Apps, Language & Learning: What you need to know

Excessive screen time use in children is bombarding social media feeds. Consequently many therapists, parents, and educators are lamenting the introduction of the "magic tablet" that promised to teach our children.


'An app is not a teacher, it is not a guide and it is not an authority. An app is a digital teaching resource.'

Richard Wells 

Whilst many have been quick to berate the ill effects using technology and screen time, there is very little research on the effectiveness of using apps for learning, or how to use apps effectively. There is even less research on using apps for language and learning with children. Many of the studies in the educational field pertain to children using apps independently. The research that exists in speech-language therapy is mainly focused on special needs populations such as alternative and augmentative communication (AAC).  

Developmental language disorder (DLD, also called specific language impairment, SLI) is a common developmental disorder comprising the largest disability group in pre-school-aged children. Communication and language is central to learning, social interaction, and academic success. Technology is not going away any time soon, so it is incumbent on us to learn to use technology and apps so that we harness their potential for language and learning. 

My study published in December 2018 investigated how speech-language therapists around the world are using apps to support language intervention with children. You can find a link to my study over here.


Many speech-language therapists are incorporating the apps into their therapy because they are motivating and engaging for children.

But, therapists are using apps in the same way as any other tool. However, they are NOT the same. An app is two dimensional. Learning with two-dimensional images may result in difficulty transferring information to three dimensional images because of perceptual difficulties. It is therefore important to consider the developmental level of the child together with an understanding of multimedia learning.

The principles of multimedia learning are based on the assumption that we have two "channels' for processing information (auditory and visual). We know that learning is easier with words and pictures rather than words or pictures. However, there is limited capacity in each channel, and therefore it is important not to overload them. In order to learn we need to actively process, filter, select, organize and integrate information. If the two channels compete with one another, instead of complementing one another, it makes learning more difficult. A good explanation on the cognitive theory of multimedia learning can be found here


Some therapists reported that they have abandoned using apps because they found it difficult to align using apps in therapy and limit screen-time at home. However, if apps are used together with someone who is facilitating their use, then apps can be an important way of enhancing learning. 

Most speech-language therapists are very aware of the importance of interaction when using apps. Their knowledge and understanding of the different factors that may affect communication and language, means that a speech-language therapist will consider this information carefully when using apps and technology.

.I'll buy this app and it will teach my kid pronouns. Well it's not going to if you are not using it correctly and there is no adult human being helping.

It's not a baby-sitting tool, you can't just park a kid in front of an app and that's therapy done.

 It is important to use evidence-based strategies for language intervention when using apps.

We need to be aware of how different features of multimedia learning affect using apps. This means that educators and therapists need to incorporate information from different fields (i.e. multimedia learning) in order to incorporate using apps effectively. Some features have the potential to promote learning. Some features detract from learning.

Some of the features of apps that facilitate learning learning include:

- Presenting words and pictures together

- Controlling the pace of the information so that if the child has difficulty, the appropriate support can be given

- Using animation

- Familiar characters

- An accent that is familiar to the child

However, multiple sources of information only have the potential to increase student's understanding. Their successful use and integration rely on instructional principles. 

Some of the features of apps that interfere with learning include:

- Background music/sounds

- Unfamiliar accents

- Too much movement

- Unnecessary information

Features that assisted therapists include:

- Saving data in the app

- Having different user profiles

- Different levels of difficulty in the app

- Knowledge of the evidence used when developing the app.



We need to find a way to identify which apps will actually give us the features and flexibility to make good progress on language and learning goals. 

If we identify these features, we can begin to understand which features in apps help children learn.


After considering all the information that contributes to, or detracts from learning, I developed a Feature Matching Checklist. This checklist may help us identify which apps have the features that will help children learn, together with a speech-language therapist.

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