Learner Anxiety & Computer-Assisted Writing

Jun Shen (Suzhou University, China)


Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) has marched into the phase of Integrative CALL with the advent of multimedia and the Internet. Yet the research and practices in this field have just begun. Moreover, recent SLA researches have studied the foreign language anxiety, but few have touched that in a computer-assisted learning environment. This paper exams how computer-assisted writing (CAW) can help to ease learner's anxiety, and thus to improve writing proficiency through a pretest-posttest study. The study is through an electronic-questionnaire and a following interview. The questionnaire was designed to evaluate the learner's anxiety in a traditional writing class and that in a computer lab, and the interview was to dig out the causes for the changed attitudes. The final results indicate that due to the natural learning environment, autonomy, and free space, CAW does to some extent, ease learner's anxiety in writing and helps to improve writing both in quantity & quality. However, language teachers should have a thorough understanding of anxiety and CAW, so that they can conduct CAW through a variety of projects flexibly and successfully.


In reviewing the research on learner anxiety and second or foreign language acquisition (SLA), Horwitz & Cope (1986) define anxiety as a subjective feeling of tension, apprehension, nervousness, and worry, indirectly associated with the object. Second language researchers and theorists have been aware that anxiety is often associated with language learning. The subjective feelings and behavioral responses of the anxious foreign language learners are essentially the same as for any specific anxiety. They often experience apprehension, worry, and even dread. They have difficulty in concentrating, become forgetful, sweat, and have palpitations. As we all have experienced, in traditional writing class teachers often write a certain title on the blackboard and just ask us to finish the composition in two hours. Immediately our minds go blank because of the unexpected topic, or even uninteresting one and the limited time. Even if we are interested in the topic, we cannot finish it as fluently as a flow of water because the teacher often walks around and sometimes looks at what we've written. This interrupts our thoughts and makes us anxious. Therefore, sometimes we are not sure of ourselves and even feel afraid of taking a writing course. The avoidance behavior such as missing the class and postponing the homework is evidence of the anxiety in a writing class. Today more and more teachers agree that the over-anxious student lacks self-confidence and produces less output in foreign language writing.

Since teachers and students generally feel that anxiety is a major obstacle to be overcome in learning another language, several recent approaches to foreign language teaching, such as Community Language Learning and Georgi Lozanov's Suggestopedia, are explicitly directed at reducing learner's anxiety. It was reported that the student's relaxed mental state was brought about by classical music, comfortable chairs, and the teacher's modulation of voice, which is believed to increase the student's receptivity to the new language materials (Yue, 1992, p.98). Before finding ways to deal with learner anxiety, it is necessary to know some causes for the anxiety. Here I may emphasize the following three possible causes for anxiety in L2 writing course: Learner's competitiveness, teacher's pressure and control, and the rigid & dull classroom atmosphere (Skehan,1989). Bailey (1983) also hypothesized that anxiety can be caused by a learner's competitiveness when he/she looks himself/herself as less proficient than the others or has an idealized self-image. If the comparison is invidious, such competitiveness can lead to debilitating anxiety. Gardner et al. reported that "the negative correlation of French classroom Anxiety indicates that the more anxious students are less proficient in speech skills" (Gardner, Smythe, Clement & Glicksman, 1976, p. 202). Of course, anxiety can also be facilitating. That is to say, at least to some extent, some anxiety (relative to no anxiety) may be beneficial and energizing, i.e. a nice amount of simulation for activity. Learners, with no or less anxiety, will have a lower affective filter. Thus, they will be more open to the input and output. Scovel (1978)stated that the facilitating anxiety motivates students to conquer the new learning task, making them unconsciously move towards the target; and that the debilitating anxiety forces students to escape from the new learning task. This is in agreement with Krashen's The Affective Filter Hypothesis, which implies that our pedagogical goals must not only include providing comprehensible input, but creating a situation that encourages a low affective filter as well, so that the input can go through successfully and the output comes out naturally. Therefore, under that consideration, language teachers should provide a low anxiety situation by means of supplying the authentic learning environment, giving learners much autonomy and less pressure, etc.

