The Internet TESL Journal

Dave's ESL Cafe on the Web
A Site Review

Dennis Oliver
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, 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 Main Page

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

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.

The ESL Question Page

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.

The ESL Job Center

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 subsections.

The ESL Job Links subsection provides connections to employment information in 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 T.E.S.L. Page).

ESL 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 institutions.

The ESL Idiom Page

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.

The ESL Quote Page

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

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.

The ESL Quiz Center

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.

The ESL Discussion Center

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 dialogue.

Dave's ESL Idea Page

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.

ESL Link Page for Students

The Cafe's Student Links page has 17 categories: Grammar, E-mail, Listening, 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 others.

ESL Link Page for Teachers

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.

ESL Message Exchange

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.

Dave's ESL E-Mail Connection for Teachers

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 postings.

Dave's ESL E-Mail Connection for Students

Here, ESL/EFL students have a chance for electronic networking. Between November 10th and November 24th,1996, there were approximately 250 postings.

The One-Stop Search Page

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, 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 elements.

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 reading.

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 1996