Can language learning apps enhance the classroom experience for ESOL learners?

City of Bristol College

This project aimed to explore a digital language learning package to support ESOL learners in the city of Bristol. The digital tool decided on was FlashAcademy. The project team sought to gain honest, accurate feedback from their learners as to their experiences using the digital learning package, in addition to feedback from teachers on their impact. The project explored how to use the tools in and outside of the classroom in a blended learning format and through asynchronous activities. The project culminated in an event bringing all the project participants together: the managers, the teachers and the learners.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


Our project took place with five groups of learners over different ages, genders and levels. It took place within the ESOL department of City of Bristol College, both ESOL 16–18-year-olds and ESOL adults. The range of groups was Entry Level 1 to Level 1. The majority of the research took place within groups of more than 10 learners and one lecturer worked individually with learners. There were three lecturers in total and two project leads.

The project team wanted to find out how effective (if at all) language learning apps are to support learning both in and out of the classroom. The pandemic and subsequent forced use of online delivery served to bring the issue of digital language learning to the forefront of teacher discussions. Teachers of learners at all levels were taken by surprise at how well many learners coped with using their mobile phones to access their language learning. Towards the end of the last academic year, some teachers trialled a standalone language app with a small group to supplement their online lessons and wanted to extend this further with a different software package.

Other Contextual Information

City of Bristol College is the principal provider of ESOL courses in the city. The ESOL provision is large (approx. 1500 learners per year), extremely broad and aims to support all learners to gain language skills, qualifications and confidence to progress in their education, work and independent lives in the city.

Screenshot of FlashAcademy topics.

Figure 1: Some of the topics on FlashAcademy


We chose to use the FlashAcademy platform for this project as it had a number of different features that were attractive to the teachers, and we felt learners would enjoy using it. One learner log-in gave access to multiple devices which meant that they could use college laptops or their own devices. It was accessible in 30+ home languages and had content that fit the required levels including vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. Behind the scenes, teachers could set specific lessons for their groups or the learners could work through the content. Teachers could track progress via the app’s reporting settings and the learners could play games, allowing them to score points on a leader board.

Screenshot of lessons set by teachers.

Figure 2: Lessons set by teachers

After spending time becoming familiar with the app and showing it to learners, the teachers decided to use the app in different ways. They used it to set tasks as homework or asynchronous lessons to supplement the learning in the classroom. Two teachers also used it as an extension activity for when learners finish tasks sooner in the lesson, or as an independent learning activity while they hold tutorials with individual learners.

Towards the end of the research period, each teacher used a tutorial session to capture learners’ thoughts using a semi-structured interview format. This enabled the teachers to capture the views of the whole class as not all were able to attend the wrap up event.

Screenshot of leader board.

Figure 3: Leader board

At the end of the research, the group decided to bring all of the learners involved in the research together for a final capture of evidence (see Appendix 3) and as a social activity to thank them for their participation. The teachers posed closed questions to the learners and got them to move around the room to the number that best reflected their answer. Following that, the learners were put into smaller focus groups and asked open ended questions. Prizes were awarded to the learner in each class that had scored the highest number of points and they were treated to a buffet lunch.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

From analysing the evidence, we found that learners mostly enjoyed using the app to supplement their learning and, in most cases, the content of the app supported what was being taught in the classroom. This enabled the learners to continue their learning at home. We asked learners questions about the level of challenge and most found content very easy. For the most part, learners found the app very easy to use and were able to navigate through its different functions. There was no difference in response between the adults or the 16-18s. When we asked how much they felt they learned from the app, the responses were very mixed and evenly spread between the markers. They felt it supplemented what they were doing in the classroom but they didn’t learn much in the way of new content.

Within the appendices below, responses are shown for all questions, with some descriptive comments to give a feel for the numbers and statements. One thing that we were very surprised about was the fact that the majority of learners decided to use the app in English rather than their home language. One of the key selling points for the app was that the learners can access it in more than thirty home languages, but some outlined that there were mistakes in the translation and that if they are there to learn English – they wanted it all in English!

The learners particularly liked the gamification of the app, especially the 16-18 age group who are predominantly male. They explained that they liked the competition and moving up the leader board. This was less of a highlight for the adult groups.

