Internet TESL Journal
Dave's ESL Cafe on the Web
A Site Review
American Language and Culture Program
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ, U.S.A.
In an effort to determine why Dave's ESL Cafe on the Web has become one
of the WWW's most
frequently-accessed ESL/EFL sites, this review will take a brief look at
the Cafe, then make a few general conclusions on why it has
become so popular.
In early December, 1995, after two years of netsurfing and experimenting
with html coding and cgi scripting, Dave Sperling, an instructor in the
intensive ESL program at California State University,
Northridge,California, become frustrated. Feeling that many ESL/EFL web
sites ". . . lacked interactivity and seemed to actually separate students
and teachers" (ESL Question Page, May 1995), he decided to create "
.a cozy place for people to hang out, talk, learn, and share information"
(ESL Question Page, June 1995).
According to statistical information from Pacificnet.net, the ESL Cafe's
server, the site had well over 50,000 "hits" from November 1 through
November 26, 1996--a very respectable showing for any web presence.
To try to determine why the Cafe has become such a frequently-accessed
site, this review will first take a brief look at each Cafe component
(listed in order of popularity, according to the Pacificnet stats), then
draw a few conclusions.
ESL Cafe Components
The site opens with "Dave Sperling Presents.... " followed shortly by
"Dave's ESL Cafe on the Web" (in colorful, informal display fonts on
pastel-colored backgrounds--both randomly selected). Appearing next are the
descriptors "Where Learning English is Fun!" and "For ESL/EFL Students and
Teachers from Around the World," plus a randomly-selected cartoon-type
graphic divider and a graphic of a neon sign which says "Open 24 Hours."
Also included are a randomly-selected quote (changed daily), the date, and
a direct-link menu for 14 of the site's elements.
Following the main page's link menu is a frequently-updated Announcements
section; it generally includes chatty personal notes from Dave Sperling,
updates on any server problems, and news of soon-to-be-added Cafe items.
Also currently included on the main page are links to the ESL Discussion
Center (treated later) and the ESL Cafe Mailing List, plus a
descriptive menu. The ESL Cafe Mailing List (which has not been very active
lately) promises ESL Cafe news to those who type in their name and e-mail
address. The descriptive menu repeats the items from the direct-link menu,
but shows each item in a different display font and adds a sentence or two
to show what will be found at each sub-site.
The overall "look" and "feel" of the Cafe's main page are cozy and
user-friendly rather than slick or glitzy. Sperling has also limited the
Cafe's functions to those which are readily available on the most
widely-used browsers; he has not included Java Applets, Quicktime movies,
sound files, Shockwave files, or other state-of-the-art add-ons.
The ESL Graffiti Wall was the first Cafe element to be placed online
and has remained one of its most popular components; many new
postings--greetings, observations, requests for e-mail, even poems--are
added daily (which can make it difficult to find an individual message).
Contributions to The Graffiti Wall are monitored, but not edited;
inappropriate postings are not allowed, but typos and "creative grammar"
are left as is. The Graffiti Wall provides visitors with a non-threatening
way to "publish" on the Web, even if they don't have an e-mail account or
personal webpage. Postings at this site are the first attempt, for many, at
placing any type of information online.
This section--the second Cafe element to go online--welcomes visitors with
the section title, an enigmatic graphic of a portion of a child's face, and
the descriptor "Where your questions will be answered"; the child turns out
to be Dave Sperling's son, Benjamin, whose neverending questions were the
inspiration for the page. Single queries (which generally change daily)
from ESL students, teachers, and others are featured and are answered
personally by Sperling. His responses are generally brief, but include
direct links to WWW sites where more information may be found. Visitors can
read the day's question and answer, ask their own question, or access
archived questions and answers from January through October, 1996.
This section of the Cafe (added in February, 1996) features what is
probably the Web's most extensive collection of links to employment-related
ESL sites. Included are six subsections. These sections appear first in a direct-links menu;
descriptive menus are also provided. Visitors may add links to any of the
The ESL Job Links subsection provides connections to employment
23 categories (given with the number of links in parentheses): Africa (4),
Asia--General (7), Canada (1), The Czech Republic (1), China (3), ESL
Training (5), Europe (9--including Central Europe, Poland, Eastern Europe,
Finland, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Turkey), FAQ (1), General ESL (21), Hong Kon
g (1), Indonesia (1), Information (5), Japan (14), K-12 Overseas (3), Korea
(11), Latin America (2), the Middle East (3), Miscellaneous (12), Resumes
(2), Singapore (1), Taiwan (5), Thailand (4), and Volunteer (6). In doing a
spot-check on these sites, I found that there are not many dead links: most
links are current and active, though the servers for some have moved.
