On completing my initial ELT training in 2003, I moved to China and was immersed in classrooms of children learning English, where I discovered that the methodologies on my (adult-orientated) ELT course were not suited to young minds. Even back then, I noticed just how much children learn outside of their formal lessons. Fast forward 17 years, and I’m now an advocate of learning through play. For early years English teachers, play-based learning is crucial, but how can playing with language apps result in real learning? I’ll be addressing this question throughout my blog post. 

The way English language teachers approach technology use can be somewhat of a dichotomy. As people, we use it every day: whether it’s the internet, smartphones, tablets or Fitbits. But as educators of children, we can be encouraged – in some contexts – to retain methods that have been in use for decades, e.g. the teacher-fronted classroom. My view is that we need methods that have convincingly shown to help children to learn well (such as play) but to combine these with tools such as carefully selected apps to really enhance their language learning potential.

Providing learner agency via app-based play

Studies suggest that approximately 90% of brain development is completed by five years old without formal education (Brown & Jernigan, 2012) and therefore play isn’t just entertainment for young children – it is a powerful means of learning. It was no accident that Friedrich Fröbel in the early 1800s called his early childhood learning centre in Germany ‘the child’s garden’, or kindergarten as he was a great advocate of using songs, games and toys to help children to learn. Maria Montessori also spearheaded this playful approach to learning in Italy as did John Dewy in the US. More recently, neuroscientist Katarina Gospic has advocated for the use of play (see Studycat’s interview). And yet, English language educators still often don’t make the most of play-based approaches, I feel.

I’m increasingly impressed by children’s ability to direct their own learning and the impact this can have on their English. One recent example is Studycat’s work with the Indochina Starfish Foundation based in Cambodia. We visited the charity with the aim of helping the children to develop their English language skills and we donated our apps. I was keen to see how the children would approach the apps by themselves, without instruction from me. They played with the apps in groups: one group took turns and high-fived each other each time they completed a game, another group divided into two teams, and one learner even created his own group by collaborating with the teachers to challenge himself. We realised that we were watching the children create their own learning environment – I hadn’t provided any extrinsic motivation; they simply used their imaginations to make the apps work. Perhaps the most interesting observation was how much the children English vocabulary the children retained, and how this happened quickly. All of these observations reinforce the necessity of giving children agency to be their ‘own teachers’. 

Selecting apps with pedagogy at the centre

Ensuring active, ‘minds-on learning’ (Hirsh-Pasek et al, 2015) isn’t complex but it’s important for early years English teachers to understand the research behind it, and how this relates to apps. Far from being just ‘nice’ tools, well-selected apps can help achieve learning much more quickly in my experience. They combine play-based learning with technology in a way that makes language engaging for children and provides teachers with evidence of progress in real-time. With thousands of apps available, selection needs to be based on sound pedagogical principles. Hirsh-Pasek et al (2015) suggest the following when choosing apps for language learning, teachers should ask whether the app provides: 

  • active (minds-on) learning
  • engagement in the learning process (motivation)  
  • meaningful learning (context, personalisation, feedback)
  • social interaction

Children learn English best when actively involved, whether physically or mentally. But this doesn’t just mean tapping on a screen; active engagement requires intellectual thinking and manipulation of information. Children also learn when they can stay on task and not be distracted, so apps with side games, noise or action unrelated to the learning goal should be avoided. As information is processed more deeply when personally relevant, we need to select apps that enable children to learn in contexts related to their lives. Furthermore, helping children interact socially makes their learning more collaborative – this involves working in a group, much like the children at the Starfish Foundation, and this interaction can even be enabled by the app itself, with the characters responding to the child.

Giving children a sense of progress with apps 

Apps can streamline assessment of English in a way that adds value to the learning process and gives teachers more evidence of learning. When children know they are being overtly assessed, this can negatively affect their English progress. But if they are playing educational games with pedagogical aspects such as spaced repetition and scaffolding embedded in the app, the assessment experience can then become positive. Teachers can see the progress and attainment of each child at the click of a button. Apps that can then further adapt to the level of each child and deliver content in a format that resonates with them provides very individualised, bespoke learning experiences. 

Some final thoughts 

Learning a language can have positive effects on a child’s brain which can also help to boost their learning in other areas such as capacity for critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity. As early years English language teachers, we can therefore support children throughout the entire educational journey. Language learning can also break down barriers, helping children to communicate beyond their worlds and understand others in more meaningful ways. This is more important than ever in the world today, and principled use of language learning apps for children can help make a vital contribution. 


Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, J.M., & Michnick Golinkoff, R. (2015). Putting Education in “Educational” Apps: Lessons From the Science of Learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 16.(1)3-34. 

Brown, T. T. & Jernigan, T. L. (2012). Brain Development During the Preschool Years. Neuropsychology Review 22(4):313-333. 

Note: Parental / caregiver permission for use of the images of children in this blog post has been sought and provided, as per our safeguarding obligations. 


  • Jake Whiddon

    Jake has worked in English language teaching in the East Asia region since 2004. He has also trained early years and primary English language teachers in Greater China, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar. He is currently Studycat’s Head of Academic Experience. You can watch a recording of Jake’s opening plenary in the 2020 IATEFL YLTSIG Web Conference here : https://youtu.be/Jf9xTmBYKUE