Designing web pages to introduce EFL students to the Internet

Bill Pellowe

Not for citation
June 25, 1999


The author created on-line materials for computer lab lessons to teach computer-novice EFL students how to use the Internet. Since 1996, these materials have been revised and expanded based on information gleaned through observations of students using them. In this paper, the author outlines the principles and processes which lead to certain design decisions, including scaffolding from the known to the unknown, not letting standard web design principles interfere with learning goals, and providing tasks which are purposeful.


Many EFL teachers are eager to get their students on-line, and much effort is devoted to discussing and devising appropriate pedagogical tasks for students. Yet as any teacher who has held classes in computer labs can attest, students are not all equally proficient in using the software -- the tools -- necessary for the tasks we set.

Each year since 1996 I have surveyed my students about their computer experience. Every year, the results are strikingly similar: for every dozen students, usually 2 or 3 have used computers before, and only 1 has a computer at home. Within those two groups, it is rare to have 1 student who has experience using the Internet. These results are from the students in my Internet course.

The initial goals of the course, then, necessarily include acquiring a basic-level technological proficiency. To help accomplish this, I created web-based tutorials. These materials are on-line (see the Appendix for the URL), and are freely available for other teachers to use in their own classes. To date, the materials have been used with EFL students in several countries in Asia, with ESL students in Australia (see, for example, Cholewka, 1997) and North America, and with native speakers of English in technology education seminars for teachers in Alabama and California. These materials are a small yet vital component of my Internet course. In this paper, I focus on some of the design decisions which underpin these materials.

From the known to the unknown

Sound educational principles require scaffolding from the known into the unknown; thus, to accommodate the vast majority of my students, the first lesson is aimed squarely at EFL learners with no computer experience. As an introduction to the Internet, it provides a hands on approach to teaching the students both the techniques of navigation and the English language associated with these techniques. The first page, for example, defines the verb "click", and asks students to click the picture of a mouse.

The first time my students enter our computer lab, they find the computers are on and the first page of the first lesson is already loaded into Netscape. By the end of class, they have the necessary vocabulary to understand my instructions for how to close Netscape and shut down the computer. At the beginning of the second class, they learn how to turn the computers on and start up the Netscape software.

Base design decisions on learning goals

Observing students going through the lesson materials often provides humbling evidence of good intentions gone wrong. In response to watching my students progress through the materials in class each year, several existing features of the first version have been modified or deleted, and new features have been added. Revisions based on discerned weaknesses required certain decisions which may appear at odds with general tenants of good web page design.

For example, one "rule" is that web pages should identify themselves as part of a larger whole through such standard devices as site titles and links to a "home" page. In fact, the 1996 pages each contained a footer section which included an "information" link, a "home" link and a "contact" link. While this design is good for general purpose web pages, it proved detrimental when included on the lesson pages. Many students could not distinguish between those elements and the actual components of the lessons. Some would inadvertently click on these links, exiting the lesson sequence and losing themselves in (for example) the teacher's notes. Updated versions contain only the links which bring the student to the next page of the lesson.

Furthermore, even though each chapter ends with an activity which sends the students off-site to complete a task, there is no link back to a general contents page, and most of the chapters do not link into the subsequent one. This was not always so. In the 1996 version of the course materials, the end of each chapter linked directly to the next. These links were removed in 1997, mainly because I found that some students were mechanically progressing through to the subsequent chapters instead of focusing on the assigned task.

This is not an argument against allowing students to progress beyond a schedule set by the teacher. The decision to isolate the chapters was motivated in part by the fact that the materials are not designed for self-access distance learning. Rather, they are designed so that teachers can direct their students to the relevant starting page when the students are ready to use them. Once that page is accessed, students proceed at their own pace. When the chapter is finished, the chain ends, putting the choice of what to do next into the hands of the instructor.

At the end of the first chapter, for example, students are sent into Kyoto Sangyo University's "Famous Personages in Japan" site to answer some questions about a few of the famous people profiled there. When the students are finished, the instructor has several options:

  1. Based on information found on that site about students' own favorite celebrities, students could write questions to be answered by the teacher, by other students, or during trivia games in speaking classes.
  2. Students could be directed to the second chapter by teaching them how to enter a URL into the web browser by hand.
  3. Students could be directed to another site of general interest.

Furthermore, once students' email accounts are active, teachers can send a lesson's URL to students in the body of an email message; in Netscape, this text is automatically rendered as a link.

Provide purposeful activities

In addition to scaffolding from the known to the unknown, tasks should be purposeful. This purpose can often be the retrieval of an artifact (such as an answer to a question, or a picture of something). This general principle can be illustrated through the following description of an activity which was added to the 1999 version of the first chapter.

One page provides a photo of three men and three children. The text beneath the photo informs students that the man in the middle is me, and the girl with me is my daughter. The others in the photo are also identified. The next page teaches students about the "back" button of the web browser. Earlier versions of this page simply asked students to try the back button to see what happens, and to use the "forward" button to return to the page.

However, the 1999 version of this page includes an additional activity: Students are shown a small photo of one of the men and his child, and are asked for their names. Because students did not read the earlier texts with the expectation of a quiz, nearly all need to use the "back" button to retrieve the answers. In short, the students are provided with a purpose for performing the new action. Writing down answers gives them something physical to accomplish. Handing in the answers provides a sense of closure, and it shows the teacher that the student was able to complete the task. (Do students cheat? In my experience, I find that rather than cheating, those experiencing difficulties ask others for help finding the answers.)

Not just on-line handouts

Delivering training content over the Internet poses a challenge to make each experience useful. There should be a reason why an Internet page is a preferable option to a paper handout. One of the lessons in the 1997 course aimed to teach students how to use pull-down menus. The instruction page featured an image of a pull down menu from CNN's weather forecast site with an explanation of how to use one. However, this proved inadequate. When students followed on to the activity (going to CNN's Weather forecasts page to answer questions about weather in international locations), many were unable to use the pull down menus. In short, the instructional page failed. Without anything to do on the page, students had difficulty understanding the instruction, and they had no opportunity to check their understanding. The 1999 version contains actual pull down menus with instructions. If students do something wrong, they come to a page which tells them that a mistake was made, and they are then provided an opportunity to try again.


Currently, most of the first year students entering my classes each April have little to no technical knowledge. This situation will undoubtedly change as students begin receiving technical instruction at younger ages in school and as more and more households acquire personal computers. However, at present, one of the initial goals of the course is to provide instruction (in English) towards basic-level technical proficiency. For the reader who explores these materials, it is hoped that this brief discussion will shed light on the decisions made in creating the tutorials.


Web site:

My students use Windows machines, so these tutorials were initially designed for Windows users. Recently, alternative pages have been created for Macintosh users. See the site's contents page for full details.


Cholewka, S. (1997). Technology-enhanced language tuition: Incorporating computer assisted language learning multimedia resources and the internet in the curriculum. Literacy Broadsheet, December 1997.

About the author

Bill Pellowe teaches at Aso Foreign Language and Travel College (full time) and Seinan Gakuin University (part time) in Fukuoka, Japan. Bill has been teaching in Japan since 1990; before coming here, he taught ESL to foreign students in Boston, Massachusetts. He received his MA in TEFL with distinction in 1998 from the University of Birmingham (UK)


Bill Pellowe
Odo 5-6-31 #202
Nishi-ku Fukuoka-shi
tel: 092-883-3688