Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Apps and English Language Learning

I'm often asked by teachers what information and communication technologies (ICTs) I use with my students. This is a brief list of digital tools and applications (apps) that I'm either using with my students or tools that they use for their own personal learning on a regular basis.

At present all of my students  learn English on a one-to-one basis via Skype and sometimes collaborate with other students on various projects. A few of them are currently preparing for exams: First Certificate level and above. Therefore, the tools listed below pertain to this particular context. Although I have grouped some of them under specific literacy skills i.e. speaking, listening, reading and writing, this in no way suggests that the resources are designed for, or implemented solely for this purpose. It purely signalizes that this tool has been chosen with the emphasis being on a particular literacy skill. However, other skills will naturally come into play. We don't just use one skill at a time when learning but rather focus on one or more intensively than the others, depending on the purpose of any activity.

Reference Tools
Dictionaries are an essential tool, whether you're learning a new language or not. I dip into mine daily and couldn't be without a dictionary in digital format. No need to drag kilos of books around when I can download an app. I use and can recommend Dictionary.com , as this application and the online dictionary are both a dictionary and thesaurus and supply the etymology of the word. If you're using Google Chrome, Dictionary.com can be added as an extension.
     It has speech to text recognition which can be used by English and Spanish language students to practice their pronunciation. For vocabulary building there is the 'Word of the Day' function which throws up some really interesting vocabulary. There is a 'Question of the Day' which covers many grammatical topics and points of interest pertaining to language in general. A list of trending or popular words is supplied which is again useful for vocabulary building. I'd advise students to practice using new vocabulary in context and with collocations if possible and not just creating language banks or flash cards with lists of words in isolation. Using vocabulary in context and in examples that you can identify with will make it easier to remember. In addition to the above functions, a short history of your searches is saved which can be useful if you've forgotten a definition or how to spell something correctly. I advise my students to make the most out of the affordances of this tool. After all that's the idea of developing a  multifunctional digital tool: offering users a fuller package. 

Another dictionary that I've actually only just discovered and am impressed with is Visuwords, which is web-based. This tool is an online graphical dictionary and thesaurus. It creates lovely colour coded, neural type patterns of words and their associations (see  image 1 below).

                   Image 1 Screenshot of Visuwords

The node type endings can be clicked on to reveal the definition and any other relevant information. There is a colour key on the left hand side which is self-explanatory and the nodes can be clicked on and pulled around the screen for further investigation. A wonderful tool for developing a broader vocabulary, for building collocations and certainly a useful tool for anyone who writes regularly.


For pronunciation practice and learning phonetics, I find the English File Pronunciation App quite good. The video (see image 2) demonstrates the functionality of this app.


                       Image 2  Source: YouTube  ' English File Pronunciation App'

Cambridge English also has pronunciation apps that are game based, but I've not yet had the opportunity to experiment with these.
     Additionally, I advise my students to make use of speech to text recognition if any of their devices have this function. Dragon is a wonderful voice recognition tool that responds very accurately to  your speech. As well as being a practical dictation and note-taking app, it can be implemented by students for pronunciation practice. The style of English, along with other languages can be selected. It comes with a share function i.e. Twitter, Facebook and email which is great if you're on the go and feel like tweeting and couldn't be bothered typing (providing you have access to the internet). In image 3, you will see an example of a dictated text that I recorded on my iPad and mailed to myself. Noticeable of course is the lack of punctuation but you do have the possibility to edit the final dictation if this is necessary. However, if the app is being used with an emphasis on speech and pronunciation then personally I don't view this as a negative feature.  

   Image 3 Example of a sample text using Dragon for iPad with speech to text recognition.

In order to engage in asynchronous communication and also to improve speaking skills my students use the apps, Audio Note, which is a notepad and voice recorder and MailVu, which is video email. Additionally, students use Vocaroo as a form of audio communication. It's a web-based tool which I have blogged about previously. I use Voxopop (web-based) on the other hand with students for more specific speaking practice which I can analyse and archive for future use and reference. 

