Teaching & Learning


Using a Teaching Innovation Grant to develop English language apps

Professor Bas Aarts, Seth Mehl and Sean Wallis describe the three interactive apps they’ve developed, and explain why spelling, punctuation and good writing are important.


19 March 2014

Image: screenshot of iGE, courtesy of the Survey of English Usage

"At the end of 2011, we launched an app called the interactive Grammar of English (iGE).

We were initially inspired by UCL’s knowledge transfer and impact agenda: we have a lot of authentic spoken and written English material in the Survey of English Usage (SEU; a research unit in the Department of English Language and Literature) and we were aware that these data would be valuable to the wider community.

We thought that creating an app made for a great challenge, in terms of research and pedagogy, and that an app would make an impact on the general public. A paid-for app (iGE retails at £4.99 on iTunes and £2.99 on Google Play) could also generate income for the SEU.

Creating an interactive tool

A key reason for developing an app rather than writing a textbook is that books are ‘hardwired’, which means that all the examples and exercises are the same each time you look at them.

We wanted to explore the possibility of a more interactive tool that allowed users to play and experiment, as this makes learning a more enjoyable experience.

iGE provides new examples and exercises each time it’s used and we’ve also incorporated a facility which allows the app to explain not just which answer is right, but also why an answer is wrong, which is invaluable to learners. Furthermore, having an app that can be used offline means people can learn, revise and test themselves wherever they are, be it on the top of a bus, on a beach or in the bath!

A high success rate

So far, iGE has been very successful: around 31,000 people are using the free version (which contains a complete interactive glossary of grammatical terms), and about 4,000 people have bought the full, paid-for version. This is quite a good conversion rate.

There’s nothing else out there at this level of quality and representing this level of research that’s free.

We have top ratings on the iTunes and Google Play stores and user feedback has been positive and very enthusiastic.

An app that can also be used for teaching

Although it was designed for self-learning, some people have used iGE for classroom teaching and to help teach English as a second language.

In fact, some universities have incorporated it into their curricula. One group of undergraduates in the US experienced such a marked improvement in their class performance that they published a glowing review, which we feature on our website.

Further apps for spelling, punctuation and academic writing

Following iGE’s success, last year we applied for a Teaching Innovation Grant to enable us to develop two additional apps: English Spelling and Punctuation (ESP) and English Academic Writing (EAW).

The two new apps are due to launch at the start of the 2013-14 academic year and will be free to download, as one of the conditions of the grant was that it should benefit UCL students.

The grant we received enabled us to hire Seth, a PhD student and researcher in our unit, to develop the content for ESP and EAW. (Bas and Sean developed the content for iGE, and also contributed content to ESP and EAW; Sean programmed all three apps.)

A real-world use of ongoing research

All the language examples used in the apps come from the ICE-GB corpus, a million-word language sample that we’ve collected and collated here at UCL.

It comprises excerpts from magazines, books, newspapers, recorded conversations, parliamentary debates, classroom discussions and much more besides. We draw data from this unique resource to provide real, everyday language examples.

Indeed, an important pedagogical point for us in all our apps is that we focus on the structure and syntax of everyday language. This might include false starts, imperfections, unspoken or implicit meanings, and so on.

Textbooks often use boring and rather useless examples like ‘The cat sat on the mat’. A child could tell you that the word ‘cat’ is the noun in that phrase, whereas the real, more obscure examples in our apps are less obvious, so the user starts to get a deeper knowledge and understanding of grammar.

In discussing academic writing and punctuation, we try to teach good ‘style’, but we do this by drawing students’ attention to the question of precision and ambiguity rather than by remonstrating with them.

Targeting the general public and those in academia

Both iGE and ESP are aimed at the general public, as well as those in academia – anyone can benefit from these apps.

Spelling and punctuation remain important life skills, especially when it comes to the job market. Your application letter will go straight in the bin if it contains glaring errors, and although automatic spelling and grammar checkers can help you when you’re at a computer, they can’t help you when you give a presentation or an interview. However, there’s not much about the greengrocer’s apostrophe in the apps, and you don’t have to eat, shoot and leave – we’re providing practical, general information.

The academic writing app is slightly different: as its name suggests, it’s aimed at undergraduate students, overseas students and academics, and people considering applying to university who want to learn how to write in an English academic style. It engages with students thoughtfully by outlining the ways that academic writing reflects critical thinking, and it helps the student along with interactive exercises.

Aiming for fun, not just for learning

One of our main aims with the apps was not just to get people learning, but to help them enjoy doing so, and again, interactivity was the key.

Seth and Sean have developed a series of exercises that get people doing things on screen – it’s not just a load of text. This is really important: you’re constantly doing things and that’s really the main selling point of all our apps.

The interactive aspect of ESP really comes into its own with the spelling exercises, as the app remembers the words the user has previously struggled with and tests them on those words more often than the ones they get right. It also focuses more on commonly used words and less on the more unusual ones.

The spelling app approaches the problem of learning to spell in a way that is fully informed by pedagogical research. For example, we haven’t used questions like ‘Which of these words are spelled incorrectly?’ because putting wrongly spelled words in front of people can actually end up reinforcing the incorrect spellings in their minds. That’s the beauty of developing apps in a university: we can draw on current research to inform what we’re doing.

Should you create an app?

We would definitely advise other people around College who are considering creating an app to try it for themselves.

Of course apps will be very specific to their disciplines.

One general rule of thumb, which is simple but easily overlooked, is to use relatively small amounts of text, because users will read this text on a small device, and if there’s a lot to read the reader may give up.

Think about how to incorporate interactivity, and consider why you’re creating an app rather than a book. These are some things we think are essential to pass on to future developers.

We would be delighted if every new student were told about all our apps, and the EAW app in particular, when they start at UCL this September. It’ll be very useful once they’ve received their first essays back and realise how much room for improvement there is in their academic writing skills!