Organisational Development

This academic year, the 16-18 and Adult ESOL teams were merged. This project provided a great opportunity for staff to work together who had previously never met as they worked on different campuses, within different departments and different age groups. Apart from the final event, we conducted the whole project remotely. The team worked collaboratively using a Microsoft Teams page, Teams meetings and shared documents to work effectively without having ever met.

Following on from this project, the team are currently exploring other apps and platforms to support language learning in the next academic year. We think that by involving staff in the decision-making process and the trial, there has been a greater buy-in and commitment to the platform. The developers were very keen to support us in this project and offered several training and troubleshooting sessions for the staff to help them get up and running with it.

One of the teachers stated:

Normally, I don’t use apps in my teaching/classroom as I have regarded them as a distraction from traditional teaching and potentially creating more work for me. However, since starting this research I have been pleasantly surprised that in FlashAcademy I can facilitate learning through technology by setting tasks/lessons based on classroom topics for learners. For some learners their natural curiosity has led them to do different levels and lessons independently. My adult learners have many commitments and use this app to fit around their busy lives.

This teachers’ full account can be found as Appendix 2.

Learning from this project

Reflecting on the use of online platforms and apps and what led us to make choices for ourselves and the learners has been a useful exercise. Some of the learners appeared to enjoy the attention of being part of a research project and having their opinions being valued too. This is something that we are keen to take forward as a college; having regular learner engagement events to discuss different topics will add a lot of value.

Within our organisation, like most, funding is always a struggle. As much as we would like to invest in digital platforms, often teachers source their own or search out free equivalents. The teachers found that many of the features of this app were useful e.g. being able to track learner progress via a dashboard, being able to use one log-in on multiple devices and having content that broadly followed the ESOL curriculum. However, they did find that it was occasionally glitchy. Some learners lost all of their ‘points’ and so were back at the bottom of the leader board despite their best efforts. They also found that the app had a facelift halfway through the project which confused both staff and learners when they logged back on.

Getting the balances between giving learners something to do versus something that is relevant and useful to current topics/skills and between ease of use and usefulness is difficult. If an app is difficult to use or unreliable, it is no good to the busy teacher.

FlashAcademy falls down in some areas at the moment although it does have its merits too which come out in the research feedback and there were more positives from the more motivated adult learners.

Following on and inspired by the work on this project, we are considering which apps or platforms we would like to offer for our staff and students for the next academic year. This project has given us the tools to critique the different features they offer. We quickly challenged our own assumptions around digital learning and technology and will be spending time with the rest of the team so that they can see its benefits and be prepared for the year ahead.

Screenshot of the topics with teacher and learner feedback on top inc: multimodal format, ability to repeat as and when needed, and fulfilling a natural curiosity

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners.

    We utilised the electronic resource with a wide variety of learners, gathered feedback in various contexts and reflected on that feedback to inform how we could best meet future needs of similar groups of learners. For example, noting that an option to allow some learners to receive instruction in their mother tongue aided some learners (but not the majority who preferred the simplicity of having both instructions and learning in English as the language being learned.) This may inform our future use of similar electronic resources.

  • 5. Value and promote social and cultural diversity, equality of opportunity and inclusion.

    Our project involved learners from a range of backgrounds including age, gender, ethnicity, disability etc. All were supported to participate and those who struggled with the technology were provided with additional support. When we brought the learners together at the end of the project, they were able to socialise and meet people from other classes usually based on other campuses. We managed to connect three learners who had come from a minority ethnic group within Afghanistan who swapped numbers and have become friends.

  • 15. Promote the benefits of technology and support learners in its use.

    Not all of the teachers involved were keen users of technology in the classroom. One in particular used it very little. This project has given her the confidence to reflect on her practice and to work with more ‘techy’ colleagues to trial new things in her classroom. While the teachers work in the same department, it is very large and they didn’t know each other so it has provided the opportunity to share practice and resources.

    One of the other teachers sits in the middle and uses some tech but, during the project, she applied for an internal position of ‘digital champion’ to support college staff with developing their digital skills.