Deborah Healey's Attic : Software Recommendations

A Place to Start in Selecting Software

Deborah Healey, University of Oregon and
Norman Johnson, Lane Community College

From CAELL Journal 8:1, Winter 1997/98; last updated January 2009 by Deborah Healey.

As editors of the TESOL CALL Interest Section Software List for nearly two decades, we often get asked about what software to buy. One thing that's become perfectly clear over the years is that there is no magic software pill any more than there is a magic textbook pill for language learners. What works depends on a number of factors.

For this article, we've drawn upon our knowledge of the sea of software out there--keeping in mind that there is more all the time, and that we don't know about every package that exists that could possibly be useful for English language teaching--to offer a few suggestions. We would like this to become a dialogue, where you describe what works for you in your specific setting. Your comments will be incorporated into the next Software List, making it better for everyone.

First Steps

The first step is to do a needs analysis. Answers to the following questions will have a great bearing on what software will work best for you in your setting.
  1. Who are the users you are targeting? Kindergarteners and mature adults have very different needs, to say the least. If you are targeting a variety of groups, you'll need to assess the needs of each group. There is No Magic Pill that works from preschool to adults! (Though a word-processor comes close, when everyone is literate and able to use a keyboard.)
  2. What are the goals of the students you are targeting? Tourists, businesspeople, scholars, refugees all have very different goals and needs in language learning. Someone who wants just a bit of English to get by for a couple of weeks and someone who wants to translate scholarly articles need different software. (No Magic Pill!)
  3. What setting will the software be used in: independent study lab with no teacher available, lab associated with a class, a teacher-led class with one or a few computers? Students who come independently and work on their own need software with much more explicit instruction built in than ones who have been introduced to the assignment as part of a class.
  4. How much do the teachers/lab assistants who will work with the students know? Where the teachers don't know much about CALL, the software needs to explicitly set goals. Where teachers don't know much about language teaching, the software needs to have a curriculum built into it. Skilled teachers can work with open-ended software like word-processors and Internet resources.
  5. What do you have now in the way of hardware and technical assistance? Clearly, if you've got Windows machines, you won't be buying Mac software and vice-versa. If you have little or no technical support, you need to buy simple programs that don't require much knowledge to install and keep running.
    Note: If you're just setting up a lab, it doesn't matter whether you buy Macs or Windows machines; there's a lot of software for both. Make your decision based primarily on the technical support available to you.
  6. How much money do you have to spend? Maybe this should be the first question. If you have little or no money, you'll be looking at freeware and shareware from mail order houses and Internet resources.


Armed with these answers, you can proceed to the recommendations. We've put together a few highly recommended programs in different categories. We're assuming that you have an adequate budget, teachers who know something about computers and aren't afraid to learn more, and Internet connections.

The software listings for children and for teens/adults are organized alphabetically by title. The publisher is under the title. All programs are for both Macintosh and Windows unless otherwise specified.


These are a rough guide only, as most programs can be used by an experienced teacher for most purposes. Comprehensive refers to a program that addresses more than two skills.
User Setting Teacher roles Approximate cost
Check with the publisher for the latest information. Most software also has network and site licensing available.
$ = under $100; $$ = $100-300; $$$ = $300-1000; $$$$ = over $1000
Look at your answers to the questions above, then find titles on the following tables that may meet your needs. More information on these titles is available from the publisher and in the CALL Software List online.

Table 1: Software for children

For US-based teachers, publishers have been responding to demands of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation by providing software that is tied to specific NCLB goals and in some instances, to state standards. Most of these are large programs designed for district-wide adoption. They generally offer first language support in a number of languages, and many have math and science content for English language learners. Most prominent among these are CompassLearning Odyssey, Destination Reading from Riverdeep, and Zip Zoom for English language learners from Scholastic.

Table 2: Software for teens and adults

Do keep in mind that these are not definitive lists, and that there are a great many other excellent programs available. Failure to be included on this list does not imply that a program is not worthwhile; it may simply be one we're less familiar with. We've preferred programs that run on both Macintosh and Windows machines over ones that run only on one or the other.

Must-have Programs

What we haven't included on the tables are a few generic categories of "must have" programs. These are both Windows and Macintosh unless otherwise noted:

Authoring Programs

We have a few favorites in the authoring line, mostly programs that require little effort for the results. Hot Potatoes from Half-Baked Software is designed by and for English language teachers, and is currently free, with certain conditions, to educators for non-profit classroom use. It creates cloze, scrambled sentences, matching, multiple choice, and short answer exercises as well as crosswords. The exercises it creates can be run from the Internet or offline.

MaxAuthor from the University of Arizona's Computer-Aided Language Instruction Group (Windows) is also free for educational and non-profit use. It lets you create language instruction courseware for English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and 44 other languages. Completed courseware can use audio, video, footnotes, and graphics. Student activities include MaxBrowser, Listening Dictation, Pronunciation, Multiple Choice, Vocabulary Completion, and Audio Flashcards. Activities can be exported for use in Internet Explorer. This is more complex than Hot Potatoes, but lets you use video and sound easily.

Flash card creators abound. One interesting program is the freeware AudiFlash (Wndows), which allows you to add sound easily to the flash cards you create with this program. Another freeware flashcard program is Teach2000 (Windows). It offers more multimedia capability, but is a bit more complicated to master as a result.

For test generators, the commercial programs Author Plus from Clarity (Windows) and the Wida Authoring Suite of Gapmaster, Matchmaster, Storyboard, and Choicemaster from Wida (Windows) allow teachers to create a variety of exercises without spending large amounts of time in the process. The programs are straightforward to use, though require more work than HotPotatoes and NewReader. With more work comes much more control over the end result, which is the tradeoff.

Your Comments

Let us hear from you with your favorites. Please include information about the users, setting, and teacher role so that we can put it into the appropriate context. Anecdotes about how you've used the program in your classes and how it has worked for you are also welcome. Send your comments to Deborah Healey, dhealey at uoregon dot edu.

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Unfortunately, CAELL Journal is no longer being published. For back issues, go to former CJ publisher ISTE Online

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Deborah's Attic by Deborah Healey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at
| © 2010 Deborah Healey

Last updated 28 January 2009