Have you ever been frustrated using an app or a piece of software and thought something along the lines of “if only it was made with teachers in mind” or “if only they could have invited input from teachers during the design process”?
I thought it would be fitting to introduce a website where the software designer is actually in the trenches teaching university-level EFL classes by day and burning the midnight oil programming at night.
Meet Paul Raine and his website Apps 4 EFL.
In this post I interview Paul about his website, and in later posts I’ll explore some of the fantastic EFL study apps he has created.
Q: Could you provide an brief introduction to Apps 4 EFL? And, could I ask you to summarize Apps 4 EFL in one sentence?
Apps 4 EFL is a website for teachers and learners of English as a Foreign Language, designed to work both on mobile devices and desktop PCs. It features a variety of games and activities for English language learners in the form of “web-apps” – apps that run in the browser.
Additionally, it includes management tools for teachers whereby students’ progress in each of the individual apps can be monitored, recorded, and used as an element of assessment in any English course. In order to summarize in one sentence, I’ll provide the site slogan: “Apps, games, tools and tech for English language teachers and learners”.
Q: I know you’ve had some of your apps available online for some time, but what made you decide to include the learning management system component?
After introducing one of the apps, WikiCloze, at the 2014 JALT CALL Conference, the feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive. However, among the comments for improvement were calls for a way teachers could monitor and record student progress.
I realized at the time that this would be quite a big undertaking, but one I thought would be worthwhile, especially bearing in mind my plans to add further apps to the platform. I moved the whole site over to a more robust CMS: Joomla, the same software used by internet giants such as eBay and Barnes and Noble.
On top of this solid foundation I built a student management system for teachers, which can now be used to monitor and record student progress in all of the Apps 4 EFL games and activities.
Q: What software have you used to design the site and apps?
Q: How do you incorporate Apps 4 EFL into your university classes?
I teach all four skills: Reading, writing, listening and speaking within my various university classes.
For the reading and writing classes, Word Ninja and WikiCloze are two very useful apps. Word Ninja can help students improve their knowledge of almost 3000 essential English words (the NGSL). WikiCloze can help students improve their knowledge of English grammar through intensive reading and cloze test completion. The pop-up dictionary function also provides the opportunity to improve vocabulary knowledge of words in their original context.
For listening, there is Pirate or Pilot, which helps students to improve their ability to distinguish between similar sounding English words (minimal pairs). All WikiCloze articles now also feature text-to-speech audio, and many have comprehension quizzes available, which means students can complete listening comprehension quizzes about topics which are of interest to them.
I haven’t made an app which specifically focuses on speaking yet, but I’m hoping to create something in the near future using the emerging Web Speech API technologies, which include Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR). Watch this space!
Q: Does students’ engagement with Apps4EFL influence their grades? And, how do you grade them?
It is entirely down to the teacher whether or not they wish to incorporate students’ performance on Apps 4 EFL into part of their grading scheme.
My students use the site a lot, both in class and at home – and on the train, bus, or in the bath with their mobile devices! My students work hard, both to improve their own high scores, and to equal or better those of their classmates.
I feel this effort deserves recognition in my grading scheme, and therefore I assign a certain percentage of students’ final class grade to their performance on Apps 4 EFL. This is very easy to do, as Apps 4 EFL provides a detailed breakdown of each individual students’ progress in each of the apps.
Q: What draws you to creating apps?
I started programming when I was quite young, and used to write applications in BASIC for my old Acorn RISC OS computer. However, when I went to university, my interests changed, and I chose to study creative writing and then TEFL.
I eventually came back to programming when I realised the popularity of mobile devices, as well as how laptops and desktop PCs, provided some really interesting learning opportunities for language students.
The iPod used to be marketed as the device which allowed you to fit 1000 songs in your pocket. With Apps 4 EFL, your students can fit over 100,000 cloze tests in their pocket, and study English vocabulary anywhere!
While some students even forget their textbooks and pencil cases, they never forget their mobile phones. Ultimately, I want to create learning tools which are convenient, powerful, and engaging.
Q: How will you determine the success of the site and your apps?
When I’m the Mark Zuckerberg of EFL learning apps, I’ll consider myself successful! But before then, if students and teachers of English find my site useful or enjoyable, that will also be a big success!
Q: Right now you have created five apps: Pilot or Pirate, Picture This, Word Ninja, Star Words and WikiCloze. Are you working on any more apps for the future?
I’m current working on a new app called Sentence Builder, which utilizes the huge tatoeba.org example sentence database. Students are presented with a sentence in their native language and are required to translate it into English.
I’d also like to continue to improve the five existing apps, and also do something in the near future utilizing ASR, although what form exactly this will take I’m as yet unsure. It’s great to think of new ideas, and I’m always open for suggestions if anyone has any – collaborators are always welcome!