“Boys and girls, class is about to start. Put away your phone, please.”
How many times have you said this in your classroom?
I’ve honestly lost track.
One of the biggest challenges the modern day classroom faces is the bombardment of technology.
It’s not just a problem with teenagers either—I use this same line with my elementary students.
However, the difference between the teenagers and elementary students is that the latter are usually on an app.
While I used to shake my head at their inattentiveness, I’ve recently turned a new leaf.
Why fight it? Why not embrace it?
A recent study showed that the use of apps in the classroom went up from 38% to 49% from 2014-2015 alone and only 7% of teachers weren’t using any form of technology in the classroom.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be in that 7%.
Why Use Apps in Your Elementary School Classroom?
While apps in the classroom are a relatively new phenomenon, research has slowly been pouring in with strong support.
As early as 2010, new findings found that students in preschool learned up to 31% more vocabulary by using a mobile app.
There’s only been good news coming in since. Maya Lopuch, a former Harvard education researcher, found that students who used the educational app eSpark jumped from the 51st percentile to the 60th percentile in as little as three months based on their performance on a Common Core aligned assessment.
There have even been benefits beyond student assessment. Classrooms that utilize the technology available to them are often found to have more engaged students, easier access to classroom materials and a wider array of students who were able to learn independently.
Not to mention the amount of time and resources educational apps have saved teachers.
But how do you find the best devices and apps for your students?
How to Choose Apps for Your ESL Classroom
The type of apps you use depends on the devices you have on hand. So you’ll have to determine that first.
While technology on a teacher’s salary sounds impossible, there are great tablets available to educators that won’t burn a hole in your wallet.
But when looking for a device, which company do you turn to? Apple and Android have their benefits and drawbacks. Apple holds the market when it comes to app selection and ease of navigating the product. However, Android has been catching up to the other regarding the types of programs available and their tablets tend to come with a lower price tag.
When it comes to apps, you’ll want to consider the types of games that are the most engaging for your students yet that meet your objectives. If you’re just starting with technology, you might start small and begin one class period a week with an app to get their brains in English mode. The best way to do this is by using a game app like Chicken Scream, which uses only English words.
You can also take a moment to think of the things that your students find engaging. Cartoons are great for elementary ESL students, so if you can find an app that uses cartoons to promote counting or colors, then that may be something you want to invest in.
This definitely depends on your audience. For example, one of the most popular cartoon and book series in Hungary is by Erika Bartos and features the characters Bogyo and Baboca (Berry and Dolly in the English translation). I was delighted to find an English version of an app that focused on the fall season and that featured these characters.
So if you really want to engage your students, think about their interests and search accordingly!
The 8 Best Apps for ESL Elementary Students
Best of Both Worlds: Apps for iOS and Android Devices
App developers know that in order to reach a wide audience they need to develop apps for both Apple and Android. Here are some great apps that fit any age group.
Looking for an app that’s educational and truly unique?
FluentU takes real-world videos like music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks and turns them into language learning experiences. In contrast to other apps that take a scripted approach, FluentU uses a natural approach that helps ease students into the English Language.
Working on the alphabet? There’s a video for each letter. Want to start a new set of vocab words? Check out the flashcards!
There are so many ways you could integrate this amazing app into your lessons. Start each lesson with a video and see if your students can figure out what you’ll be focusing on today. Or save them for mid-lesson when your students need a brain break. Play a fun game with the flashcards by seeing how many they can remember. You can even use this to test their knowledge of a topic in a fun way, prior to starting a unit.
You could even combine all of the approaches: Start with the flashcards, then play a video and finally finish things off with a small quiz to test their knowledge.
We’ve covered this app before, but I thought it would be a great time to vouch for it with my experience as a teacher. Fun English was one of the first apps I downloaded, along with a couple of others on this list when I started teaching in Hungary in 2015.
I use it with almost all of my elementary students, and even some of my teenage students start out with this app. You’ve got games and songs about colors and animals for free. Other topics like food, the body and the home cost extra, but you’ll also get a “game of the day” for each category. This app gives you the oldies but goodies and then sprinkles in a little extra.
A really great feature is the multiplayer option. Quite a few of my students have iPhones, so we sometimes have classroom challenges where the students are allowed to use their phone in class to play against each other. And students will take an offer to use their phone in class anytime!
You could potentially create a whole lesson from material on Duolingo—they have an endless supply!
You could start by introducing new words, then play Duolingo’s fun image association game to let students test their vocabulary knowledge. You could also go into English sentence structure, then play Duolingo’s word order game and have students build sentences of their own.
Or you could go the opposite route and use it for review. Maybe you went over occupations with your students and want to test them on what they remember from a previous lesson. That’s great too! Whether it’s for warm-up or review, Duolingo is one of the best apps for learning any language. Period.
Not to mention they have such a cute mascot! Let Duo the owl guide your students on their language learning adventure!
Take a Bite of This Apple! Apps for iOS Devices
As mentioned earlier, Apple has a wide variety of apps. You type “ESL” into the search bar on iTunes and your possibilities are endless. Here are some of the best ones out there.
I use an iPad in my classroom, so you know these apps are already teacher and student approved.
