Using Digital Apps to Support Students’ Literacy Learning

Forty-two percent of respondents in the What’s Hot In Literacy 2020 Report voted “determining effective instructional strategies for struggling readers” as the second most critical topic for improving literacy outcomes within the next decade (International Literacy Association, 2020, p. 10). Helping students who are experiencing reading difficulties become more capable and confident is a relevant and ongoing instructional goal in today’s classrooms. (Shearer et al., 2019; Walpole & Beauchat, 2008). One way that teachers can support students’ literacy learning is by incorporating digital apps into the curriculum.

Research indicates that digital apps which target foundational literacy skills such as letter recognition, phonics, and text comprehension can improve students’ literacy outcomes (D’Agostino et al., 2016; Delacruz, 2014; Tkach & Gallagher, 2020). Additionally, digital apps engage students in multimodal learning experiences that increase interest in and interaction with the text (D’Agostino et al., 2016; Delacruz, 2014; Flewitt et al., 2015; Mims et al., 2018; Moon et al., 2017; Spires et al., 2019; Tkach & Gallagher, 2020), which positively impact students’ literacy outcomes.

The purpose of this literature review is to examine how the integration of digital apps into the curriculum supports students’ literacy learning. First, I will discuss the teacher’s role in the general implementation of technology. Next, I will explore the benefits of using digital apps to support students’ literacy learning. Finally, I will address the potential challenges of using digital apps in the classroom.

Search Methods

The information included within this literature review was obtained through the SUNY Cortland Memorial Library Education Source database and OneSearch. Boolean search phrases included “Apps for education AND literacy instruction,”  “Apps OR mobile device applications OR technology AND literacy learning,” “Digital apps AND literacy AND struggling readers,” “Digital apps AND literacy AND struggling readers AND engagement,” and “Nearpod AND literacy.”

The overarching themes that emerged from the literature include the teacher’s role in the implementation of technology (Boche, 2019; D’Agostina et al., 2016; Delacruz, 2014; Flewitt et al., 2015; Mims et al., 2018; Moon et al., 2017; Spires et al., 2019; Tkach & Gallagher, 2019), the benefits of using digital apps to support students’ literacy learning (D’Agostina et al., 2016; Delacruz, 2014; Flewitt et al., 2015; Mims et al., 2018; Moon et al., 2017; Spires et al., 2019; Tkach & Gallagher, 2019), and the potential challenges of using digital apps in the classroom (D’Agostina et al., 2016; Delacruz, 2014; Flewitt et al., 2015; Spires et al., 2019; Tkach & Gallagher, 2019).


The Teacher’s Role in the Implementation of Technology

Students’ academic success depends, in part, on what transpires in the classroom, and a teacher’s pedagogical beliefs and practices have the potential to propel a student’s learning forward or to impede academic progress (Boche, 2019; D’Agostino et al., 2016; Flewitt et al., 2015; Mims et al., 2018). In this age of technological advances, with some form of digital instruction increasingly becoming the norm, teachers’ perceptions of technology are central to the type of learning that takes place.

A study by Boche (2019) examined three teachers’ views of the use of technology to enhance literacy learning. One teacher perceived technology as a convenience and regarded it as a helpful tool for conducting research, word processing, and creating digital presentations. However, she felt that technology, despite the convenience it affords, is less preferable to traditional modes of reading and writing. Another teacher also viewed technology as a useful tool but saw it as a potential distraction to her students, believing that technology is the reason students are disengaged in learning. Another teacher considered helping students become knowledgeable in multiple areas of literacy to be one of his primary responsibilities as an educator. Therefore, he regularly engaged his students with books, websites, podcasts, images, and videos. Additionally, this teacher took the initiative to advance his understanding of technology to transform his teaching practices. Whereas the first two teachers viewed technology as a means to an end, nothing more than a tool, the third teacher took the stance that technology enhances literacy learning. In other words, this teacher’s beliefs about technology informed his instructional practices, which positively impacted his students’ experiences with literacy learning.