Nowadays, in the era of information, the computer has played an important role in education and provides broad prospects in language teaching. In the language education field, CALL has in the last 30 years marched from behaviorist CALL to communicative CALL and to today's Integrative CALL (Warschauer, 1996). The history of CALL suggests that the computer can serve a variety of uses for language teaching. It can be a tutor for language drills or skills practice; a stimulus for discussion and interaction; or a tool for writing and research. With the advent of the Internet, the computer can also be a medium of global communication and a source of boundless authentic materials. Many articles and researches on CALL have suggested that CALL have favorable potentialities. First, the computer has created a more authentic learning environment (Gu and Su, 1997). Second, the word processor facilitates writing and editing (Kenning, 1990). Third, in respect of the teacher-student relations, students have a great control over their learning while the teachers are a kind of facilitator (Chun, 1994). Fourth, language learning is not limited in usage learning but involves authentic communication. CALL "provides learners with plentiful opportunities to engage in meaningful discourse, the technology is seen as fostering authentic communication" (Peterson, 1997). Therefore, in a computer assisted writing environment, it is hypothesized that learners freely write down their feelings and thoughts around a topic chosen by themselves for their own interests. My research question thus comes into being: Can CAW help to ease students writing anxiety and improve their writing proficiency? My hypothesis is a positive one: CAW, to some extent, helps to ease students writing anxiety and improves their writing proficiency.

The Study


The junior students at the School of Foreign Languages at Suzhou University, majoring in Foreign Trade English have been participants in an Internet-based Cities Project for 2.5 months (Feb. 23 to May. 7), under the guidance of a graduate student. Five of them are randomly selected as the research subjects. They have been learning English for a period of 7-8 years, with a mean of 7.7 years. The students have different personalities and different proficiency levels in English learning, yet they all come to the computer lab twice a week for sending & receiving e-mails from other English learners around the world. They have their own e-mail addresses and personal correspondents to exchange thoughts and to discuss problems. According to the demand of the project, they, together with their group members produced a final self-made hypertext page to demonstrate their gain.


A questionnaire (see Appendix A) entitled "Writing Apprehension-An Online Survey" with 32 statements was designed for the subjects to evaluate their anxiety in their former traditional English writing class and in the computer-assisted English writing lab. Generally, the design was based on Chen's questionnaire on English learner's anxiety (1997) and arranged in three angles: self-confidence, anxiety behavior, and attitudes towards English writing. Statements 1, 3, 5, 11, 12, 14, 16, 18, 22, 23, 24, 25, 28, 30 are related to student's self-confidence in English writing; statements 2, 6, 7, 10, 15, 21, 27, 29 to the behaviors of anxiety, such as avoidance of writing, fear of pressures; and statements 4, 8, 9, 13, 17, 19, 20, 26, 31, 32 to the attitudes towards English writing, such as evaluation of writing, peer editing. They were purposefully arranged in a random order and some are even repetitious. The subjects could give their judgements on a scale ranked in five categories, from strong approval to strong disapproval.

The questionnaire was made in English and delivered via e-mail twice: One was at the beginning of the study i.e. before the Cities Project, and the other was near the end of the study i.e. after the project. In order to ensure its comprehension, I explained the directions and statements before they did it in the lab. I also observed the answering process in order to make sure that they do it seriously. They were told that their true response and sincere support would be greatly appreciated. It is hard, though, to control all the variables of anxiety and CAW in such a small case study by an application of a questionnaire. Moreover, the differences between pretest and posttest answers can only be the surface result, so I designed some interview questions to dig out the deep reasons. Meanwhile, I observed their writing entries and made records of their improvements in English writing during the Cities Project.

Data collection

I collected the answers to the pretest and posttest and made two tables (see Appendix B - Table 1 & Table 2) to demonstrate the changes in English writing anxiety. The tables show that there is a positive change of anxiety level in English writing, that is, students have lower anxiety levels in CAW than in the traditional composition class. Statistics in table 2 demonstrate that learners become more confident in English writing: Q11 from 3 to 3.4, Q14 from 3.4 to 3.6, and Q25 from 2.4 to 3. All scores are equal or above the average 3. From Q4 (3.4 to 3.8), Q9 (2.8 to 3.6), and Q13 (3.2 to 3.8), I get the impression that learners become keener on English writing in a computer lab than in a traditional writing class. Moreover, learners become freer from pressure in the lab than that in the former writing class, with degrees of Q27 from 2.4 to 3.6.

