ArticlesJuly 2014

Differentiated Activities for the Language Classroom Using Mobile Apps

Unsoon WonUnsoon Won, Faculty Development Advisor, Associate Professor, Academic Support Center, Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) Kara Mac Donald, PhKara Mac Donald.D Faculty Development Specialist, Associate Professor, Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC)


The diversity of learners in our classrooms requires us to adjust our instruction to maximize learning for all students. Differentiated instruction capitalizes on the readiness levels, learning styles and personal interests of learners (Blaz, 2006) and allows teachers to engage with these diverse factors. Recent developments in the mobile learning environment offer a wealth of opportunity to differentiate activities and best meet learners’ needs.

Infographic of differentiating instruction.
Components of Differentiating Instruction. Adapted from Tomlinson, C.A. (1999), image created by authors.


We all vary our teaching to accommodate learner differences, thus improving their ability to better connect with and process our materials. We can differentiate, or vary, three components of our instruction: content, process and product. When we adapt content, we adjust what we present to learners or how they access the new information based on their interests, learning preferences, or knowledge of the topic. Differentiating instructional content involves varying the topic, proficiency levels and type of content (texts, audio, or video). When we adapt the process, we adjust activities to allow learners to use different cognitive skills ranging from memorization to creation, often based on Bloom’s taxonomy. When we adapt the product, we offer learners an alternative means to demonstrate their learning. Demonstration of learning outcomes takes a variety of forms such as performances, written and oral presentations, debates, or projects such as the creation of short videos. However, we don’t have to vary all three components in the same lesson with the same learner. We can make informed choices about when, what and how we will differentiate, for whom and how often. By varying these three dimensions of our teaching, we offer a flexible learning environment that improves our ability to meet the needs of diverse learners.



Learners are all different. There are the typical diversity factors of gender, culture, ethnicity and race that are often used to characterize learner differences. However, going beyond these differences, every learner brings a myriad of background knowledge, strengths, preferences, personality, cognitive styles, and motivational factors to the classroom. Accommodating learner differences requires that we take the time not only to get to know them individually, but also to consider how their characteristics and diversity can inform our teaching. As part of meeting curriculum standards, offering differentiated activities throughout a course program benefits all learners as it both supports them and challenges them where needed. As teachers, we know to adjust our teaching practice to accommodate students and we may feel comfortable with differentiation in the traditional classroom. However, the conventional classroom is constantly evolving. Differentiated instruction is not a new practice and mobile technology is now an integral part of our personal and professional lives. Yet as teachers, it is likely we have not yet explored how to incorporate mobile technology tools into our classroom practice as a means of differentiating instruction to address learner differences.



Mobile learning technologies, particularly apps, can be a central tool in diversifying language instruction to address learner differences. Through apps, learners can access authentic target language content, create personalized products, and share information from anywhere while taking advantage of the adaptability of mobile apps and communication tools. Similarly, teachers can create podcasts, video or visual content on a variety of topics in the target language using apps such as Pocket WavePad for audio recording or Near Pod for video creation. Teachers can then share their presentations with learners via social media apps or file management apps like Google Drive, Dropbox, GoodReader and so on. Such teacher-created, semi-authentic or authentic content can enrich the language learning experience in multiple ways as learners engage with different types and levels of content and topics. For teachers, important factors to consider are: the possibilities for content delivery to multiple learners, the variety of ways learners can be asked to process that content, and the opportunities for demonstration of learning through productio. For example, there are a number of mobile apps that allow language learners to practice vocabulary, grammar, writing, and pronunciation based on their interests and level. This enables mobile language learners to personalize their learning experience and scaffold it based on their needs and level of proficiency. Our skills and creativity in matching the appropriate tools with our learners’ needs promises to have a significant impact on the quality of the foreign language learning experience. It is also helpful to view mobile apps that support language learning as existing within a continuum of interaction, modalities, and mobility ranging from asynchronous self-directed learning with little or no direct interaction on one end of the scale, to interactive synchronous video conferencing on the other end of the scale. We, as teachers, must not only focus on pedagogy, but also be able to select and match the appropriate instructional technology tools to the diverse needs of our students in order to facilitate their learning.