Even when teachers generally support the use of technology in the classroom, the available technology might not be compatible with the theories that shape teachers’ instructional methods, thereby creating a mismatch between beliefs and practices. A study by D’Agostino et al. (2016) focused on a group of teachers using the Letter Works app to support students’ letter learning. The app replicated the manipulation of magnetic letters, a central tenet of the Reading Recovery program developed by Marie Clay (2005). Ultimately, none of the teachers in the study favored the app over using actual magnetic letters because it did not have the same kinesthetic or tactile component. The technology was in direct conflict with the teachers’ theories on literacy learning, which is that students learn best through physical manipulation and movement.

Teachers may also have more general concerns about the use of technology and digital apps in the classroom. A study by Flewitt et al. (2015) found that despite teachers’ support of using digital apps for learning, they nevertheless believed technology can be addictive and a deterrent to time spent outdoors or in other creative pursuits. Similarly, the teachers believed that digital learning interferes with natural language development between adults and children. The question of who will fund the technology may also be a constraint to its implementation (Flewitt et al., 2015). In many cases, teachers may be supportive of an app but unsure how to best utilize it to meet students’ literacy needs (Mims et al., 2018).

To address these concerns, teachers need administrative support and access to relevant professional development. Professional development is integral to enhancing teachers’ technological, pedagogical, and content knowledge, as well as allaying concerns that arise when introducing new technology (Boche, 2019; Flewitt et al., 2015). Similarly, professional development can support teachers’ existing theories on literacy learning while allowing them to explore and become more knowledgeable of the various types of technology and digital apps available to them and their students.

In addition to teachers’ beliefs regarding technology use in the classroom, teachers’ instructional practices are critical to students’ literacy learning. When integrating technology, teachers must first model how to use the digital device and program, as well as scaffold students’ learning while using the app (Boche, 2019; Moon et al., 2017; Spires et al., 2019; Tkach & Gallagher, 2020). Rather than the app replacing the teacher’s instruction, the app becomes a tool to enhance students’ learning. For example, a study by Moon et al. (2017) examined how the use of six different literacy apps impacted a group of fifth-grade students’ reading comprehension. The student-teachers in this study used the Gradual Release of Responsibility framework to model how to use the apps. The students then used the apps to construct artifacts to demonstrate their reading comprehension. Results of the study indicate that students scored higher on post-assessments after using the apps. Just as teachers should model and scaffold how to use the technology, teachers must also provide students adequate time to become familiar with the app and to complete assigned learning tasks (Spires et al., 2019; Tkach & Gallagher, 2020).

Benefits of Using Digital Apps to Support Literacy Learning

Incorporating digital apps into literacy instruction creates an environment that foregrounds student learning. Apps that target specific literacy skills such as letter recognition (D’Agostino et al., 2016) and comprehension (Moon et al., 2017) can facilitate and improve understanding. Moreover, using learning apps in the classroom increases students’ overall digital literacy skills and knowledge (Flewitt et al., 2015), which can then be generalized across the curriculum. Students who approach digital learning with an efferent stance (Rosenblatt, 2018), or to learn something new, experience greater learning gains than students who view literacy apps as simply a game (Spires et al, 2019). Teachers can help students develop an efferent stance and focus their learning by explicitly stating the purpose of using a particular digital app.

Students who used literacy apps in the classroom were reported by their teachers to be more engaged and motivated to learn (D’ Agostino et al., 2016; Delacruz, 2014; Flewitt et al., 2015; Mims et al., 2018; Moon et al., 2017; Spires et al., 2019; Tkach & Gallagher, 2020). A study by Mims et al. (2018) examined how the use of the iPad app Access: Language Arts could improve literacy outcomes for middle-grade students diagnosed with significant intellectual and developmental disability (SIDD) when used to teach listening comprehension skills. Results showed that students remained actively engaged with the text and teacher for more than 75% of the time, which translated into an improvement in vocabulary knowledge and text comprehension involving higher-order thinking skills. These results are especially significant given the low academic expectations often placed on students with disabilities. 