I also found that the "General ESL" sites included such
frequently-accessed employment resources as the Agora Language
Marketplace Employment Page, The Chronicle of Higher Education,
and Ohio University's Employment Resources for Language Teachers.
The ESL Teacher
Profile Page offers those looking for ESL/EFL jobs the
opportunity to post online background summaries. A few of the postings
include URLs for home pages and/or resumes (which may also be posted in the
section of the same name).
The ESL FAQ Page features Meg Gam's comprehensive TESL/FL Resource
Guide (from Kristina Pfaff-Harris' Linguistic Funland
Jobs: Discussion offers visitors the chance to ask questions about
employment in specific locations and/or to post responses to same. ESL
Jobs: Offered is used by schools to list anticipated job openings. ESL
Jobs: Wanted is used by job seekers to post questions about ESL
employment in general or about positions in specific locations and/or
This section was not added until May, 1996, but is, nonetheless, one of the
Cafe's most frequently-accessed components (over 29,000 "hits" from 11/01
through 11/26, 1996). It contains 160 entries; because each idiom is
randomly selected, it can take a very long time to view the entire
collection. Each entry features a single idiom with a brief definition and
an example of usage; new items are accessed by clicking a button.
This section (added in March, 1996) contains a large number of
randomly-selected items. Included are proverbs from around the world,
witticisms, and notable "one-liners" by public figures ranging from Mae
West and Lili Tomlin to George Bernard Shaw and Benjamin Disraeli. The
Quote Page is surprisingly popular: from November 1st through November
26th, 1996, it received over 11,000 "hits," according to Pacificnet stats.
The ESL Help Center (added in February, 1996) gives visitors an
opportunity to ask ESL-related questions--for which an international team
of teachers volunteer time to post responses. Help Center questions (which
are generally answered on the same day they're submitted) often have a
grammar or vocabulary focus, but may be on any topic. (One recent posting
asked, for example, about the relationship of second-language acquisition
to chaos theory.)
Although, on the average, 8 to 10 questions are submitted to the Help
Center daily, the number of "hits" for this section is far greater than the
number of questions and responses. This strongly suggests that visitors to
the Cafe read this section more often than they participate in it.
This component (added 2/96) features nearly 50 multiple-choice quizzes in a
variety of content areas: Current News, Geography, Grammar, History,
Idioms, Slang, Words, People, Reading Comprehension, Science, Vocabulary,
World Culture, and Writing. As students go through each quiz, they indicate
their answer choice by clicking on a button. After answering all questions,
students submit their work for checking and get online feedback on correct
and incorrect choices, plus a percentage score for questions answered
correctly. A link to the Internet TESL Journal's extensive self-study quiz
collection is also included.
This component (which, like the ESL Help Center, receives many more "hits"
than postings) features subsections for both students (topics:
"Current Events," "Food," "Holidays," "Learning English," "Movies,"
"Music") and teachers (topics: "Activities and Games,"
"Computer-Assisted Language Learning," "English for Specific Purposes,"
"K-12," "Learning/Teaching Material," "Teaching Tips"). Anyone may start a
thread on a Discussion Center topic or add comments to those already
posted. Although numerous postings have been received at both the student
and teacher areas, the student area currently displays more back-and-forth
Dave's ESL Idea Page includes a quote from Sperling: "My ESL Idea
Page is a special place here on the Internet where all of us from around
the world can share ideas about learning and teaching English as a
Second/Foreign Language." At this part of the Cafe, ESL/EFL practicioners
share "recipes" for favorite classroom activities. Although one of the most
popular topics is learning-oriented games, ideas for warm-ups and
ice-breakers, recommended texts, use of e-mail, use of video and movies,
and activities focusing on writing, grammar, pronunciation, and
listening-speaking are also included.
The Cafe's Student Links page has 17 categories: Grammar, E-mail,
Pronunciation, Home Pages, News, Vocabulary, Magazines, Games, Dictionaries,
Poetry, Schools, Music, Links, Fun, Products, and Searches. Most categories
have around 10 links, though some--e.g., Pronunciation (2 links)--have
notably fewer and others--e.g., Homepages (53) and Schools (73)--have many
more. The number of links currently listed is 310; visitors may submit
This page currently contains 330 teacher-oriented links in 19 categories:
Journals, Magazines, Articles, Associations, Linguistics, Home Pages,
Phonetics, Schools, CALL, Jobs, Publishers, Projects, Links, Resources,
Bookstores, Search, Lists, Newsgroups, Products. The largest collections
are Home Pages (58 links), Schools (63), Jobs (28), Publishers (17), and
Resources (45). Additional links may be submitted.