When I start a lesson on something new, I sometimes enjoy opening with a fun cartoon. But with so many apps devoted to explaining common concepts in English, where do you start?
You start with Storybots.
Launched by JibJab in 2012, Storybots is a great app hosted by colorful robots that explain the ins and outs of life. With exciting topics like the solar system, dinosaurs, animals and more, the Storybots provide a fun introduction to any topic.
And they’re perfect for the classroom! Their videos are no more than two minutes long, making them perfect to introduce new concepts or have the students gather around for a brain break. I always start my younger elementary lessons with them.
For example, when teaching the seasons I start with a song and video on the four seasons. Then I follow up with questions such as, “What are the four seasons?” or “What is your favorite season?”
Storybots also has the unique feature of letting your students be in the video! Simply upload a picture and their face will be pasted onto one of the stand-in characters in the video. Though this feature isn’t necessary to use the app (and you don’t have to create an account), this lets your students join in all the fun as they sing along with the animated bots.
Not to mention the songs are so catchy! If you’re teaching English through song and want something memorable that your students will sing outside the classroom, Storybots has got you covered.
You want your elementary students to learn basic English vocabulary, right? You have three options.
Option one: You could sit around the table and show them flashcards. A classic, but you’ll want something a bit more exciting to keep their attention.
Option two: You find a fun vocabulary game online. Another solid option, but you want something that utilizes today’s technology.
Option three: You can download Futaba, a fantastic round-table vocabulary game that’s sure to mesmerize your students.
There’s only one game available when you download the Futaba app, but sometimes less is more. Up to four people can play, and each player chooses a color. Pictures flash in the middle and the students need to pick out the word that matches the picture.
These will generally be common words used in the English language—think “First Word” flashcards without the cards. Each round is one minute long, and the winner at the end of each round gets one point. The first to three points is the overall winner.
It’s a rather quick game, though, so I wouldn’t plan a whole lesson around Futaba. I usually use it as an opening game to get my students thinking in English. When I started my lessons with a quick round of Futaba for the first time, my students were hooked—for months they always asked to start with this game. And they would always beg to play more once we had a winner.
When you think of the Cambridge Exam, you probably think of teenagers and adults studying relentlessly to get a score that’ll land them a well-paying job or get that coveted spot at university.
It’s not commonly known that Cambridge also offers exams for elementary students known as the Young Learners Exams. Although it’s great that it’s not a pass-or-fail test, it can still be super intimidating.
If you’ve got students studying for this exam at either the “Starters,” “Movers” or “Flyers” level, consider downloading Monkey Puzzles. Money Puzzles offers games on topics such as food, clothing, colors and more, making it the perfect brain break for elementary students. These games also sharpens students’ reading, listening and spelling skills.
I make sure to use this app on test day for the exam. Since not everyone takes the test at the same time, handing them my iPad while they’re waiting let them take a deep breath and focus on something fun while still learning concepts they could be tested on.
Even if students aren’t under the pressure of an exam, this app is still a great tool for the classroom. You can always use it like Futaba and use it as a lesson opener or closer. One game that’s well-suited for this is “Sports Day” since it challenges your students to read before picking a picture hoop that they have to shoot a basketball into.
Or you can use it when you really want to focus on spelling; their “Let’s Go Shopping” game gives them a picture with different letters on an assortment of shirts that they then have to put in the correct order.
It’s also a great app to use if your students are just completely burned out from a full day of hard concepts, and you want to switch things up a bit.
Do the Robot with Android
I’ll be honest, I’m that teacher that relies on her iPad. But there are plenty of great choices out their for an Android device. These ESL apps give Apple a run for their money.
Learning English can be a bit intimidating, so why not make a smoother transition by sprinkling in a bit of their native language? Learn English by Papumba can help you with that.
With fun games and exciting monster characters, the familiarity of their first language may just make your shiest student come out of their shell.
The app features 10 levels based on a different concept. Level one is all about colors, level two about numbers and so on. It also comes with fun trivia and matching games. However, only the first two levels offer games for free.
Since vocabulary is free throughout the whole app, it’s a great way to start a new unit. Kids are sure to have a blast with Papumba’s colorful images, silly sounds and fun characters.
A lot of apps will focus on listening, reading and writing. All of those are necessary for fluency, but is there an app that can help your students with their speaking skills? That’s where Learn English for Kids by TalkEnglish comes in.
The wide array of topics are ideal for elementary students. From the “Very Berry Basics” to “Finally Advanced,” the fun colors and interesting topics won’t leave your students over- or underwhelmed. Not to mention this app can be used for private tutoring sessions or a full classroom.
Each topic starts with a study session. Students are introduced to words one at a time with pictures, and the study session slowly brings those words together to form a sentence. Students start by listening to these words, and then you can encourage them to repeat, followed by making that sentence about themselves.
They can then test themselves in each session with games such as fill-in-the-gap or picture-based quizzes to ensure word retention. The app even lets you record and compare pronunciation!
Technology is the way of the future. You can embrace it or deny it, but why not make “the now” easier with these great apps? They’re sure to leave your students impressed, and who knows, maybe they’ll download it onto their own device and learn outside the classroom!
Spark your student’s English-speaking journey today!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.