Through the interview (see Appendix C), the subjects confirm they are less anxious and more confident in writing in a computer lab than that in a traditional writing class. "I am sure of myself now when I write English compositions."(Liz) Furthermore, I investigated the deep reasons for the positive change: Authentic environment, free space, self-generated interesting topics. "From my keypals I learned their original language and a bit about their culture."(Frank) Apart from the authentic learning environment, computer lab also provides learners with the free space, just as Jennifer stated, "I was always afraid of peer pressure or time pressure when I was writing in a traditional writing class. Now after the practice in the lab I feel more comfortable with it." Moreover, "in the computer lab, we are free to exchange our feelings to the peers and are interested in the topic raised by the foreigners. We acted as the host of our country and tried to introduce our city to the world. It's more challenged for us."(Agnes)

In addition, the observation of writings indicates that both quantity and quality of learners' writings are enhanced. In Appendix B table 3, we can easily view that learners have written a large amount of entries, with the weekly entries from 2.18 piece to 3.27 piece and 516.09 words to 1084.55 words. On the other side, the learners' writing skills were enhanced through exchange with people from a different cultural background. In the following example (March 5,1998,Deni Harding to Agnes), we can see that learners writings are well accepted by foreigners:

"What a wonderful letter! I will have to spend more time reading it than I have just now. It is so full of details! I can visualize the look of Tiger Garden very easily in my imagination. And your retelling of the historical legends and stories is very, very interesting!"

Findings & Discussion

Generally speaking, the study confirms the hypothesis mentioned in the introduction part. First, in a computer lab learners become more confident in their writing than in a traditional writing class, which is due to the authentic writing environment and much autonomy and few pressure. Second, CAW highly motivates learners to produce much written output because of the convenience of revision, the relaxed atmosphere, and self-generated interesting topics. Third, learners' writing skills are enhanced in three aspects-topic generation, clarification of meaning, and peer editing on structure, words.

Firstly, learners become more confident in their writing and experience less fear of evaluation than in a former writing class. Fewer learners are afraid of their writing being evaluated than before. For Q5's statement-fear of the composition evaluation, the strong disagreement changes from 0% to 20%, the disagreement from 60% to 80%, and the undecided opinions 40% to 0 (see Q5 in table 1). Here Frank's remark "...From the practices I gained confidence..." well illustrates the point. Furthermore, learners become more willing to let others read their writings, illustrated in table 1 Q13 with the disagreement from 40% to 0, undecided 0 to 20%, and agreement from 60% to 80%. The tendency and its reason can be seen in Liz's answer: "I am not afraid of being evaluated because I know I will get benefits from it. It will help me to improve. In fact, only on the computer, wide evaluation is possible." The change is not only due to the cooperative and authentic writing environment in e-mail writing, but also due to the enhancement of learners' autonomy. Since learners can gain autonomy in CAW and they are motivated to practice a lot, they are really sure of their ability in English writing and have low anxiety in writing. Frank said to me: "Before I took this Cities Project, I actually found myself very weak in writing. I lacked confidence. During this several months, I practiced a lot on computer by writing emails and exchanging opinions with group members. From the practices I improved my writing especially on structure and logic thinking. So every time I pick up my pen, I will not feel like a helpless man in the desert, instead I think I can do a good job."

In addition, the low anxiety also results from the less pressure in English writing, such as peer pressure, time pressure, and teacher's control. In the traditional English writing class, "I was always afraid of peer pressure or time pressure when I was writing. Now after the practice in the lab I feel more comfortable with it." (Agnes). This is because the CAW provides a less restrictive learning environment than the traditional writing classroom. This "free space" is considered as more compatible with personal learning styles and encourages the learner to take control in the learning process (Cooper and Selfe, 1990, cited in Peterson, 1997, p. 30). The use of e-mail removes the constraints of time and distance, so learners may compose and respond to letters on their own initiative. "I think the influences of the computer teaching is that it makes students happy to accept task, and fulfill the work more creatively." Free from classroom pressures, learners are given much time to reflect on and revise written work. This results in a greater volume of written output (see Table 3) and improvements in fluency.

