one clause to the next in a kind of code switching:
“A prerequisite to becoming a teacher is to appreciate litera-
ture and music. The Phantom of the Opera is awesome.”
The Interactional Communicative Functions
As is common with spoken discourse, the following mean-
ing-based functions have been observed on a regular basis:
Statement of opinion: “what bothers me is that this school
is quite different from the school I went to last year.
Frankly, we prepared more precisely for the observations”.
Giving advice: “additionally, you may try to stick some
strips of question types and its Chinese meaning onto the
wall to facilitate students” understanding to your ques-
Self evaluation: “actually I didn’t prepare very well last
week and I was disappointed in my performance”.
Evaluating others: “regarding setting two versions of hand-
outs for students, I am not sure if this is the most suitable
way to do it”.
Asking questions: “is it OK to use Chinese in Engl ish teach-
ing too facilitate lower level students?”
Asking for advice: should I follow the traditional routine of
Answering questions: “My supporting teacher told me that
she sometimes uses Chinese to support those less confident
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 129
Hypothesizing: “If I had to use English only in class, it
would be difficult for me to make them understand my in-
Agreeing and disagreeing: “You are so right to say that
everything is so relative/I am not sure if the reality can be
so ideal. Nevertheless, I would incline to Crystal’s sugges-
Expressing gratitude: “Thanks for the encouraging mes-
Expressing regret: “We wish that they would enjoy the les-
Reporting others’ advice or opinions (both spoken and
written forms with recursive tense and without): “one
teacher told me that the students I am going to teach are
quite ‘ACTIVE’. She told me that the students said I had
taught too fast.”
Referring to others’ points: “I totally understand your feel-
ings when getting the wrong response from students.”
Rhetorical statements or questions: “I think most of you
have already heard of this activity”.
The results demonstrate how second language learners in-
volved in ACMC construct meanings together or learn from
each other when engaged in discussion online. They also reveal
that online written communication might have the same poten-
tial for developing linguistic competence through negotiation of
meaning as oral interaction does. Both noticing and incidental
learning occur frequently and construction of meaning can be
traced through the postings. In addition, the results demonstrate
that the asynchronous written discourse environment is one
which facilitates a range of written text formats, linguistic fea-
tures specific to narrative and expository genres and communi-
cative functions encompassing a great variety of interactional
meaning-based expressions more common to spoken commu-
nication. The environment often presents language as a hybrid
of spoken/written modes both within clauses, between clauses
as well as in the form of greater chunks of spoken or written
discourse at text level. These occurrences tended to depend on
the type of interaction being used prior to a posting or on the
psychological state of the participant and his/her relationship to
the event/ topic of discussion i.e., if the topic was deemed to be
a very serious one, it was more likely to be described in report
format using more formal tenor; if it was a more jovial posting,
it tended to be in letter format with more elements of spoken
It is this author’s opinion that the language lear nin g pr oce sses
and language varieties described from this study, reveal that
this environment is an extremely powerful one for second lan-
guage learning; in this author’s context, for the learning of the
English language. In addition, as a relatively new form of
communication, it is evolving and creating its own characteris-
tics. These characteristics tend to be what might be called
“tenor-inclusive”, encouraging discourse representing language
along the continuum of formality. They also tend to combine
both spoken and written discourse features at clause, sentence
and text levels. Future research using more longitudinal studies
with larger groups interacting together might reveal the evolu-
tion of new emerging discourse modes. These studies might
also help to validate this research if the same instances of
learning and language are observed.
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