Language Learning with iPads

Spring 2013

By Emily Green

To write a novel. To attend Harvard. To travel the world. Every adolescent comes into a classroom armed not only with the ubiquitous school supplies but also with dreams. Granted, these dreams might be carefully concealed behind a mask of artfully perfected teenage angst! Nevertheless, they are omnipresent. Yet, the road to achievement is paved with obstacles. While these obstacles are considerable, English as a Second Language students face an additional hurdle as they attempt to not only learn a language, but to understand a culture. This language acquisition process is not only arduous but highly personal, as well. Thankfully, there is a device that can help smooth the bumps in the road-- the iPad. iPads personalize the language learning odyssey. 

Despite the personal nature of language learning, emphasis wasn’t always placed on the individual learner. Early approaches to the teaching of English as a second language focused on rote memorization and the teacher as primarily the dispenser of grammatical information. The grammar-translation approach was accepted and widely practiced; students translated texts to the target language based on explanations of grammar rules provided by the teacher. But, over time, other approaches and methodologies surfaced and a decided shift occurred. Eventually, English language teachers arrived at an approach based on the belief of language as communication, best learned through authentic and natural acquisition processes. Attention was turned toward the student’s language learning experience (Ur, 2012). 

This learner-centered approach, known as the communicative approach, is highly conducive to a 1:1 iPad program. For instance, ESL students are able to engage in a series of listening comprehension tasks using the revolutionary TuneIn Radio app. This free app gives listeners access to over 70,000 radio stations and over 2 million podcasts and concerts from around the world. Each ESL student selects an English-speaking podcast to listen to and critique using established criteria in the form of a rubric. The teacher is available to expertly guide students toward selecting podcasts that use a vocabulary and speaking rate appropriate for each student’s ability level as an English language learner. Students then use the same rubric to craft their own English-speaking podcasts on subjects of their choosing. Garage Band is a perfect app to produce high-quality podcasts which can be shared with the entire class. The entire project culminates with students reviewing each other’s podcasts. Students are excited and empowered with the ability to select their own podcasts and to choose their own discourse subjects. 

Still, if the communicative approach advocates a learner-centered classroom, teachers first need to understand the motivations that underlie students’ desires to learn the English language. The primary motivations for language learning are integrative and instrumental. 

That is, the learner desires to study a language so that he or she may successfully integrate into a community of English speakers and so that he or she may gain material or educational benefits. While earlier studies indicated integrative motivation as the weightier of the two (Gardner, 1991), a more recent study revealed a trend toward instrumental motivation (Warden & Hsui, 2000). This is a logical revelation when considering adolescent language learners. With Facebook and Instagram, our increasingly voyeuristic society has grown decidedly egocentric. Of course, a third motivating factor is of particular significance when dealing with teens: personal identity, meaning how a learner sees himself or herself or wishes to be seen in the future (Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2009). 

To be sure, the very nature of the iPad is grounded in establishing personal identity. From selecting apps to purchase and download to deciding on the incredibly stylish iPad accessories, each student’s iPad becomes a personal statement. However, in an English language learning environment, the apps themselves allow for considerable reflection on the self — past, present, and future. For example, using the iMovie app, students create movie trailers for the upcoming feature film, “My Life in America.” In this trailer, students showcase their future selves in America, including their dreams and how they hope to achieve them. The multiple steps involved in this production assignment, including writing a script, selecting a soundtrack, and choosing images, only serve to enhance individualism and encourage self-reflection. 

Encouraging introspection and individuality supports the adolescent learner’s motivations for studying English, but it also poses an essential question: How does this approach affect interaction? In fact, this is a primary concern among parents of students with iPads. How can the iPad support varied interaction patterns in and out of the language classroom? Clearly, the iPad is ideal for autonomy. For individual work, students make frequent use of the Notability app which allows for PDF annotation, audio recording, and organizing of documents — just to name a few! Additionally, self-access is fully supported through personal blogging apps like Kidblog or Wordpress. The iPad also lends itself to a surprising variety of interactions, and these interactions are attractive to an increasingly networked student population. 

Recently, the communicative approach has expanded and evolved into the post-communicative approach, a method that encompasses past methodologies, such as grammar-translation (Ur, 2012). The iPad is ideal because it allows for authentic dialogue exchanges lauded by the communicative approach, but the device also supports post-communicative broadening. When collaborating on an assigned task, students can use the free Google Drive app to share documents and conduct peer workshops, adding comments and making revisions in real time. In group work involving more interaction-based tasks, language learners can practice listening comprehension, as well as oral proficiency and writing through interviewing classmates using the free TagPad app. This app allows for recording the interview, tagging interview questions, and uploading the entire interview to a computer via Dropbox. For more drill-oriented scenarios, smart clicker apps like Socrative or eClicker allow teachers to pose questions and students to respond in real time. 

Clearly, the iPad is attractive to students, but how can it enhance the English language teacher’s efficacy? It is truly mind-boggling to consider the myriad roles a language teacher adopts during the course of a single lesson. Fortunately, the iPad is a device that allows for role changing at a moment’s notice. Free apps like Google and Wordpress provide teachers with platforms for disseminating information; however, with the iPad, a language teacher can shift seamlessly from instructor to activator, getting students to use the target language frequently and effectively. With the free app Subtext, students read and respond to class texts in a collaborative environment. The teacher can initiate discussion, engaging all language learners in a digital setting, a setting so familiar to adolescents that it is liable to yield better results and more authentic exchanges. Subtext also supports the language teacher as a model, providing examples of correct and consistent use of the target language; social networking apps like Edmodo and Schoology also achieve the same purpose. With Edmodo and Schoology, the language teacher also dons the role of supporter, providing constant feedback and encouragement to students’ posts. Finally, a crucial role for any teacher, but particularly a language teacher, is that of the assessor, as well as the manager. Monitoring and assessing daily progress in a group of language learners are daunting and stressful tasks. But, with the iPad, apps like Class Dojo make these tasks more manageable and productive by capturing class data and allowing for real-time feedback. 

ESL students want to learn English, for a host of reasons. With the iPad, these students can engage with language on a personal level, and we, as teachers, can provide the vital support to enhance each student’s encounters with English. But how can we sustain this momentum? As teachers, we must wisely use the considerable influence we possess. Of course, the iPad is here to help. The language teacher must take every opportunity to show students how important it is to learn English. For instance, students can exchange how-to demonstrations using the ingenious Explain Everything screencasting app. Furthermore, the language teacher must strive to provide engaging classroom activities (Ur, 2012). So instead of another vocabulary list to memorize, ESL students can create comic strips using English vocabulary words with the Comic Life app. 

Psycholinguist Frank Smith once said, “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” The iPad is the perfect device for opening doors to English language learning.


Zoltán Dörnyei and Ema Ushioda, Teaching and Researching Motivation, (Harlow: Longman, 2009). 

Robert C. Gardner, “Attitudes and motivation in second language learning.” In Bilingualism, Multilingualism and Second Language Learning, edited by A.G. Reynolds, 43- 64. Hillsdale, N.J.: Laurence Erlbaum Associates, 1991.

Peggy Ur, A Course in English Language Teaching, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012).

Clyde A. Warden and Hsui Ju Lin, “Existence of integrative motivation in an Asian EFL 

setting,” Foreign Language Annals 33, no. 5 (2000): 535-45.

Emily Green

Emily Green is an English language teacher at Maumee Valley Country Day School (Ohio), as well as a consultant with the National Writing Project and editor of the annual publication, Ohio Teachers Write.