Table 1: Mobile Apps for Differentiation in the Foreign Language Classroom***

Differentiating Content Apps
  • Target Language (TL) News Apps;
  • TL Television Station Apps: Viki, BBC, CNN;
  • Video Apps for TL Lessons/Cultural Content: YouTube, Video Tube;
  • TL Podcasts/Vodcasts: NPR;
  • Video/Content Storage and Sharing: Google Drive, Dropbox, Vine;
  • Image Apps for TL Country Culture/Geography;
  • Maps for Practicing Directions/Learning Geography;
  • TL Weather Apps;
  • TL Vocabulary/Grammar Apps;
  • TL Reading or Accessing PDF Content: Kindle/iBooks & Adobe Reader.
Differentiating Process Apps (supporting process and collaboration)
  • Video Conferencing/Chatting: Skype, Google Hangout, FaceTime, Adobe Connect;
  • Social Media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and various messaging/texting TL apps;
  • Collaborative Creation/Annotation Tools: Google Docs/Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, GoodReader & Documents by Readdle.
Differentiating Products Apps
  • Presenting: Keynote**, Prezi, Nearpod, Glogster;
  • Create Written Content: Evernote, Pages**, Google Docs/Drive, notepad apps;
  • Create eBook: iBook author, Scrivener, Evernote;**
  • Storypatch**, Book Creator;
  • Create Blogs: Posterous, Tumblr, TypePad, WordPress;
  • Create Audio: Pocket WavePad, Audio Memos, Voice Memos;
  • Create Drawings & Images: SuperNote;
  • Create Drawings/Charts/Tables;
  • Create Videos: Smart Voice Recorder & Power Recorder**.

** indicate ‘paid apps.’ It is recommended that teachers check the availability of free apps and compatibility with mobile operating systems among students’ devices.

***This list is representative of common apps for differentiating content, process and product. Many other apps are available.



How we assist learners to achieve particular learning objectives will depend on a variety of factors such as content, class size, lesson length, and learner variables. The following is an example of how to effectively use mobile apps to adapt a communicative activity by differentiating content, process and product.

Table 2: Sample Activities: Health – Eating Nuts

Differentiating Components Group A Group B Group C
Content Read this article. You’d like to share this story with your friend. Using Twitter, briefly explain to your friend why this is interesting and send them the link Watch the interview embedded in this article. You’d like to make health recommendations to your classmates. Based on the interview, list and compare how different types of nuts improve health using the chart via the ‘Pages’ ‘Google Documents’ or ‘Notes’ app available on your device. Listen to this news story. You’d like to share a summary of this story with your grandparents to improve their health. Skype with your “grandparents” and paraphrase the story using examples. Your classmate will play the role of your grandparents. Take turns.
Process Interview: Create interview questions for your classmates related to the news article. Ask your classmates to record their responses using the Pocket WavePad app or another voice recording app. Blog: Respond to the news report using the app for the class blog. Comment on classmates’ postings. Report: Make a short news report about the benefits of eating nuts using a video recording app on your device.
 Products Create an E-Poster:Based on the interview results, create a poster in the Glogster app to promote a healthy diet.  Be sure to add an audio/video file using WavePad or a video recording app. Create a Video Clip: As a chef, introduce healthy recipes that include nuts. In groups, create a short video clip recording your cooking instructions. Share the video with your classmates in Google Drive. Role-Play: Have a conversation with your friend and offer your personal advice for a healthy diet and lifestyle.Record your role-play using the Wave Pad app.



