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Better Language Learning with Mobile Apps

Better Language Learning with Mobile Apps
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Since his students began using Quizlet, English teacher Tristan Thorne has noticed an improvement in their ability to learn – and use – new words.

Quizlet is a learning app - a computer program you use on your mobile device.

It can help users build and test their knowledge of English words and terms. Quizlet has word sets for millions of subjects. And, it is quickly becoming a useful mobile tool for language learners.

Thorne teaches at Columbia University in New York City.

Thanks to learning apps, Jeff Strack, another English teacher, has also noted improvement in his students' ability to remember information.

Strack teaches at Hostos Community College, also in New York. He and Thorne are part of a growing number of language educators adding mobile apps to their classes.

Smartphones make smart students

Strack and Thorne seem to agree that the days when teachers would not permit the use of mobile devices are gone.

"…because smart phones are so common and because students want to use them and also because there are so many great apps and technology out there that can address language-learning objectives – I think those are all really good reasons for why instructors should at least attempt to use some apps."

When they use apps, language learners interact with language differently than in a traditional classroom. Users act on or respond to something, instead of just listening to new information.

Thorne believes that apps can help learners become more actively involved in learning. For example, each week, his students are required to add vocabulary words into Quizlet for others to use.

He says some apps also make it easy for students to identify their language strengths and weaknesses.

The biggest improvement Strack has seen in his students is their rate of participation. They are much more active in whole-class or small-group discussions, he notes.

"Apps…involve all students in the activity," he says, "whether it's a presentation, game, quiz or practice activity."

Something for everyone

Many learning apps are designed for students of all ages and levels. Some are designed for group activities. Others support independent learning. Still others are ideal for homework.

Thorne says he especially likes Quizlet and three other apps: QR Codes, Socrative and Evernote.

QR Codes

A QR Code is a kind of sign that a smartphone can read with its camera. When the phone recognizes the information, it takes the user to a website, image, video, or anything else you want to share.

When your phone camera reads a QR code, it takes you to a website, image, video or anything you want to share. This one will take you to the VOA Learning English website.
When your phone camera reads a QR code, it takes you to a website, image, video or anything you want to share. This one will take you to the VOA Learning English website.

Thorne says QR Codes can help bring real-world materials into the classroom. For example, color printing can be costly, but QR Codes enable students to see color images or infographics, he notes.

"…If we create a QR code of something like an infographic or an image that was used in this morning's NPR article, students can scan the QR Code and instantly bring that infographic to their phones and explore and click around."


Evernote lets users store and share notes, images and recordings in one place.

Teachers can also use Evernote to give homework. Thorne often asks his students to record their reaction to something from class. Then, he listens to their recordings and adds his response.

He says the best reason to use Evernote is that it helps students to identify their language strengths and weaknesses.

"Which, you know, is one of the first things instructors need to do is to…find ways to get students to notice the errors or the particular language challenges they have."​


Thorne says Quizlet is a powerful tool because of the many ways it can improve a student’s vocabulary. The app uses flashcards, spelling quizzes and other methods to build and test learners’ vocabulary skills. And, learners can use Quizlet on their own.

Quizlet helps language learners improve their knowledge of English words and terms.
Quizlet helps language learners improve their knowledge of English words and terms.

"…the usual or traditional method of vocabulary studying is to….write it down in a notebook and review for five or ten minutes a day just looking at it. But, you're not actually engaging with the form and the meaning and the use of the vocabulary."


In Socrative, teachers can create timed learning games. Then in class, students compete individually or as part of a team against classmates. One game Thorne's students love is called Space Race. In this game, if a team answers a question correctly, their rocket moves forward. The team whose rocket gets to the end first wins.

Also, teachers can use Socrative as an “exit ticket,” a question they can ask students about what they learned in that day's class. Students write their answers on their mobile devices. Then, the teacher can show the answers on a shared video screen.

Technology with a purpose

Thorne says that, when teachers do use apps, it should always support learning goals.

"What it boils down to is: are we using technology for a real purpose? And is it something that we could not use it? Are we using technology just to use technology or is there an underlying reason behind it?"

Experienced teachers know what works in the classroom and how technology might support the learning goals and class environment, he says.

I'm Alice Bryant. And I'm Phil Dierking.

Alice Bryant wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Here is a quick guide to a few popular mobile apps that can help improve language skills.

ApplicationWhat it Does
Flashcards, spelling quizzes, and other vocabulary-building activities
Timed in-class games and quizzes or exit tickets
QR Codes
Take you directly to a webpage, image, video or other media
Store and share notes, images and recordings.
Pear Deck
View a presentation live and respond with words, drawings, multiple choice, et cetera
Timed in-class games and quizzes


Words in This Story

mobile - adj. able to be moved; movable

address - n. a place where someone or something can be reached

quiz - n. a short test

infographic - n. a sign or image representing information or knowledge

scan - v. to use a machine or device to read or copy something into a computer

error - n. something that is not correct; a wrong action or statement

flashcard - n. a learning tool with words, numbers or pictures

engage - v. to give serious attention to something

boil down to (something) - expression. to be reduced to its main points