Using apps to help with language difficulties

This post was created by PGCert participants as part of their assessment for Unit 1 of the course. The brief was to choose two specific learning needs and evaluate technologies that could help students with these needs to learn more effectively.

Research in content-based instruction (CBI) explores linguistic development in university courses attended by large numbers of international students (Rodgers, 2006). While the results are generally positive, both content and linguistic knowledge at the completion of the modules building up to the fulfilment of the requirements to obtain the degree indicate that further attention is required. Students do not develop their language skills as expected, and they often find it hard to follow lectures and seminars. In past decades, instruction and development in a foreign language for international students in higher education has centred around practical language learning and the ability to support the development of meaningful listening skills. However, this has often resulted in a certain level of disregard for students’ level of understanding.

Currently, greater emphasis is given to

  • the exploration of the environment in which international students acquire knowledge (Church, 2000: 651)
  • how students overcome language barrier constructively and fluidly (Dörnyei, 2006; Rjosk, Richter, Hochweber, Lüdtke, and Stanat, 2015), and
  • how students’ success is linked to the higher institution’s ability to facilitate progression on an individual level (Mahmood and Beach, 2018, p. 295).

However, the problem of ensuring a satisfactory level of understandable “comprehensible input” (Krashen, 1983) when offered to students with little knowledge of English continues to constitute a problem in the classroom today.

While thinking about how tutors can use technology to aid international students in their understanding of the English language, we discussed several applications. Some apps perform better when somebody wants to read an English text, like Rewordify which is a free tool that helps students read more, understand difficult English faster, and learn words in new ways (CTD). Spritz is an app that allows students to improve their fluency, and helps them focus when reading English text (2014). Google Voice Typing (Google Docs) seems to work well when students find it challenging to write. To listen to documents, there are various apps. Text-to-Speech (Word 2010), a tool to read online texts and email aloud; Howjsay, which is a free talking dictionary of English pronunciation, and ClipSpeak, which is free text-to-speech tool for Windows computers that speaks any text copied to the clipboard.

We also looked  at the Microsoft Translate Conversations tool and found it to be very good, so we decided to try it in conjunction with live captioning in Powerpoint. The results were promising, and we decided to make videos to demonstrate how everything works, mainly because this combination needs a specific set up. We captured the screen presentation and a student logged into at the same time on their phone. This allowed us to show the caption being translated on the student’s phone in real-time. As the app allows remote login, and multiple language selection, it seems to us that this specific app has the potential to be fabulous. Embedding Google subtitles within presentations allows for the students to access subtitles on their phones or electronic devices, with the use of links and passwords to connect to the presentation.

However, there is a downfall in that its captioning is not always perfect, which can be distracting in the classroom. Currently, the Microsoft Translate Conversations app works on PC in Powerpoint, which can be an issue in creative universities as they tend to use Mac. The accent issues with Microsoft translate is observable in the demonstration. In conclusion, however, we can see how Microsoft Translate Conversations has the potential to become very useful in class. If you’re interested in exploring this tool, the following video walks you through the setup process:

As Higher Education evolves, we are going to witness an evolution in the use and combination of these and more applications. This is an exciting time, and the exploration such possibilities will sign growth in the understanding of what Research in content-based instruction (CBI) means today, and how we can facilitate communication in classes attended by large numbers of international students. Hopefully, the body of academic research on apps for facilitation in language recognition and comprehension will witness a surge of interest and outputs.


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Church, A. T. (2000). Culture and Personality: Toward an Integrated Cultural Trait Psychology. Journal of Personality, 68 (4), pp.651-703.
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Dörnyei, Z. (2006). Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition, AILA Review, 19 (1), 42-68.
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Rodgers, D. M. (2006). Developing content and form: Encouraging evidence from Italian content-based instruction, The Modern Language Journal, Vol. 90, pp. 373-386.
Rodgers, D. M. (2015). Incidental Language Learning in Foreign Language Content Courses, The Modern Language Journal, Vol. 99, pp. 113-136. Available at: [Accessed: 02-12-2019]
Spritz – Reading Reimagined. Available at [Accessed: 02-12-2019]
Word 2010. Text-to-Speech. Available at [Accessed: 02-12-2019]
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