Dr. Cheesman’s App Chat: Literacy Apps for English Language Learners


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February 2016

Note: This article is adapted from the technology chapter in the upcoming book, Teaching English Language Learners the Foundation of Literacy, edited by Dr. Elsa Hagan (Brookes Publishing, Inc.) Used by permission.

By Elaine Cheesman, Ph.D.

App Chat LogoLearning English as a foreign language requires the learner to become both bilingual—able to engage in conversational listening and speaking—and bi-literate—able to read and write academic text. Teachers who work with English Language Learners (ELLs) need the knowledge and skills to teach both oral and written language. The sequence of instruction for conversational English—names of common objects, key conversational phrases, etc.—is neither appropriate nor effective for teaching the code of written English.

To read words, non-native speakers—particularly ELLs with language-based learning disabilities—need systematic and explicit instruction to understand how English phonology (speech sounds) relates to orthography (spelling and writing systems) and morphology (meaningful units within words). This instruction requires a markedly different skill set and sequence of instruction. If the alphabet of the native language of ELLs is different (e.g., Arabic or Russian), they also need explicit and systematic instruction in letter and numeral formation. In addition, academic text contains more complex sentence structures and more mature vocabulary containing Latin and Greek morphemes.

As many as 15-20% of the population as a whole have some symptoms of dyslexia, including poor phonemic awareness, slow or inaccurate decoding, and very poor spelling. (See IDA Fact Sheet “Dyslexia Basics.“) It is reasonable to expect that a similar percentage of English Language Learners are affected in similar proportions. These individuals require special considerations. They require very explicit and systematic, instruction coupled with extensive opportunities to practice skills. To build automaticity and fluency, all students need plenty of guided practice with immediate, corrective feedback on concepts previously taught by a teacher.  

To use technology effectively, the educator must be aware of the demands of written language and select technology aligned with the needs of the learner. Mobile apps can be used by the teacher for direct instruction and by the learner for practice with immediate corrective feedback. Apps can provide much-needed practice by students who require more repetition to master skills. Conversely, typically developing students can practice previously taught skills using mobile apps while teachers provide individual or small group instruction for students who are at risk for reading failure. It is important to emphasize that knowledgeable teachers, not technology, are the keys to student success.

Listed below are suggestions for apps (and some web-based programs) and a few different uses for apps that are already installed on your device. Apps designed for teacher-led instruction or independent student practice have research-based content that include professional graphics and sound. The apps describe potential ways that this technology can support conversational (listening and speaking) and written/academic language (reading and writing).

English Learning Apps

These apps teach conversational English. They can complement classroom instruction or provide instruction to other members of the students’ families outside of school.

Mango Languages. www.mangolanguages.com  

The mobile app complements the web-based program. It teaches conversational English (and other languages) in 17 different native languages. Four features make this program/app particularly useful for students who struggle with reading:

  1. It provides opportunities to practice with oral instructions.
  2. Comparable phrases are color-coded in English and the native languages to enhance understanding.
  3. It has a built-in voice-comparison tool to perfect pronunciation.
  4. Variable pronunciation speeds help build awareness of English phonemes (speech sounds).

Learn and Speak American English. www.mondlylanguages.com/Website and mobile app.

This app matches the user with choices of several native languages; however, it does require competent reading skills in one’s native language. This program/app presents words individually and within phrases with matching pictures in both the native language and English. A separate pop-up window for verb conjugations explicitly links derived forms together, including irregular verbs (e.g., see, saw).

Translators, Dictionaries, and Spelling Help

Educators can use these apps to translate text or converse with speakers of other languages. ELLs can use them to decipher unknown words and strengthen vocabulary.

Translate. https://translate.google.com  

Translates written text and oral speech. Hold a smart phone above the text for instant translation on the screen.

Longman Dictionaries. http://global.longmandictionaries.com

This suite of dictionary apps—also available for computers—provides definitions and sample sentences using basic vocabulary. The Longman Collocations Dictionary and Thesaurus includes collocation—two or more words that go together (e.g., heavy rain, pouring rain, detailed analysis). Words and collocations are grouped to improve academic vocabulary (e.g., drizzle, shower, downpour). Other Longman products include Concise English Dictionary, Phrasal Verbs Dictionary, and Idioms Dictionary.

Google App. www.google.com  

As a spelling aid, tap the microphone and say, “How do you spell ___.” The app will produce the word, a definition, and a tab to translate the word into several languages. Requires internet.

Siri. Apple devices.  

Tap the microphone and say, “How do you spell ___.” Siri will produce the word, give a definition, and orally spell the word by naming each letter.

Instructional Tool for Teachers

Sound Literacy. http://soundliteracy.com  

This versatile app works well for direct instruction, for small groups, or for whole-class instruction (by connecting it to a projector). It includes a set of color-coded electronic tiles for letters, graphemes (e.g., sh, ay), and morphemes (i.e., prefixes, base elements, suffixes). Using this app, teachers can explicitly teach the building blocks of the English writing system, including Latin bases, prominent in academic text (e.g., use of one tile to change instruction to induction). The companion website has a large collection of instructional videos for educators. Disclosure: The developers donate a portion of their profits to IDA.