Teachers also reported that students experienced an increase in self-directed learning, in part because they could control how they engaged with the apps (Delacruz, 2014; Flewitt et al., 2015; Mims et al., 2018; Tkach & Gallagher, 2020). A study by Delacruz (2014) examined how a student-teacher used the interactive learning app Nearpod with nine fourth-grade students, four of whom were English language learners, during guided reading. Results showed that all students preferred using Nearpod to traditional print books because they could engage with the text in different ways. For example, students could take a quiz to assess their understanding or represent their ideas through a drawing. Students could also change the size of the text to facilitate reading.

Potential Challenges of Using Digital Apps in the Classroom

Despite the benefits of using digital apps to enhance students’ literacy learning, teachers nevertheless cite potential challenges. For example, some schools may lack digital devices for all students or may lack the time and resources to properly integrate digital apps into the curriculum (D’Agostino et al., 2016). Even when the technology is available, teachers report that their unfamiliarity, as well as a general lack of administrative support and training, is a deterrent in implementing it (D’Agostino et al., 2016; Flewitt et al., 2015). Some teachers report technical glitches, limited accessibility features, and the cost of technology to themselves or the school district as being challenges (Delacruz, 2014).

Future Research and Questions

Because modeling and scaffolding the use of learning apps is integral to students’ success with them, we must consider the professional development opportunities available and how they might better support teachers’ technological, pedagogical, and content knowledge (Boche, 2019; D’Agostino et al., 2016; Flewitt et al., 2015). Questions to consider include What does purposeful integration of technology in the classroom look like, and what is the best way to accomplish it? Which digital apps best support the many facets of literacy learning? How do learning apps impact literacy outcomes for historically marginalized students?  How can learning apps bridge students’ in-school literacy practices and out-of-school literacy practices? How do learning apps promote both digital and non-digital literacy skills?


In this literature review, I first discussed the teacher’s role in the implementation of technology in the classroom. Teachers’ beliefs and pedagogical practices regarding technology impact instruction and the learning experiences afforded to students. I also discussed the benefits of learning apps on students’ literacy outcomes. These include improved letter recognition and text comprehension, as well as engagement, motivation, and self-directed learning. I then addressed the potential challenges of integrating technology such as budgetary restrictions, lack of professional development opportunities, and technical issues. Lastly, I proposed suggestions for future research and questions.

As we make our way further into the 21st century, the educating of students will undoubtedly become even more digitized than it is today. Rather than cling to traditional methods of teaching and learning, educators must embrace the use of technology and see it as an opportunity to create more purposeful and meaningful literacy experiences for all students.  


Boche, B. (2019). A critical analysis of technology’s impact on teacher’s views of literacy learning and teaching: A continuum of understandings. Journal of Literacy & Technology20(4), 46–80.

D’Agostino, J., Rodgers, E., Harmey, S., & Brownfield, K. (2016). Introducing an iPad app into literacy instruction for struggling readers: Teacher perceptions and student outcomes. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 16(4), 522–548.

Delacruz, S. (2014). Using Nearpod in elementary guided reading groups. TechTrends, 58(5), 62–69.

Flewitt, R., Messer, D., & Kucirkova, N. (2015). New directions for early literacy in a digital age: The iPad. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy15(3), 289–310.

International Literacy Association. (2020). What’s hot in literacy: 2020 report. Newark, DE: International Literacy Association.

Mims, P. J., Stanger, C., Sears, J. A., & White, W. B. (2018). Applying systematic instruction to teach ELA skills using fictional novels via an iPad app. Rural Special Education Quarterly37(4), 197–206.

Moon, A., Wold, C., & Francom, G. (2017). Enhancing reading comprehension with student-centered iPad applications. TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning61(2), 187–194.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (2018). The transactional theory of reading and writing. In D.E. Alvermann, N.J. Unrau, M. Sailors, & R.B. Ruddell (Eds.), Theoretical Models and Processes of Literacy (7th ed.) (pp. 430-448). Routledge.

Shearer, B. A., Carr, D.A., & Vogt, M. (2019). Reading specialists and literacy coaches in the real world (4th ed.). Waveland Press.

Spires, H. A., Nesbitt, K. T., Paul, C. M., & Lester, J. C. (2019). Game-based literacies and learning: Towards a transactional theoretical perspective. Journal of Literacy & Technology20(4), 81–134.