The ESL Message Exchange is a kind of "online leave-a-note service."
The messages posted here usually ask for some kind of help--in finding a
person or text, in handling a particular kind of classroom challenge, and
so on. Some postings are responded to, others aren't.
This Cafe component provides a way for ESL/EFL teachers (and potential
teachers) to network electronically. Those who post leave their e-address
and, usually, a brief message about themselves and what they do. Between
October 29th and November 24th, 1996, there were approximately 200
Here, ESL/EFL students have a chance for electronic networking. Between
November 10th and November 24th,1996, there were approximately 250
This component (which does not really have an ESL focus, but is still very
useful) enables visitors to look for specific information at Dave's ESL
Cafe and/or on the Net-at-large. Input forms for the Shareware.com,
SavvySearch, MetaCrawler, Yahoo, Open Text, Lycos, WebCrawler, Alta Vista,
Galaxy, and Deja News (Usenet) search engines are provided.
With an average of about 2,000 "hits" per day, Dave's Cafe is obviously doing something right. Following are my thoughts
on what that might be.
In my view, the most important factors contributing to the continuing
success of Dave's ESL Cafe on the Web are its user-friendliness, its steady
updating and addition of new components, its inclusion of high-interest
areas for both students and teachers, and its emphasis on participatory
The Cafe's user-friendly atmosphere is both created and enhanced, in my
opinion, by its consistent use of simple, brightly-colored graphics, casual
display fonts, and pastel-colored page backgrounds. These elements are not
unified throughout the Cafe, but they still manage to produce a cozy,
non-threatening "home-made" look and atmosphere. This is, I'm sure,
intended to foster the feeling that both newcomers to the Net and those who
are more experienced are welcome. The fact that the Cafe has not
encumbered its pages with the latest technical bells and whistles (Java Applets, Shockwave
files, etc.) is also, I'm sure, intentional. Keeping the Cafe's functions
within the scope of the most widely-available browser capabilities makes
the site available to the widest audience--not just to those who have the
most powerful computers or the most state-of-the-art add-ons.
Another reason for the success of Dave's ESL Cafe is its steady updating
and addition of new elements; this is particularly important, it seems to
me, since most ESOL sites regularly update their links, but don't add
different kinds of components. It's amazing that the Cafe's initial
offering, the ESL Graffiti Wall, has been supplemented with 17 additional
sections in less than a year--and that these additions constitute a
potpourri rather than variations on a common theme.
Sperling has also demonstrated a keen awareness of high-interest areas for
both teachers and students and has addressed these "hot topics" in Cafe
components. Particularly noteworthy, in this respect, are the ESL Job
Center, the ESL Help Center, the ESL Graffiti Wall, and the ESL Question
Page. These areas provide welcome services to netsurfers because they
address a variety of real-life needs: finding a job and/or getting more
information about one that's being considered, getting an out-of-class
answer for a bothersome question, being able to make one's presence known
on the Web even when one doesn't have e-mail or a home page, and receiving
personal guidance on how to go about finding net resources.
The Cafe's emphasis on participatory elements is, I feel, one of the major
reasons for its uniqueness and success. Most other ESOL sites, no matter
how well done, are primarily (if not entirely) "read-only" repositories of
information: one is limited to accessing the resources put online by a
site's creator. Dave's Cafe is also information-rich, but it provides
visitors with something extra: the chance to become part of the Cafe
themselves through asking their own questions, responding to
messages posted by others, joining in a discussion thread, posting an
online resume or background summary, and so on. Other ESOL sites have some
of these elements, but the activities of most are limited to clicking and
I also believe that the ESL Cafe on the Web is successful because Dave
Sperling has a heavy personal commitment to the site: amazingly, he does
all the site management himself--in his spare time and without financial
support from any outside sponsor. While some aspects of the Cafe's
operation would probably be smoother (and while Sperling's life would no
doubt be much easier) if he had some help, it's also likely that
such an arrangement would, given the nature of group dynamics, result in a
very different focus and, possibly, a slowdown of operations.
I wish Dave Sperling all success and hope Dave's ESL Cafe on the Web will
continue to provide its unique combination of services to the global
ESL/EFL community for a long, long time to come.
The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. II, No. 12, December