Digging for Educational Apps

I have spent the last few days digging around for educational apps to review for my class webliography. My focus is partly on apps for English Language Learners and partly on apps that I would use myself as a teacher, such as a student dictionary reference. Now having spent the better part of two days searching, I have been feeling like an app prospector, that is: panning for gold and finding mostly gravel. Or perhaps, since I am focusing on ELLs, finding garnets and rubies and the occasional rare pearl instead of the particular precious material I’m looking for.

There are not many apps or products targeted toward ELLs that are targeted toward older students. Basic apps are often too babyish and simplistic for the older children, much less high school students. Many of those apps are as easily accomplished by other means as well.

Meanwhile, I’ve been looking for a digital dictionary source to use with students. I’ve been a little frustrated by my search because many options seem to include either too much or too little information. My favorite one thus far is the Merriam-Webster educational website. I’m pleased to notice that they have a variety of dictionary resources for a variety of age levels. I do like their Learner’s Dictionary for Students of ESL, EFL, and the TOEFL Test. They have digital dictionary references for younger students as well.

I also tried out Dictionary.com, which is a free app available through the Apple App Store. If I were to buy an upgrade, that would get rid of the ads and add example sentences, both of which would be necessary or useful if the app were to be used by students. Dictionary is a little more pared down, which I think would be useful for distractible students.

I found Grammar Dragon or Grammar Words Types Quiz,  which looked promising untilI realized that their company, Always Icecream and Clever Dragons, also promoted other less-school friendly apps with any of their product line. I would not want children clicking on tempting games while trying to practice grammar unless they were grammar games! I found many colorful but hokey games.

I’ve been using several sources to search for apps and resources. From Edudemics, I found several links, including this list of The 200 Best Special Education Apps. I thought it might include some apps for ELLs. If I were looking for tools to use with Special Ed Students, it would have been fantastic. They offer a scrollable Scribd doc with the apps categorized by area. The first ones I investigated were related to helping students verbalize or communication simple needs, such as Communication Skills and Everyday Social Skills, both found in iTunes. The series by Mobile Education looked especially promising. They include Sentence Builder, Story Builder, and more. I watched several product demos to assess their suitability for ELLs, but not really. The Mobile Education apps are actually designed for children with special needs, and were originally developed by a father frustrated by lack of effective educational materials for his daughter with special needs. So the Mobile Edu apps are great for children with auditory processing or aspbergers or other developmental challenges, but not as useful for ELLs as I had hoped (unless someone was additionally learning challenged).

Another source I’ve been intrigued by is this “Padagogy Wheel” of apps arranged by how they coincide with Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is also used in the Common Core Curriculum. I especially like how I can find apps that correlate with the different verbs from Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy that are often used when writing lesson objectives. By the way, Padagogy is not a typo; all of the apps are available for use on the iPad, hence the ‘Pad.’ The developer seems very responsive to feedback, and has issued an update in the last week since I first saw it. My only quibble about the wheel is that is seems mostly about apps that I might not use with ELLs or younger children. Still, it’s an interesting arrangement with lots of ideas, some of which overlap with other arrangements.

I’ve also looked at Kathy Schock’s Web 2.0 Apps to Support Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, another take on sorting for lesson objectives. The two apps I looked at from there are podomatic and photobabble, both which seem to be apps for adding student-created audio. Interesting, but not quite what I am looking for.

One app that seems promising for ELLs is Pocket Artic by Synapse Apps, LLC, which features common phonemes for practicing pronunciation. I was a little disappointed by the price tag, though, nearly $10, and the reviews complaining about the need for additional upgrades. It is available for both iPad and iPhone, so it would be pretty versatile for older students to carry around, but I think it’s a little too technical to be useful for younger children.

I love, love, love Scholastic’s Read180 for ELLs and other struggling readers, but it is considerably out of my price range. Does a it count as a resource for teachers if I would have to lobby my school to license it?

So I’m still looking for my second app. I’ve scanned and looked over scores of apps and Web tools (more than I can even write about here!), but I’m just not finding one that seems to fill the ESL gap. I’ll have to decide soon. Maybe I’ll go back to assessing a non-ESL resource. There are plenty to go around. I just have to dig through a lot of “gravel.”