Tkach, R., & Gallagher, T. L. (2020). Sparking reading engagement through tablets: An early intervention reading program and parent workshop for tablets at home. Reading Horizons59(3), 1–21.

Walpole, S., & Beauchat, K. A. (2008). Facilitating teacher study groups. Literacy Coaching Clearinghouse.

Hello Again!

It has been nearly six months since I wrote my last post and a lot has happened since then! For starters, I completed my master’s program in literacy education in May. Pending the results of my exam, I will soon be a certified literacy specialist for birth thru 12th grade. In other news, I accepted a position as a special education teacher in a local school district where I will be co-teaching 2nd grade in the morning and providing ELA and math instruction to a small group of 4th graders in the afternoon. I am beyond thrilled to be part of this tight-knit school community. Although our school year has not yet officially begun, I have been getting to know many of my colleagues and busily working to make my classroom an inviting and inspiring place to learn. Pictures will be, undoubtedly, forthcoming. *smiles*

I do have two posts in the works. One is about the use of reading logs in elementary school. The other has to do with “leveling” classroom libraries. (I’ve been more active on Twitter lately, which provides no shortage of inspiration.) Of course, now that I will be in the classroom, there will be lots more posts about books, literacy, learning, and what it’s like to be a first-year teacher.

Stay tuned!

Choice Words

Choice Words by Peter H. Johnston

In Choice Words, Peter Johnston (2004) discusses how “[language] creates realities and invites identities” (p. 9). In other words, the language we use communicates to others how we see them as individuals and as members of a larger community. In the classroom, language plays an integral role in shaping students’ identity, developing their sense of agency, positioning them in relationship to others, and creating a classroom community. I define identity, agency, positioning, and community as follows:

  • Identity examines how and to what extent a person associates with the characteristics of a particular group. Ideas about identity center around the fundamental question of “Who am I?” and “Who are you?” When we claim an identity, we abide by the traits of that “type” of person.
  • Agency entails taking charge of a situation and believing that you can affect change. It is knowing that you have a choice and that your choices have consequences. Agency is also realizing that risk-taking sometimes leads to failure, but that failure is a natural part of the learning process.
  • Positioning considers the relationships between people and the inherent power associated within them. Positioning tends to create a binary in which one person or group has more authority than another.
  • Community refers to the sense of belonging created by a group of people. The strength of a community can be judged by how its members function together as a society.

Identity, agency, positioning, and community are interconnected. For example, the concept of identity and positioning forces us to examine how we see ourselves and others, and how we perceive ourselves compared to others. Similarly, agency informs the extent to which we view ourselves as competent individuals and functioning members of a particular community. Johnston (2004) writes, “As individuals we can evolve only within the limits of our social environment” (p. 73). When we, as teachers, nurture a student’s sense of agency, we encourage them to assume a particular identity. Purposefully chosen language can help mold students into readers, writers, thinkers, and scholars. Language can position students as active, valued members of a literate learning community. Language can also do the opposite.

Cultivating agency is, I believe, one of the most critical components of ensuring a child’s success in school and, later, in society. I have witnessed the transformative power of agency at work in the classroom when a student who identifies as “a slow reader” or “a bad writer” is purposefully positioned in ways that allow him to bloom. And yet agency is a seed that does not germinate wholly on its own. The choice words we teachers use in conversations with students nurture their sense of agency by rooting their identities. Our words position students as colleagues and collaborators and create a community of learning. As an educator, I will use language to help grow my students into readers, writers, thinkers, and scholars who, in turn, believe language and literacy is their power.


Johnston, P. H. (2004).  Choice wordsHow our language affects children’s learning. Stenhouse Publishers.

The Line Tender

The Line Tender by Kate Allen

Allen, K. (2019). The Line Tender. Puffin Books.

Category: Middle-grade realistic fiction

Summary: Twelve-year-old Lucy Everhart deals with unimaginable grief and loss while attempting to find solace in finishing what her marine-biologist mother started.

Theme: Even loss brings new beginnings.