Secondly, in table 1 Qs 4, 9 give the impression that most subjects have higher motivation in English writing than that of traditional writing class, just as Agnes once stated "I am more willing to write in English, and can express myself more smoothly." For Q9_expectation of English writing, the agreement changes from 20% to 60%, disagreement from 40% to 0, though there remains the same amount of the undecided. The reasons for the change are the convenient editing of essays by the computer, the relaxed atmosphere, and self-generated topics via e-mail. "Writing on computer can help me think more. It is more likely for me to create new ideas. Most important, I can make changes conveniently. After so many times of changes, the essay still looks so tidy and neat. It's wonderful. So I am more willing to revise my writing now in order to express what I really want to convey through my essay."(Jennifer) Frank also explained that the flexible and light atmosphere gave him much room to express himself. Increased and improved interaction among learners and between teachers and learners is a direct result of participation in e-mail communication. Learners are willing to take the initiative in discussions, thus unconsciously produce a large amount of writing.

Thirdly, as in 1991 Soh & Soon found in a cross-cultural project based in Canada and Singapore, learners' writing skills were enhanced in three ways through exchange with learners from a different cultural background. First, my subjects have learned how to generate a topic and confirm it. Here is an example taken from a talk between Frank and group 8's: " Is it true that we're to exchange our views on university life, more specifically, on three aspects: learning, spare time activities and personal thoughts toward future and life value? Please give me a confirmation about our topic, OK?" Second, subjects are familiarized with the negotiation and clarification of meaning; you can see it in the next example by Agnes and Deni. Obviously, Deni was curious about the name Zhuo Zhen Yuan_*humble administrator garden* in English. Then Agnes explained as:

"Actually the name *Humble Administrator Garden* is named by some official department. *Zhuo* refers to *humble*, *Zheng* to *Administrator* while *Yuan* to *garden*. In my opinion, the name should be related to the owner of the garden. The owner used to be a man with a high rank in the office, but failed to keep the position for life. He went home and with the large amount of money he built the garden. He called it like this with a ironic tone only to show how humble he was when he dealt with policy."

Later, Deni wrote back: "Thanks for your explanation. It makes me clear about the name."

Last month my subjects began to evaluate their correspondents' essay to learn how to do a comment evaluation. In Liz's comment, she first praises the clarity of the structure, then she suggests the correspondent to discuss a bit deeper: "In my opinion, these three parts cannot include all of the factors in marriage. So if possible, you might dig a little deeper and have more things taken into consideration." Liz explained that through peer editing, she had realized writing must include the combination of structure and content, not only emphasizing on languages. Thus, from these examples we can see that learner's writing proficiency is enhanced not only in generating a topic and negotiating words meanings, but also in peer editing on structure, wording, and ideas, etc.


Language teachers & researchers and CALL theorists have marched far into their own fields, but few studies have touched upon learners' anxiety and CAW. Yet from the above tentative study, we reach a natural conclusion that to some extent, CAW eases learners' anxiety to improve the writing proficiency through an authentic environment with a lot of autonomy & free space. CAW can help students lessen their anxiety and strengthen their self-confidence, therefore enhancing their motivation and increasing their written output both in quantity & quality. Learners are definitely taking the initiative, constructing and expanding on topics, and taking a more active role in discourse management than in the traditional writing classroom. In addition, learners exhibit the ability to give feedback to others, as well as sociolinguistic competence in greeting and leave taking, requesting confirmation, and giving clarification, etc. At the same time, teachers should take into account possible variables, e.g. no immediate feedback, a breakdown of computer system, which may bring negative effects upon learners' initiative. Here I also should point out that the computer is only a tool, the most important factor in language learning & teaching is still teacher's adequate understanding of learners and their learning process, thus to make a full use of the advanced techniques.

However, this is only a tentative study on the relationship of writing anxiety and computers. There exist limitations because of the short time and other unexpected factors, such as no feedback from outside, and losing contact for the changed addresses. Moreover, foreign language learning is such a complicated process that it involves many other factors beside learner anxiety, and also CAW is a brand new practice in language classroom, many methods need to be experimented with and improved.


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