Language Instructors Study the Impact of iPads in their Language Classes

When I approached the Hewlett Fund for Curricular Innovation in the summer 2011 for funds to purchase iPads for my advanced German conversation class, I had no idea where this project would take me. The only thing I was certain of was that the way I had taught my advanced conversation class was not providing my students with the language input or the language practice they needed to significantly improve their oral proficiency.

This initial request to the Hewlett Fund morphed, with their help, into something much bigger: a two-year study involving twelve instructors who agreed to incorporate iPads into their language class in an effort to experiment with new teaching paradigms. The efforts were supported by the MMLC. To be frank, we could not have done it without their assistance: from worrying about Wi-Fi connections in the classroom, to updating and preparing iPads, answering student questions, and offering workshop for instructors unfamiliar with the technology, they made sure the only thing we had to be concerned about was searching for answers to critical questions. How can we integrate this technology into our classes? What are the benefits and challenges? Can an iPad provide a more flexible learning environment and a richer contextualization of the material being learned? How can it promote engagement, genuine interest, collaboration and sharing among our students?

Of course, the use of mobile technology for teaching and learning is not completely new. Initial studies have shown that the iPad can have a positive learning effect in a variety of contexts: in reading and writing (Harmon, 2012; Mclanahan, Williams, Kennedy & Tate, 2012), in collaboration and engagement (Henderson & Yeow, 2012; Milman, Carlson-Bancroft, & Vanden Boogart, 2012), in motivation to learn (Kinash, Brand, & Mathew, 2012; Webb, n.d.), in online research (Webb, n.d.), in boosting confidence about being in control of the learning process (Mclanahan et al., 2012), and as a tool to extend learning opportunities beyond the classroom (Bennett, 2011; Melhuish & Falloon, 2010). Nevertheless, many instructors hesitate to integrate these devices into the language classroom. Godwin-Jones attributed this problem not so much to short-comings of hardware or software, but refers to a lack of understanding of how language learning and teaching could be enhanced in innovative ways using mobile devices. Here is where we hoped our study would contribute in a substantial way.

Our iPad study started in Sept 2011 and concluded in June 2013. Over the course of two academic years, twelve instructors teaching a variety of languages (Chinese, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, and Turkish) and their students were given iPads for the duration of a quarter. Each instructor was asked to experiment with the new device by expanding teaching possibilities for their class to improve teaching and learning. Each instructor approached the project from a different angle, using various apps to design learning tasks that would work best with the proficiency level of their students and the goals of the class. A brief summary of the findings for each class follows:

Hong Jiang (Distinguished Senior Lecturer, Department of Asian Languages and Culture) investigated whether the Chinese character-learning app Word Tracer would help her students learn the stroke order of various Chinese characters better. Results from a pre- and post-test revealed a sixteen percent improvement over the course of the quarter. Students who had not mastered the stroke order in their first quarter using pen and paper made the biggest gain working with the iPad.

Chunsheng Yang (currently Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Connecticut) was interested in examining the immediate and long-term effects of the use of the iPad on learning Chinese idioms by Chinese heritage learners. In the immediate test, nearly all students could recall the meaning of the idioms that they worked on. In the retention test, students had still retained around 40% of the idioms, but performed better on the concrete idioms than on the abstract idioms, suggesting that concrete idioms were stored longer than abstract idioms.

Hong Shao (Senior Lecturer, Department of Asian Languages and Cultures) was interested in finding out how the iPad could help her intermediate-level Chinese students improve their dictation skills. Compared with other students she had taught in former quarters, students who used the iPad flashcards and character games improved significantly in chapter dictations. Those students who used the iPad to make video dialogues studied longer and seemed more confident in expressing themselves in Chinese.

Benay Stein (Senior Lecturer, Department of Spanish and Portuguese) used the iPads in an advanced course for developing Spanish communication skills for business purposes. Students used a variety of apps to study vocabulary and specialized business terminology, to communicate with native speakers, and to prepare oral presentations. In the final survey students commented that the iPad really enhanced the activities and tasks in and outside of class. Overall, 83% of the students surveyed rated their experience with the iPad as excellent or good.

Noriko Taira Yasohama (Distinguished Senior Lecturer, Department of Asian Languages and Cultures) used the iPads in an upper-intermediate Japanese course to examine whether the pop-up dictionary on an iPad improves students’ reading. Her data suggests that the pop-up dictionary provided excellent support. She concluded that if the use of the pop-up dictionary increases comprehension, exposure to authentic texts, and learners’ motivation, it might be beneficial to use the pop-up dictionary in extensive reading tasks as well.