Generalizations: death, loss, grief, family, friendship, love

Potential uses in the classroom: The Line Tender can be used to talk about literacy elements such as setting and plot, but especially the richly complex characters. This book can also be used to explore the use of metaphors. Thematically, the book can be used to discuss relationships, death and grief, and living through loss.

Melissa’s note: I saw this book on a table for middle-grade reads at the bookstore. Because I tend to gravitate toward children’s picture books or young adult novels, I have been purposefully adding to my collection of middle-grade books. I was first attracted to this book because of the cover. I have always been fascinated—and slightly terrified—by sea creatures. I often have nightmares of sharks, so the fact that sharks feature so prominently in this book intrigued me. Perhaps that merits further exploration? I was also intrigued by the title, The Line Tender. What is a line tender? What does that mean? I don’t want to give away the plot, but suffice it to say a book has not inspired such passionate tears since The Fault in Our Stars. This is truly one of the most remarkable and beautiful stories I have read in a long time. If you choose to read this in your classroom, have tissues on hand and be prepared for some heavy discussions.

Concrete Rose

Concrete Rose, written by Angie Thomas

Do you enjoy stories of personal growth and redemption? Do you like reading about authentic characters navigating real and relevant issues? If the answer is yes, prepare to get hooked on on this tale of love, friendship, and loyalty.

Seventeen-year-old Maverick Carter’s got a lot going on. Not only is Mav about to start his senior year of high school, he’s just found out he’s a dad. Although determined to live the straight and narrow and be a good son, father, and boyfriend, it’s hard to make ends meet on just a part-time salary. It’s even harder to quit slinging dope for the King Lords. But when a loved one is murdered, Mav must decide what matters most in his life.

Back in the day when I was little, teachers would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’d say stuff like an astronaut or a doctor or a vet. But at some point, I stopped imagining myself as any of that. Ain’t no astronauts, doctors, or veterinarians around here. Everybody I know just tryna survive, and that’s all I wanna do.

Concrete Rose (Thomas, p. 262)

Concrete Rose is a story about what it means to be a young black man in America: Dad in prison. Single mom. Life in the projects. Teenage pregnancy. Gangs. Drugs. Gun violence.

But it’s about more than that, too. It’s a story about perseverance, hard work, and accountability. It’s a story about hope, family, and community. It’s a story about strength and resilience.

Written by Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give and On the Come Up, readers of Concrete Rose will surely root for Mav as he struggles to figure it all out.


Unspoken, by Henry Cole

Unspoken, illustrated by Henry Cole

Cole, H. (2012). Unspoken: A story from the Underground Railroad. Scholastic Press.

Category: Wordless book

Summary: A young girl discovers a runaway slave hiding in the family’s barn and must decide what to do.

Theme: Doing what’s right takes courage.

Generalizations: the Civil War, slavery, the Underground Railroad, freedom, empathy, courage

Potential uses in the classroom: Unspoken can be used to introduce slavery and, more specifically, the Underground Railroad. This book illustrates trust, courage, and empathy, especially in times of conflict. More generally, wordless books can (and should!) be used to develop literacy skills. For example, children must “read” the illustrations to infer or predict. Additionally, wordless books provide younger children the opportunity to practice sequencing skills. Older children can practice their storytelling skills by incorporating text and dialog. Finally, children can compare different wordless books and discuss the many devices illustrators use to tell a story.

Melissa’s note: One of my friends, who is also a librarian, lent me her copy of Unspoken. I was so taken with the illustrations that I immediately purchased a copy for my own collection. It is one of those books that begs you to linger on the pictures. I was also excited to see Unspoken mentioned in “Enhancing English Learners’ Language Development Using Wordless Picture Books” (Louie & Sierschynski, 2015). I can’t help but imagine using this book with my future students. Unspoken won an award for Notable Children’s Book in 2013.

