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.

Published by Melissa

I am a certified general education and special education teacher with a master's degree in literacy education. I currently co-teach 2nd grade in the morning and provide ELA and math instruction to a small group of 4th graders in the afternoon. I love my job!

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