At last! Teacher-designed EFL apps

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.

prMeet 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?

The site is built on top of the Joomla CMS, which provides a very robust foundation of security and stability. The individual learning apps are coded using PHP, JavaScript (jQuery), and Ajax, which are the standard technologies for delivering HTML 5 enabled web apps.

Apps 4 EFL Apps pageQ: 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 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!



Living the Dream: What’s it like teaching a class where every student owns an iPad?

logo-1As a language teacher who loves to incorporate mobile technology into my lessons, I often find myself wondering how cool it would be to be able to teach a class where all students have the same mobile device. Such a situation would enable me to forget about compatibility issues between different platforms and manufacturers, and more importantly, if all students were experienced using the same device, students would be able to support and collaborate with each other more effectively.

At the Paperless learning conference last month, I met a teacher who was living my dream.

Meet, Renaud Davies, 0a lecturer from Hiroshima Bunkyo Women’s University (HBWU). In an effort to increase university enrollment and equip students with technical skills which they can use after graduation, the university started issuing iPad minis to all faculty members and students in April, 2013 (Runnels & Rutson-Griffiths, 2013).

The following are Renaud’s responses to a short interview I conducted via email.

Do the students have objections to using an iOS device? (e.g., they have an Android phone or tablet & they prefer to use that platform)

There have been no objections that I am aware of. Many students own Android phones and these tend to be the main tool for social networking, listening to music, etc. as they do not need to rely on a Wi-Fi network like they do with the iPad minis. To learn more about why we went with Apple iPad Mini, you can read this article written by two of my colleagues.

Is the iPad component being driven by another department and the EFL program jumped on board or is this iPad strategy being driven by the English language department?

The decision to introduce iPads to all incoming students was part of an information technology strategy created by the HBWU administration to raise competitiveness and enrollment. iPads were distributed to all faculty members and incoming students in an attempt to better prepare students for life after graduation and to support faculty in enhancing curricula. The Bunkyo English Communication Center (BECC) has been spearheading this with our paperless lessons.

Is the iPad study component formally included into your English curriculum? How?

At the BECC we create all of our curriculum in-house using Microsoft Word. So, it was relatively easy for us to format and then convert everything to PDF. We have been using an application called Notability which allows students to annotate lessons, embed pictures and web clips as well as record audio directly into their digital handouts. 

Are teachers being trained on how to incorporate the iPad into their lessons? Can you explain this training process?

The ICT committee has offered several workshops on how to use the iPad and our core applications. Arthur Rutson-Griffiths, one of our technology gurus, did an excellent job introducing teachers to the iPad mini and our core app, Notability. For ongoing support we have a wiki page for all things iPad related such as troubleshooting and app recommendations. As it was our first year using and incorporating the technology, we kept things simple. In terms of the SAMR model, we are still at the enhancement stage.0 For those endeavoring to incorporate mobile technologies into their curriculum, Puentedura`s SAMR model (2012) is an excellent reference. The model enables educators to classify technology used in teaching depending upon whether it Substitutes, Augments, Modifies or Redefines a task. Substitution and augmentation refer to technology which enhances the learning and modification and redefinition refer to technology which transforms the learning, in other words, tasks which would not be possible without the technology. The SAMR model can support teachers as they design, develop, and integrate activities using technology into their curriculum. It is our goal next year to modify and if possible, redefine language learning tasks so as to transform learning and further engage learners at the BECC.

What apps are you using in your classes now and for what purpose?

Notability– (Core Application) – As stated, all of our curriculum is created in-house using Microsoft Word. Notability is an excellent tool as we can easily convert all of our lesson handouts into PDF files which can then be quickly downloaded by students for annotation. Notability integrates handwriting, PDF annotation, typing, recording, and organizing all in one place.

Socrative– A student response system that empowers teachers to engage their students through a series of educational quizzes and games. Socrative is best used for formative assessment purposes during class. You can ask your students to respond to a short answer question, multiple choice, or true/false question on their iPad with the ability to remain anonymous.