My exam students use various apps in preparation for listening exams such as, Cambridge Advanced listening. There are four parts with several extracts and multiple choice questions to test comprehension. The First Certificate in English practice listening test app is structured in the same manner. These are suitable for both iPhone and iPad and there are also more Android apps being developed in this specific area of language learning. There is now a broad range of apps specifically for exam practice  available as well as online exams. Here are just a few more examples from Cambridge English Apps which cover grammar, vocabulary and general English etc. 
      Is it necessary to use apps that have been specifically designed for language students? I believe it depends on the individual. Some of my students will work happily with authentic material from a variety of sources including simulating listening tests with me online, others prefer to use these kinds of educational apps as the exam draws closer and there are those who prefer a blend. 

On the subject of listening practice, TED videos and podcasts  are popular with my students and myself. The topics covered are extensive and the genres mixed which makes the app or online version a useful resource. The advantage with the online version is  the availability of a transcript. Students can click on any phrase and the video will sync to this point. Nevertheless, a useful app for mobile learning. There are versions available for Mac and Android users. iTunes U also has exceptional videos and podcasts including specific material for English language learners such as that produced by the British Council.

Kindle and iBooks  are the preferred apps for practicing reading skills. I also direct my students to sites such as The TimesNational Geographic and News in Levels for extra reading. The latter is a site specifically designed for English language students from beginners to advanced. Articles are written in various genres and a podcast or video is supplied for each  text. Hence, numerous possibilities here for both autonomous learning and classroom activities. 
   For brief and authentic texts in a completely different genre Twitter is interesting to use. I encourage my students to search for groups that they can identify with and to drop in on a regular basis to read and also upload their own tweets. As an educator I find this a wonderful tool for keeping up-to-date with current topics in the field of education and educational technology. 

Explain everything Educreations and Show Me are all interactive whiteboards for the iPad and seem to be the most popular with my students. These are excellent for creativity i.e. students demonstrating in their own manner how they can play with language using multimedia and sharing their projects with others. I prefer Explain Everything because of the range of tools that can be used and the import, export possibilities, but it's a matter of preference and individual needs. The video below (see image 4) gives a brief insight into the functionality of this app.  

                                        Image 4  Source: You Tube 'Explain Everything'

A couple of my students enjoying working with digital flashcards and use Mental Case. I have this on my Mac as well but at $29.99, I can imagine that users may search for a cheaper product. The mobile app is at present $4.99.  Students can create their own flashcards or download from Flashcard Exchange and Quizlet. com. 


I use Google Drive with my students during and between lessons for writing practice  and creative work, so it seems logical to have them download the app as well if they are willing. This makes mobile learning more comfortable for them and also for me. I also find The Guardian Eyewitness App useful. This is a collection of contemporary images with a caption and a brief extract which is relevant to the image. Everyday a new photograph is added to the collection which can be viewed as a thumbnail and in a larger format. Images are a wonderful way of inspiring students to write and speak. And of course exam students will need to practice their deductive and comparative language skills in relation to imagery, so this app comes in quite handy. 

Points for consideration
As stated in the introductory paragraphs, I presently teach adult students English on a one-to-one basis via Skype. Therefore, the above mentioned resources may not be suitable for your teaching context. Think carefully about the individual needs of your learners. Take into consideration what devices they are using as there could be compatibility problems. Not all web-based tools function on mobile devices and not all apps are compatible with both iOS and Android operating systems. On the subject of apps it's also worth investigating which require internet access after download. I've been caught out with this before. What kind of budget do you and your students have? Many apps are free and others have to be bought. Which apps come into consideration i.e. those specifically designed for language students, or would you rather repurpose other apps for their needs, or a blend?
      Don't overload students with ICTs as they are there as an aid and not meant to hinder the learning process and experience. Some of my students use only a couple of tools and others prefer to have a variety of choice. And what they are using at the moment may not be what they choose to use in a couple of months. It's a matter of individual needs within a specific learning context.

Extra Reading

I update the following topics on Scoop.it quite regularly:

Explain Everything ( 2011 ) 'Explain Everything'
Available online at:
( last accessed 28. 02. 2013 )

OUPELTGlobal ( 2012 ) 'English File Pronunciation App'
Available online at: 
( last accessed 28. 02. 2013 )


  1. I really found Berlitz to be the best tool for language learning for me. It really helped to have someone to turn to when I ran into issues

    1. Yes, this is a critical point Sean, i.e. choosing a method of learning that suits your individual needs. Although e-learning solutions and blended methods are wanted and are gaining in popularity, we mustn't underestimate the value of providing some kind of support for learners. My students, who are all virtual learners, appreciate my being there when a problem crops up. Thank you for your comment.