What makes your apps good for students?

by Kevin R Burns

What makes your apps good for students?

An Interview of English Educational App Designer Bob Coffee

Bob, first off, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with How to teach English in Japan. It is nice to talk with a fellow Canadian, who has also made his life in Japan.

What makes your apps good for students?

An app can’t be everything to everyone. Your educational philosophy has an important influence on the apps you make. Not only does it inform the apps you make, but it sets objectives and boundaries when making apps. One rule of thumb is that good apps usually do only one thing, but really really well. The corollary to that is that you can’t be everything to everyone. So at Short Snap Learning we decided to focus our first major app series on fluency.

We chose fluency for several reasons. One was that we didn’t see anyone else doing it, and since we think fluency is important, we stepped up to the plate. Fluency can actually refer to any one of the 4 skills of language; listening fluency, reading fluency, etc. The Chunky English series focuses on those two and can be used for speaking fluency as well if you practice shadowing while listening to the audio.

What Chunky English isn’t, is a dictionary, it is not boring and it is not a set of explanations of the English language. The Chunky English Series is designed to create a user experience that engages the player in fast paced English allowing for repetition without getting boring or tedious. For example, the first activity is a combination of dictation and sentence rearranging that allows you to build the sentence you hear and gives you a rating based on your performance. That performance is calculated based on the speed and errors compared to a native English speaker. It is impossible to recreate that sort of interactivity and feedback density on paper or in more traditional language learning settings. You can’t even create it with computers and a mouse. It can only be experienced on a tablet with multi-touch capabilities.

Can you tell me more about fluency?

Fluency is linked to automaticity. Automaticity means using English without thinking about English. It means that you have internalized language to such a degree that you are using it on autopilot – without thinking. Although there is a fluency for each skill, like listening fluency, and speaking fluency etc, people usually think of speaking fluency first. And this is good example of why automaticity is so important. It becomes clear how important automaticity is when you think about how fast people speak.

If the average native English speaker is speaking at a rate of 2-3 words per second combined with grammar and visual cues, the listener is not only interpreting about 120 to 180 words per minutes but is simultaneously analyzing gestures, intonation and other facial cues to receive the speakers message. In order to perform such mental gymnastics we need to automate much of the processes of real time language much like you normally don’t think about breathing and making your heart pump.

So fluency is essentially using what you already know just faster, smoothing and more efficiently without a lot of cognitive overhead. The way to improve automaticity or fluency is through repetition and practice but the problem with that is that the learner usually encounters boredom if there is no variety or other stimulation.

Why is fluency relevant to your apps?

The other issue with developing fluency is that you need to experience the same content in different contexts. So just repeating the same thing over and over again is like writing the same sentence on a piece of paper, you are getting lots of exposure but not much variation and as a result it is not effective for learning. It is not very effective for memory retention. While you are getting repeated exposure of the target sentence you are not creating neural connections in your brain through a variety of contexts. The target sentence is only being associated with one type of context. So for a learning game that tries to improve a player’s fluency what that means is that it is important to experience the same sentence in a variety of contexts or learning environments.

And what is more is that that doesn’t only apply to the in-game environment. It also applies to playing the learning game in different virtual environments but also in different meat-space environments. For example, you build strong neural connections when you use the same sentence sitting on a train, standing waiting for a bus or sitting at home on your sofa. Not only are you getting multiple exposures of the same target sentence in different contexts within the game but you are also building stronger neural connections because of how and when you play the game throughout the day or week in real meat-space life.

Therefore, if the app is designed to increase the players fluency with English then it is imperative to have some sort of practice element that keeps them coming back to the game over time and allows them to have multiple exposures to the same target language in a variety of in-game contexts AND a variety of real world environments. All of that builds fluency, strengthens neural connections and improves learning.

About Bob Coffee of Shortsnap Learning

Bob Coffee owns Shortsnap Learning, a company on the forefront of making great apps for students learning English.

Visit Shortsnap Learning

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