Padlet – An interactive message board which allows students to communicate with other users through text, pictures, music and videos. It is a great tool for real time collaboration and asynchronized discussions.

Smart Seat – A seating chart app which allows teachers to record attendance by simply tapping on the student to mark Absent, Tardy, or Excused. The app also allows you to choose students at random for class participation and class discussion.

Keynote – A presentation tool for both teachers and students. Keynote has been used for final projects where students introduce their family, favorite music or a travel destination. The latest Keynote also allows for students to collaborate in the cloud on a project.

Of course, teachers are free to incorporate a variety of technology into their lessons and so the above is only a general list. For example, in my own classes I have also used VoiceThread to allow students to speak with my family in Canada, Splice to create short films, WordPress for student blogging and SpeakPipe to allow for voice commenting on my student website and blogs. Examples of how to utilize some of these tools can be seen here on my student website. For teachers who are a little tech-savvy, I highly recommend creating a mobile-friendly online space for students.

Which learning tasks on the iPad have been most successful?

Tasks which involve video have helped to stimulate students’ motivation to learn. In particular, video projects using Splice. We are looking forward to next year when all students will have iMovie installed on their iPads. We have also had success with using Keynote for creating presentations. In my own classes, using Voicethread to have students communicate with my family back in Canada as well as WireWAX, a free online taggable video service, have been exciting tools which have really engaged students and transformed language learning tasks.

If you were to guide another university in setting up an iPad program similar to your’s, what would be your first 5 guidelines?

1. Technology takes training

Both students and teachers should be trained in using the iPad and any core applications before classes begin. However, technology is always changing and so it is important to have ongoing training such as an online forum for teachers to help with trouble shooting or occasional mini-workshops to introduce new features and tools.

2. Start simple

Start simple to make the transition for both teachers and students as smooth as possible. The SAMR model is a great reference for integrating various tools. Begin with basic tools such as Notability, Keynote and Socrative. Once teachers are comfortable with the technology, they can begin to introduce tools at their own pace that will modify and if possible, redefine language learning tasks so as to transform learning and raise the level of student engagement.

3. Plan for problems

When it comes to technology you should always have a plan B. At the BECC we can always print off our lessons if there is a problem.

4. Paper has its place

Students do not need to be glued to their devices. Use paper for long passages of writing and for some activities to give them a digital break.

5. Make learning flexible

Make learning flexible for your students. Students should be able to take their iPad home with them to work on assignments and connect with teachers and other students outside of class. Doing so will help to engage and empower students while supporting autonomous language learning.

What evaluation have you done about the iPad component thus far? Could you share any research published on this issue?

For now, just this article, but there is more to come.

Renaud, thanks again for taking time to share your experiences with DMLL readers.


For those who are interested in learning more about Renaud and the iPad program at HBWU be sure to check out Renaud’s English Class website.



Puentedura, R. (2012). The SAMR Model: Six Examplars. Retrieved from

Runnels, J., & Rutson-Griffiths, A. (2013). Tablet PCs in a paperless classroom: Student and teacher perceptions on screen size. jaltcalljournal, 9(3), 275-285. Retrieved from



Practical Teaching Ideas

Teach pronunciation with this 5-step smartphone approach

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How do you teach pronunciation in your language classroom?

At a TED event a couple of years ago I caught myself turning-off whenever one of the presenters had a strong accent. This experience kicked me into gear to start looking for ways I could more effectively teach pronunciation in my language classroom.

This post shares an approach to teaching minimal pairs (MP) which incorporates student’s smartphones. You can find a more detailed description of my work on this component here.

Before you get started, students will have to download the free apps, Pronunciation Power (ProPower) and  Dragon Dictation.

Step 1: Share a list of about 10 minimal pairs. (e.g., rot & lot)

Minimal Pairs demo

Continue reading “Teach pronunciation with this 5-step smartphone approach”