Phonemic Awareness, Reading, Spelling and Vocabulary for Beginning Readers

If your students have difficulty hearing all the sounds in words, omit or transpose letters in spelled words, or misread words, this selected list of apps will help. It provides practice in phonemic awareness (perceiving individual sounds within spoken words), reading, and spelling skills. Please see previous App Chats in the IDA Examiner for a more comprehensive lists of apps.

ABC Magic, Reading Magic and Spelling Magic series. www.preschoolu.com 

This app systematically and sequentially presents letter-sound associations (ABC Magic series), phoneme blending and segmenting, and reading and spelling one- and two-syllable words. As an added bonus, the apps pronounce the names or actions shown in each photograph.

ABC PocketPhonics. www.appsinmypocket.com

This app combines handwriting practice and spelling of individual graphemes (letters and letter clusters). It uses target spelling-sound correspondence to spell spoken words.

Phonics Genius. www.alligatorapps.com

This is a flashcard app for learning basic and advanced phoneme-grapheme associations. Pronounces words.

Language Structures for Beginning Readers

Use these apps for practice with grouping words into meaningful phrases to form sentences.  As a bonus, the sentences are read orally by the app to strengthen reading vocabulary.

Sentence Reading Magic. www.preschoolu.com  

This app has the option of manuscript or cursive:

  1. Match spoken and written high frequency words.
  2. Arrange words in a spoken sentence to match the picture.

This app contains 324 two-, three-, four-, and five-word sentences containing words with short vowel sounds and consonant blends.

Rainbow Sentences. http://mobile-educationstore.com/apps/

This app helps students construct grammatically correct sentences. Phrases are color coded to help students understand basic sentence structure. Users can record their sentences in their own voice.

Language Structures and Vocabulary for Intermediate Readers

Phrasal Verbs. http://thephrasalverbsmachine.org

View animation of given phrase (learn mode). Choose the phrase that matches the animation (exercise mode)

The Right Word by Dactyl Applications.

Select frequently misused words within the context of a written sentence. (Competent reading skills or a reading partner are required.)

Oral Pronunciation, Reading Fluency and Written Composition

Use the speech-to-text app with headphones and speaker to perfect pronunciation, to develop reading fluency and attention to punctuation (which must be specified), and to dictate compositions without having to worry about spelling.

Microphone icon.

Speak and instantly see text on the screen.

Dragon Dictation. http://www.nuancemobilelife.com/apps/dragon-dictation

This speech-to-text app allows one to speak and instantly see text on the screen.

English Alphabet

These apps are for ELLs whose native language has a different alphabet or for those who confuse similarly-shaped letters. This brief list of letter-naming and handwriting apps helps ELLs learn the names and associated sounds of the letters. Note: Some do not provide the most commonly associated sounds (e.g., “x” as in x-ray or /z/ as in xylophone instead of the most common pronunciation /ks/ as in box). Refer to previous App Chats in the IDA Examiner for more comprehensive lists.

Live Insights Handwriting Without Tears. http://wetdrytry.com

This app provides practice with naming and forming upper- and lower-case letters and numerals; the app records progress and errors. It supports unlimited users.

StarDot Handwriting. www.stardothandwriting.com

This app provides practice with naming and forming upper- and lower-case letters. It includes a “kinesthetic” and alphabetic sequence. It supports unlimited users and provides reports. Website has printable worksheets

DotToDot. www.appsinmypocket.com  

The purpose of this app is to learn alphabetical or numerical order. It orally pronounces names of letters and numbers in alphabetical and numerical order. Settings can be adjusted for older students.

Conquering Cursive; Powerful Printing. www.writeonhandwriting.com

The app uses simple letter formations and easy-to-understand terminology to explain the letter shapes.

More of Dr. Cheesman’s App Chats:

Dr. Cheesman’s App Chat: Don’t Miss These Award-Winning Apps for Vocabulary and Comprehension (October 2015)

Dr. Cheesman’s App Chat: Games to Boost Math Skills (August 2014)

Dr. Cheesman’s App Chat: Vocabulary & Morphology (April 2014)

Dr. Cheesman’s App Chat: Holiday Gifts! (December 2013)

Dr. Cheesman’s App Chat: Spelling (August 2013)

Dr. Cheesman’s App Chat: Ten Interactive Books for Kids, Teens, and Adults (May 2013)

Dr. Cheesman’s App Chat: iPad Apps for Literacy Instruction (February 2013)

Dr. Cheesman is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. The courses she developed were among the first nine university programs officially recognized by the International Dyslexia Association for meeting the Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading.

Copyright © 2016 International Dyslexia Association (IDA). We encourage sharing of Examiner articles. If portions are cited, please make appropriate reference. Articles may not be reprinted for the purpose of resale. Permission to republish this article is available from info@interdys.org.