Judith Wilks (Lecturer, Program in Middle East – North Africa Studies) worked with the iPads in a second-year Turkish class with the goal to make the learning process more interesting for the student to encourage frequent practice and review. While the class struggled at times with learning the new technology, students definitely saw a benefit in recording their oral quizlets for the mid-term and final exams before the exams so that the instructor could give them detail feedback on how well prepared they were.

Paola Morgavi (Senior Lecturer, Department of French and Italian) taught an intermediate Italian class designed to develop oral proficiency, including command of grammar and vocabulary, pronunciation and intonation, and general comprehension. Students were asked to practice and record their speech using the iPad. These recording exercises had a positive impact on learning in general: every student could participate equally; practice time doubled because students were reviewing their spoken samples; and students received detailed feedback for each recorded speech sample, something the instructor could not have done with oral presentations in class.

Rami Nair (Distinguished Senior Lecturer, Department of Asian Languages and Cultures) incorporated the iPads into a second-year Hindi class. She wanted to see if students felt more comfortable using the Hindi language if practicing the language with an iPad at home. The results of her study were inconclusive as there was no significant quantitative change or improvement in the use of Hindi by the students since the number of comments posted decreased over the eight-week period. Despite the decrease in output, however, students used iPads almost daily, producing on average an additional 1-2 minutes of speech and 2-4 written sentences per week.

As these summaries about the integration of iPads show, the process of learning another language is not only complex and time consuming but also multi-faceted, and the iPad seems uniquely positioned to support many of these processes. Which, of course, leaves me with my own results. My study was intended to investigate whether additional oral practice in and outside of class could substantially improve oral proficiency. A detailed analysis of course activities and pre-course and post-course recorded speech samples suggests that the iPad encouraged students to use German regularly, which had a substantial impact on their proficiency. The time students spent outside of class in weekly conversations in German using face-time averaged almost 30 minutes per week. Recording time increased from a little over one minute in the first week to more than seven minutes towards the end of the quarter. Comparing the first and the last recording sample, the amount of language (speaking time and words produced) and the complexity (length and type of sentences) increased as well. However, the language in the second sample was less fluent and less accurate because students used longer, more complex sentences and more difficult vocabulary. This is often referred to as u-shaped learning behavior: as learners integrate more sophisticated language, processing strain on the working memory increases as previously accepted language forms are rejected as part of the process of restructuring the evolving language competence. Since some have argued that it may be difficult for students to gain advanced language proficiency without going abroad, the results of this study suggest that the iPad offers speaking opportunities that can benefit students in a similar way.

For more information on the iPad study including video excerpts and student comments on the technology and self-perceived learning outcomes, I encourage you to visit our website at: It provides innovative ideas and much needed expertise from the field of learning technology.



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Godwin-Jones, R. (2011). Emerging technologies: mobile apps for language learning. Language Learning & Technology, 15(2), 2–11.

Harmon, J. (2012). Unlock literacy with iPads. Learning and Leading with Technology, 30-31.

Henderson, S., & Yeow, J. (2012). IPad in education: A case study of iPad adoption and use in a primary school. HICSS IEEE Computer Society, 78-87.

Kinash, S., Brand, J., & Mathew, T. (2012). Challenging mobile learning discourse through research: Student perceptions of Blackboard Mobile Learn and iPads. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 28(4), 639-655.

Maclanahan, B., Williams, K., Kennedy, E., & Tate, S. (2012). A Breakthrough for Josh: How Use of an iPad Facilitated Reading Improvement. TechTrends: Linking Research and Practice to Improve Learning, 56, 20-28.

Melhuish, K., & Falloon, G. (2010). Looking to the future: M-learning with the iPad. Computers in New Zealand Schools: Learning, Leading, Technology, 22(3). Retrieved from

Milman, N. B., Carlson-Bancroft, A., & Vanden Boogart, A. (2012). iPads in a PreK-4th independent school – year 1 – Enhancing engagement, collaboration, and differentiation across content areas. Paper presented 2012. International Society for Technology in Education Conference, San Diego, CA. Retrieved from

Webb, J. (n.d.). The iPad as a tool for education – A case study. Retrieved from