By Tracy Dumais

17 November 2014 - 11:42

Playtime app - LearnEnglish Kids; photo: British Council
'Mobile apps encourage interaction, calling out to the child to touch, tap, swipe, shake and talk to the device.' ©

Photo: British Council

As we release our latest app for primary learners of English (ages 6 - 11), mobile learning consultant and young learner specialist Tracy Dumais provides advice for parents and teachers on getting kids talking in English.

When we ask parents about their aspirations for their child’s English language abilities, 'speaking English with confidence' is almost always at the top of their wish list. Yes, they want their child to read well, have a wide vocabulary and a firm understanding of English grammar, but mostly they want to hear them speak -- and speak with confidence and enjoyment. Yet, as those of us who have ever tried to learn a language know, when it comes to speaking skills, confidence and enjoyment are often hard-won, especially if you are shy or introverted.

So how can parents and educators help make the transition to speaking English with confidence a little easier for children?


The gamification of education divides opinion. Those who argue against the use of games in education talk about 'chocolate-covered broccoli' -- the attempt to mask dull rote learning with a superficial game. Yet good games seem to promote learning effortlessly, and children ‘gamify’ life all the time. Games can be used to promote speaking in two ways. First, by providing opportunities for direct practice: from a simple game of I-spy in the car to a more challenging game of pictionary. Second, games can stimulate very fruitful discussion. Ask children to talk about their favourite game, be it Angry Birds or Minecraft, and get them to talk through what they are doing. The enthusiasm for communicating the game’s purpose will quickly overcome any inhibitions they may feel about speaking in English.


Stories provide children with a context for speaking English. This is especially valuable if they aren’t able to experience an immersive language-learning environment (try getting a monolingual class of children to speak only English, and you will understand the struggle). Experiencing a story together in English places children in a small world where English is a given. The storyteller (either a parent at home or a teacher in class) reads a line and pauses. If the child is familiar with the story after having heard it a few times, she will be able to assume the role of storyteller. A practised storyteller will also sense when to pause and ask questions; not just simple questions like ‘What colour is this flower?’ and ‘What is the bear doing?’ but more challenging ones that get the child to make predictions (‘What will the mouse do next?’), reflect (‘Why do you think the boy looks sad?’) and explore their own emotions (‘Have you ever felt like that?’).

If you are interested in promoting reading through apps, Nosy Crow have some of the most beautifully designed interactive storybooks in the app store and the British Council’s LearnEnglish Kids: Phonics Stories combines seven stories with flashcards and games.


Songs and rhymes give children the chance to play with spoken English in a stress-free way. By listening to songs and singing them, children begin to hear the sounds of the language and experiment with the way the mouth works to produce those new sounds. They notice relationships between words that sound similar through the rhymes at the end of the lines, and how words in combination create rhythm. Speaking and singing while clapping -- a familiar activity in any primary school -- reinforces this understanding. When children sing or chant with the lyrics in text form in front of them, they start to notice the fascinating (and sometimes frustrating) relationship between spelling and sound. The British Council’s LearnEnglish Kids site is one of many resources for animated songs.


Many parents (and teachers) worry that screen time is not only wasted time, but detrimental to the healthy development of a child’s learning. However, used in moderation, video can be a pleasurable and stimulating English language learning tool, especially in situations where a native speaker model is unavailable. Child-friendly channels like the British Council’s LearnEnglish Kids and the BBC’s Cbeebies are safe enough to watch without the need for supervision. Other video platforms like YouTube are a great source of child-friendly material, but the barrage of adverts and potential exposure to offensive comments or external links means that learning with a teacher or parent is preferable. Like games, videos help children improve their speaking and can stimulate discussion, singing and reading.


Mobile apps for phones or tablets can provide a wide variety of learning experiences that combine some (or all) of the activities above in a safe digital environment, designed especially for children. This means so much more than cute pictures and carefully graded content. The touch screen gives children access to a digital world in an intuitive way that a keyboard and mouse combination (designed for adults) never could. Additionally, mobile apps encourage interaction by calling out to the child to touch, tap, swipe, shake and talk to the device as much as possible. In other words, mobile devices are not passive screens churning out mind-numbing ‘edutainment’, but dynamic and challenging digital playmates. If the app is thoughtfully designed, it will offer motivation, support, rewards and praise at just the right moment.

LearnEnglish Kids Playtime app

LearnEnglish Kids Playtime combines games, songs, stories and videos in one place. The stories have subtitles and narrated audio that can be turned on and off. Children can develop speaking confidence in the following stages:

  1.  Audio and subtitles on – The child can start by listening to the audio and reading the story, joining in when they hear and see familiar words and phrases.
  2.  Audio off, subtitles on – As they become more confident they can turn off the audio and read the subtitles themselves.
  3.  Audio and subtitles off  – Finally they may choose to turn off the subtitles too and tell the story in their own words, using only the animated images as a prompt.

To help make this journey to independent story(re)telling easier, each video comes with a 'listen' and 'record' activity which allows children to listen to short words and phrases in isolation from the main video. They can also record themselves to compare their pronunciation with that of the narrator. In addition, each pack of videos comes with games that consolidate spelling, vocabulary, grammar or simple comprehension.

You can find out more about the Playtime app, and how to download it, from our LearnEnglish Kids site.

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