The choice to allocate learners to particular groups can be based on your goals for each learner: reinforce weak skills or leverage strong ones. For example, learners who have weak listening skills can be asked to watch a video interview related to a news topic as the video provides visual support (images or gestures) for the audio. Learners who have strong listening skills can be assigned to the group that just listens to the radio story about the same topic. Without visual support, they will be forced to rely fully on their listening comprehension skills. Learners who need more visual support can be assigned to the group asked to read the article. Conversely, learners can be assigned to groups that allow them to leverage their strengths, placing them in their comfort zone first and then challenging them later. To process content differently, students in groups can be assigned different mobile apps. For example, voice or video recording apps are used for short exchanges, summarizing or giving instructions, while blogging apps are used for critiquing others’ opinions. Thus, different mobile apps help students capitalize on their strengths in different skill areas such as writing or speaking, thus allowing learners to work across different cognitive levels. Another way students can process content at various levels is to ask one group to summarize or restate the news story, while a second group interprets the information and makes recommendations. The final outcome for each group is distinct, utilizes different tools to share the information they received from the news sources, and replicates how such information would likely be shared in real-life (e.g. Twitter, Skype, Google Drive, etc). Again, the choice of which students to assign to which task is based on the skills you want your students to build upon, or the amount of scaffolding you wish to provide.


We suggest some guidelines to implement differentiated activities using mobile apps both in and outside the classroom. Although they won’t apply to every context and lesson, they are general considerations to bear in mind.

  1. Catalog your apps into the following three categories (for further examples, see Table 1 Mobile Apps for Differentiated Activities): Content Apps: offer content through various modes. Identify target language apps that offer authentic materials suitable for various levels of students. Use them regularly to expose students to various types of input such as target language texts, images, audio, and video content. Target language news apps, video apps, or podcasts are good sources of authentic materials and culture. Process Apps: facilitate interaction and collaboration. Identify the different levels of cognitive skills that need to be addressed in learning activities, from low order thinking skills (i.e. remembering) to high order thinking skills (i.e. creating) and define the purpose of the activities. Then, select appropriate apps to differentiate the learning process. Product Apps: diversify the demonstration of learning outcomes. Identify the apps/tools that allow learners to create content in various forms such as photo apps, writing apps, or audio/video recording apps, etc.
  2. Norms for the use of mobile devices should be set at the beginning of the program with all learners and the teacher(s). Both parties must agree to what is allowed and what is prohibited. Through co-constructing such norms, learners’ preferences and learner autonomy are supported.
  3. Explain the rationale for using mobile apps to learners; learners will be more invested in using them if they understand how they support language learning.
  4. Monitor learners’ activities during the entirety of the class. Providing clear instruction at the beginning of an activity is critical to guide learners in effectively using their mobile devices and apps.
  5. In all stages of the lesson, try to replicate real life situations. For example, when do native speakers use Skype or FaceTime? How do they use different communication apps? For what purposes? This process will help teachers select the appropriate tool to facilitate interaction and collaboration. This will also create authentic activities from the learners’ perspectives.
  6. Maintain consistency and regularly recycle familiar apps; constantly introducing new apps may turn the focus away from language learning and will unnecessarily waste time.
  7. Vary grouping strategies regularly by utilizing individual, pair and group work.  You may also group students according to interests, language level, and skill strengths.


Using mobile apps for differentiated activities not only supports learning but also meets the needs and interests of learners in the digital-age, increasing their engagement with and motivation for learning foreign languages. With the help of mobile apps, learners can take control of their learning process and learning outcomes while collaborating with their peers. In addition, differentiated activities using mobile apps empowers learners to personalize and process their learning content and demonstrate their learning progress. When the selection and use of mobiles apps are pedagogically sound, both learners and teachers can engage in a highly interactive and collaborative learning environment.


Blaz, Deborah, Differentiated Instruction: A guide for foreign language teachers (Larchmont, NY: Eye On Education, 2006).

Carol Ann Tomlinson, The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 1999).

2 thoughts on “Differentiated Activities for the Language Classroom Using Mobile Apps

  • It is an good article providing good knowledge to all language scholars.

  • Great article! Much better and more understandable than everything I found in german literature/blogs, etc., so far. Thank you very much!


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