Pros and cons of selected apps for adult learners of English

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I’ve blogged about fun, productive apps on Ask Auntie Web, and posted a summary about technology in teaching a while ago, but check out apps all the time to ponder their overall usefulness. When assessing learner tools I ask:

  1. What does it actually require the learners to do linguistically (that they could not do equally well or better without it)?
  2. Can they modify their work, to discuss their work in progress (to avoid the slick surface hiding essential vacuity)?
  3. Does the app itself encourage learners to revisit and show off what they can do (not what the app can do)?
  4. Can learners share and collaborate in a way that makes immediate sense to them? (In other words, are they learning socially?)

Though I enjoy apps throughly myself, and encourage self-study and give feedback on work learners send me after using them, the social component is computer-mediated, heads together over a screen, and that rarely seems more valuable than other in-class activities – at least with academics and business people – and at least when time is very short. Apps, to me, are ideal when learners can dip in and do something, and then redo it better, after which they can take the learnings away and put them into something away from the computer or handheld device. At the purely technical level, these criteria must be met:

  1. Is it free? (In class individual use is obviously very different from what individual learners may do at home or on their hand-helds, or platforms we can provide and administrate for the whole group or school!)
  2. Is it simple enough to use for that particular group? (And do you have the time to engage them in tech learning)
  3. If it requires “sign-up” to output a result, are the learners able and willing to engage in that? (Remember privacy issues)
  4. Since I include apps with tasks in Moodle for self-study, apps that embed well are more attractive. Quite often the embed code interferes with HTML code, e.g. here on WordPress, so links are sometimes the better option.

One of the nice apps to use in class for dialogue scripting/building which meets the above criteria is the very easy, which I used to make this Bundestrojaner scene (Anne)

Benefits: The learner can access this app immediately and simply, without signing up or having to create avatars. (Caution: requires Flash.) Simply select a scenario and your actors and begin typing in text. After outputting the finished text-to-speech product, you can go back and edit the dialogue. The creator can share the link to the finished product through all the regular social media channels and e-mail, or embed it in a blog, wiki or website. For a small fee, it can also be downloaded as a file. On the whole, the scenarios are somewhat limited, but technologically more creative students will very quickly find that you can create your own cutomized animations, so taking a very simple and functional first step together is really all that is needed.

Drawbacks: Like most text to speech apps, the computer-generated audio leaves much to be desired, as it doesn’t translate into natural speech in terms of nuclear stress, intonation and connected speech (and in this case, gives incorrect word stress for “Facebook”, provides strange pronunciation for “discussing” that sounds as if I wrote “discursing” (but I doublechecked, honest!)  and makes mincemeat of the inserted German words). Creative punctuation helps a little to adjust nuclear stress, and the differences between machine speech and human speech are a great opportunity to discuss what makes English pronunciation special. But you do have to decide whether going the roundabout route of having two cartoon characters read out your dialogue is what you want. — Here’s another sample video made with this app, with similar issues: Hard copy by Anne at

Animating text using Wondersay

I dislike animated text for presentations, it just seems silly to make text hard to read. But giving the “solution” to a quiz, e.g. using the “letters falling into place” animation this app provides, adds a nice touch. Ask learners to fill in the blanks in a quote, e.g. “The learner needs _________ and _________ to learn the language fast.” Then play an answer:

made on Wondersay – Animate text with style

Benefits: No skills required, though the app allows the user to experiment with animations. And learners can select quotes and do the same exercise with their classmates.

Drawbacks: It’s actually quite difficult to get this app to give you the animation you selected. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Then, once you open the link to your Wondersay animation, it begins automatically as soon as the page opens, and you can’t start or stop it. Once played, the sentence is visible as part of a rather ugly initial screen, without the “film still” picture that many apps provide. This means that the app doesn’t work well as an embedded animation on Moodle or here on WordPress. It’s far better simply to link to it. But seriously, when would you really want to? You can’t study a nice-looking version of the sentence in peace, post-animation, so I see the educational value of this kind of tool to be very limited. (Prove me wrong!)


One Response

  1. PS: Willow just showed me a tool she’s using with children,, and that reminded me how little I know about teaching children in general, and about tools for synchronous distance learning in particular. I try to keep up, but there are teachers who are using apps far more intensively than me. Shelly Terrell is still very much in the driver’s seat, and Ozge is one of the big experts on what children like

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