PublicationsSystematic reviewsICT & eslICT & esl - summary
A systematic review of the impact of ICT on literacy learning in English of learners between 5 and 16, for whom English is a second or additional language. Summary

General background

The English Review Group completed an overarching systematic review of the impact of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) on literacy learning in English in 2002. In that review, a descriptive map described all the included research in the field. An in-depth sub-review reported on the impact of networked ICT on literacy learning. This review is one of a further four in-depth sub-reviews that address aspects of the overarching question - what is the impact of ICT on literacy learning in English? The broad background to the descriptive map and the in-depth sub-reviews is that there is a growing concern internationally that the investment in ICT in schools is not impacting on literacy development. This concern arises from a belief held by many - including governments as well as schools - that ICT is beneficial to learning and specifically literacy learning. The question is a specific one and has to be seen within a wider political, social and technological context, in which the symbiosis between new technologies and new literacies (and thus literacy learning) is acknowledged.

This review addresses a question about the impact of ICT on literacy learning for one particular group of learners.

Background to this review

Governments naturally tend to frame educational policy primarily in terms of learners who have reasonable mastery over the language(s) of instruction. It is therefore of considerable importance to examine the needs of groups who do not have such mastery. This in-depth review focuses on one such group: learners for whom English is a second or additional language (ESL/EAL). Several countries, including the UK, have begun to develop national programmes and guidelines for ESL/EAL students, and the result is a major commitment of educational resources, in terms of people and, potentially at least, in terms of financial investment. These factors make it particularly important that the programmes and guidelines should be, wherever possible, supported by the findings of high-quality research.

Computers are playing an increasingly pervasive part in almost all aspects of people's lives, including the ways in which knowledge and skills are acquired. Information is easily accessible on the internet in many languages and computers seem destined to play a crucial role in supporting or supplying language training for a range of different age groups. Existing language teaching methods were largely designed to optimise face-to-face teaching and it is not inherently obvious which methods will work in a computerised environment and which will not. Developing computer-based courses is also highly time-consuming and this can prove expensive, simply in terms of the hours involved. So, as research on different forms of e-learning or Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) begins to accumulate, it is extremely important, for the development of methodology as well as the making of language learning policy by education authorities, to establish just what principles or methods can be derived with confidence from published studies.

Given the interest in computers and the availability of so much material in different languages, it is perhaps surprising that reviewers have in fact been less than positive about the results of research into CALL. In 1990, Carol Chapelle, for example, seriously questioned the validity of many current CALL research studies, pointing out instead the crucial importance of the classroom. Hyland (1993) added a series of propositions about factors likely to be crucial to effective CALL learning. The Chapelle and Hyland studies only serve to emphasise the need for a systematic review of the field and the two studies act as a useful backdrop to the present review.

Review questions

The overall research question for the two-year project is

What is the impact of ICT on literacy learning in English, 5 - 16?

The research questions for this review are:

What is the evidence with respect to the impact of ICT on literacy learning in English of learners between 5 and 16, for whom English is a second language (ESL) or an additional language (EAL)?


What conclusions may be drawn with reasonable confidence from the evidence?


Defining relevant studies for the descriptive map of the overarching review: inclusion and exclusion criteria

The earlier systematic review mapped the research on the impact of ICT on literacy learning in English, 5-16. The relevant research was searched for, located, sent for and mapped for the years 1990-2001. In addition to updating the searches for the period 2001-2002 and screening for inclusion of any potentially relevant studies for the period 2001-2002, all the included studies in the original map were re-keyworded, using revised generic and review-specific keywording sheets. The English Review Group working document for the inclusion and exclusion of potentially relevant studies was updated to reflect changes made to the keywording sheets, both generic and review-specific.

Defining relevant studies for the in-depth review: inclusion and exclusion criteria

Studies were identified on the basis of the keywords ESL and EAL and re-screened with respect to whether they matched the inclusion and exclusion criteria, and the resulting papers were data-extracted by both authors. The procedure was checked by a moderator, who also data-extracted two studies.


Identification of studies: the descriptive map of the overarching review

A total of 2,319 potentially relevant reports were identified for the current review. Of these, 1,891 (just over 81%) were excluded by screening titles and/or abstracts and 428 were sent for. Of the 428 reports, 34 (fewer than 8%) were not received within the timeframe of the review or were unavailable. A reading of the full report resulted in the exclusion of a further 182 reports, leaving a total of 212 that met the criteria for inclusion in the mapping study.

Identification of studies: in-depth review

Eight studies were included in the in-depth review: four at primary-school level and four at secondary. Three studies were considered to have a 'medium' weight of evidence for the review and the remainder were low. The reasons for this varied from uncertainty about classification, to methodological and analysis problems. The main result was that it was impossible to find a clear impact pattern. There was some evidence that, under certain conditions, word processing could improve writing and editing quality. There was a general trend towards students finding computer-assisted sessions enjoyable and helpful, and teachers reported their role changing towards being facilitators. There were some suggestions that integration into regular class procedures and activities, a high-support user-friendly environment and the use of collaborative work with the goal of a concrete end product aids learning and motivation, but the evidence was not clear-cut or conclusive.

Conclusions: in-depth review

The main strength of this in-depth review is that the reviewers were able to work from an applied linguistic viewpoint, which considers psychological and social variants as relevant to language teaching and learning. The major limitations are that (a) the in-depth review is small, (b) the included studies gave little information about classroom practices or aspects of bilingualism and (c) the studies tend to date from the early 1990s, and thus do not deal with modern hardware or internet-based teaching and learning.

The major conclusion is that not enough can be concluded from the studies examined to support policy decisions about increasing the role of computers in language education. Essentially, much more research is needed and research should take classrooms and details of the bilingualism and bilingual education involved far more seriously.

Specifically, a number of robust studies are needed to address the research question. These should systematically record, monitor and investigate:

  • learners' ethnicity and existing level of proficiency in English;
  • the learning processes which particular items of ESL/EAL software engender;
  • the relationship between those processes and the learning processes of the mainstream classroom and the culture at large;
  • learning gains and attitude changes;
  • these and other outcomes of the ESL/EAL ICT-based learning programmes compared with those of other forms of ESL/EAL learning programmes.


Chapelle C (1990) The discourse of computer-assisted language learning: toward a context for descriptive research. TESOL Quarterly 24: 199-224.

Hyland K (1993) ESL Computer writers: what can we do to help? System 21: 21-30.

This report should be cited as: Low G, Beverton S (2004) A systematic review of the impact of ICT on literacy learning in English of learners between 5 and 16, for whom English is a second or additional language. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education,  University of London. 

Copyright 2019 Social Science Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education :: Privacy Statement :: Terms Of Use :: Site Map :: Login
About::Projects::Research Use::Courses & seminars::Resources::Databases::Blog::Publications