English Orthography

Orthography is a broad term that refers to the spelling, punctuation, spacing, and special features of a language. According to Freeman and Freeman (2014), “One reason that spelling gets so much attention in schools is that English spelling is complex” (p. 149). This is due to its roots in German, French, Latin, and Greek, as well as centuries of evolution. In fact, a study of children across 14 European countries who were learning to read using a relatively consistent orthography (spelling system) could read with at least 80% fluency and accuracy by the end of first grade. Contrast this with 34% fluency and accuracy among English-speaking children by the end of first grade. A cross-linguistic comparison of English, Spanish, and Czech was conducted to determine factors that might influence early reading growth (Caravolas et al., 2013).

The ability of English-, Spanish-, and Czech-speaking children to read in their respective language is largely determined by phonemic awareness, knowledge of letters, and rapid automatized naming (RAN). RAN is a measurement of a person’s ability to quickly name items on a page. The 523 children who participated in this study began with similar reading abilities and were assessed six times from kindergarten through second grade. The results of the study corresponded with the authors’ hypothesis: children who are learning to read in English, which has a relatively inconsistent orthography, experience a slower growth rate than children learning to read in Spanish or Czech, which have a more consistent orthography. Letter knowledge seems to be more of a factor in determining initial reading ability in English than it does in Spanish and Czech. In other words, if children have weak letter knowledge prior to formal reading instruction, they will experience a slower rate of growth compared to their peers with greater letter knowledge. The authors of the study also concluded that whether a child is a “good” reader or a “poor” reader is well established by the end of first grade and that this is unlikely to change (Caravolas et al., 2013).

There are several takeaways from this study. Learning to read in English is more difficult due to its relatively inconsistent orthographic system. Also, English-speaking children entering kindergarten without strong letter knowledge experience slower reading growth compared to their more knowledgeable peers. Most critically, however, is that children who are considered “poor” readers by the end of first grade are more likely to remain so. This underscores the importance of early literacy skills even prior to formal instruction.  


Caravolas, M., Lervåg, A., Defior, S., Seidlová Málková, G., & Hulme, C. (2013). Different patterns, but equivalent predictors, of growth in reading in consistent and inconsistent orthographies. Psychological Science24(8), 1398–1407.

Freeman, D.E., & Freeman, Y.S. (2014). Essential linguistics: What teachers need to know to teach ESL, reading, spelling, and grammar, (2nd edition). Heinemann.

Haim Ginott

I discovered this quote from Haim Ginott hanging in one of the classrooms at SUNY Cortland on my very first day. I took a picture and saved it to my camera roll, and I often reread it to remind myself that everything I do and say matters.

Haim Ginott (1922-1973) was child psychologist and teacher who shaped the way adults interact with children. You can read additional quotes here.

Ghost Boys

Ghost Boys written by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Ghost Boys written by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Rhodes, J.P. (2018). Ghost Boys. Little, Brown and Company.  

Category: Middle-grade Contemporary Fiction

Summary: Twelve-year-old Jerome is shot and killed by a white police officer while playing with a toy gun. As a ghost, he witnesses the emotional aftermath of his murder and realizes that “only the living can make the world better” (Rhodes, p. 203).

Themes: We must learn from the ghosts of our past if we hope to change the future.

Generalizations: family, friendship, racism, police brutality, social justice

Potential uses in the classroom: On the surface, Ghost Boys is a book about a young black boy killed by a white police officer. On a deeper level, Jerome’s story echoes the ongoing violence against blacks and, as such, can be used as a segue to discussions with young readers about racism and social justice. As Jerome says, “only the living can make the world better” (Rhodes, p. 203). Therefore, what is our collective responsibility to the ghosts of our country’s violent and tragic past that continue to haunt us? This book can also be used to explore the metaphor of ghosts. Jerome becomes a ghost when he is killed, but who in the story becomes ghost-like after his death? Finally, in terms of story structure and author intent, why does the story alternate between Jerome being alive and Jerome being dead? Why does the story begin with Jerome’s death? Who was Emmett Till and why is he a character in this story?

Melissa’s note: I chose Ghost Boys because I was curious how a children’s book would address the issue of a young black boy being shot and killed by a police officer. Even though this story is a work of fiction, violence against black people, even black children, sadly continues to be a relevant issue. As a parent and teacher, I believe we are obligated to speak openly about racism and social justice and challenge our students to make the world better.