07/09/2012 04:48 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2012

Oh Say Can You Say? Books Apps and ELL Students

Step inside Julie Kusiak's first-grade class at Ocean Knoll Elementary in Encinitas, Calif., and you'll find her students using iPads in small group rotations. For her English language learner (ELL) students in particular, it's an enriching time where they get to read books on an iPad. The apps provide tools for them to master words and sentences on their own.

"My favorite feature in book apps is the Read to Me option," says Kusiak. "Additionally, kids not quite able to read at their grade level can access the book, tap on a word and have it pronounced and tap on an object and see and hear the word. This is great for second language learners and helps build their vocabulary and reading fluency."

Students at Ocean Knoll have been using Oceanhouse Media book apps among others, enjoying such titles from Dr. Seuss, The Berenstain Bears, Mercer Mayer and the Smithsonian as part of a pilot program between the app developer and the Encinitas Unified School District. English is the second language for many of the students at the school.

According to Liz Griffiths, an educational consultant for Oceanhouse Media, ELL students often do not have English modeled for them at home. This means they are not getting valuable reinforcement at story time every night. Apps can step in and provide children with an accurate and consistent supplement to their language studies.

"A powerful tool that apps offer is the proper pronunciation of the words," says Griffiths. "Kids can touch individual words that they want to hear pronounced. There's that direct tie between the text and the spoken language.

"Students will often read a paragraph, then listen to it to check their work. It's great for fluency and expression, things they might not get at home if a parent doesn't speak English."

Peter Hickey, principal at Our Lady's School in San Diego, Calif., also believes book apps can be used as an effective tool to promote literacy with ELL students, helping them overcome reading challenges in ways that print books cannot.

"The digital apps have features such as animation and graphics which motivate readers and provide an engaging experience," says Hickey. "Students can work on their own or with a partner and have the story read to them. This allows the students greater opportunity to hear English when the instructor is not working directly with them. The apps also allow the students to work at their level in order to become more comfortable with the language. This aspect of language acquisition is key to language development."

Griffiths agrees. She has worked with ELL students and adds it's important for them to be able to read on their own with good comprehension and minimal frustration.

"I was reading the book There's No Place Like Space! on an iPad and with an ELL student who was reading fairly well. He got to a word that he didn't know, which was "planet." He would tap it, hear the word pronounced and continue reading, so it didn't provide a stumbling block that took him out of the narrative. He was able to stay engaged with the story, hear the pronunciation and the cool part was that by the end of the book he was reading that word on his own. In 20 minutes I watched him learn that word and use it."