Home » The App Teacher » 2016 » Effective Use of Tablets (iPads) for Multimodal Literacy Learning: What We Learn from Reading Clinics/Literacy Labs

Effective Use of Tablets (iPads) for Multimodal Literacy Learning: What We Learn from Reading Clinics/Literacy Labs

Laster, B., Tysseling, L., Stinnett, M., Wilson, J., Cherner, T., Curwen, M., Ryan, T., and Huggins, S.


In this study, teachers used tablets (iPads) for literacy instruction. The survey data were collected at five university-based reading clinics that were geographically dispersed. Results showed the gains made by teachers in using apps for a range of literacy instructional purposes, including advancing clients’ comprehension and writing. In self-reports at the end of the semester, teachers gave voice to their increased confidence and diminished concerns—as compared to what they expressed at the beginning of the semester. Observations of the teachers confirmed their increased knowledge and skill in using tablet technology in a range of ways to support the literacy development of K-12 learners. Post-test responses were significantly more positive than pre-test responses.


“Engagement! Great way for him [my student] to feel like it’s a break, but really it’s an extension of what we’re learning; Tailored to his level & needs; Games that I used, gave “report cards” to track his advancement, which I could watch and use to plan my next lesson.”  

—Reading Clinic Teacher describing the use of an iPad with her student

How do teachers/tutors use tablets, for example iPads, for literacy assessment and instruction? In multiple university-based reading clinics across the nation, we examined this question. In this pre- and post survey, we explicitly explored which apps were used by teachers and how they were used. We sought to understand whether iPads were used for drill-and-practice  or for more powerful learning activities. One reason for our focus on tablet technologies is that school districts have greatly increased their purchases of this technology (Molnar, 2013); thus, many teachers are using tablets to develop their students’ reading and writing abilities. No longer are students just visiting websites and engaging computerized reading programs to develop their literacy skills.  Instead, with over 20,000 educational apps available to teachers on the App Store (Lytle, 2012; Rao, 2012), teachers use apps and tablets to develop their students’ literacy skills (Hutchison et al., 2012; Meurant, 2010). However, to use these apps effectively and powerfully for literacy instruction, literacy teachers, teacher educators, and educational policy makers need to consider how best to use this technology to enhance instruction.

Beyond the focus on instruction, itself, a second purpose of our work is whether we can change the focus “from questions of technological access to those of opportunities to participate and to develop the cultural competencies and social skills needed for full involvement” in a participatory culture (Jenkins, 2006, p. 4).  While more students have access to computers and the Internet than ever before, our primary concern revolves around unequal access to the kinds of cultural/social capital that are increasingly needed. The second digital divide, in contrast to the first digital divide which speaks to the lack of technology in rural and disadvantaged areas,  refers to whether a person uses technology in active or transformative ways (Lohnes Watulak, Laster, Liu, & LERN, 2011). ). Reading Clinics, (or Literacy Labs, as they are often called), and schools of all types have an opportunity to play a central role in ameliorating this second digital divide.

Theoretical Background

According to earlier research, there is a wide spectrum of use of technology by teachers of reading and writing (Deeney, et al., 2011). Some use technology regularly with careful selection to match their learners’ needs and curricular goals with an aim to support students in mastering the complexities of the literacy process. Other teachers do not always have the skills to integrate technology into their teaching (Fullan, 2001) or to integrate it in ways that powerfully impact student literacy learning (Dubert & Laster, 2011).  Colwell and Hutchison (2015) reiterate the concern that iPads and other technology have both affordances and challenges as they are integrated into literacy curriculum.

New Literacies and New Ethos

We highlight definitions in an evolving field. Lankshear & Knoble (2006) put forward the idea of foundational changes in definitions of literacy rooted in digital text. Technologies such as Twitter, tablet computers, wikis, Google+, Google HangOut, Mumble, Instagram, and Pinterest (to name just a few) are fundamentally changing literacy processes and practices. Some call these 21st Century Literacies (NCTE, 2008), others call them New Literacies (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, & Cammack, 2004). Lankshear and Knoble (2006) have specifically identified the idea of a “new ethos” in the way communication takes place, which is founded in digital literacies.

A Brief History

During the personal computer (PC) age, literacy teachers used a variety of computer programs and websites to develop young students’ literacy skills (Streitz et al. 2001), such as Reader Rabbit and Starfall. Then, in middle and high schools, other computer programs and websites (e.g., Read 180; The Reading Edge) were available for students who needed literacy remediation. A common characteristic of these programs and websites was that students mostly worked independently to complete the sequential tutorials. Although these programs and websites provided teachers with a report about student progress, they effectively reduced the role of the teacher to that of being a monitor because the technology provided non-interactive instruction—usually of a rote nature (Papalewis, 2004; Pearson & White, 2004).

Of late, however, there has been more recognition given to the value of student-generated digital texts. Thus, supportive applications (apps) have been developed and recognized by educational entities that enhance student agency in their learning (Tysseling & Laster, 2013). There has long been a polarization best characterized as one of agency, focused on who (or what) guides the learning experience. At one extreme are software programs that completely manage all aspects of the learning experience. These programs often involve sending students to a computer or a computer lab and having them work through the program without teacher interaction, other than perhaps initial directions or trouble-shooting. On the other end are “functioned-based” apps that promote student-generated expression, such as supports for personal writing, designing anima, or creating digital storytelling. These apps promote higher-order thinking skills as students creatively develop their reading and writing abilities. An essential element in our research, therefore, has been the role that apps and technology in general, play in the canvas of curriculum, instruction, and learning.

TPACK as a Guide to Teachers’ Use of Apps

Figure 1. TPACK (Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by tpack.org)

Figure 1. TPACK (Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by tpack.org)

One theoretical frame that guided our work is Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) (Koehler & Mishra, 2009), as depicted in Figure 1, which is a flexible model that teachers across all grade-levels and subject areas can use.  This model depicts dimensions of how technological knowledge intersects with teachers’ pedagogy and content knowledge to provide learners with meaningful experiences. Relevant to our study, when using apps to develop students’ literacy abilities, teachers must be strategic as they select apps, carefully plan for students’ needs, and use them for optimal student engagement in reading and writing. As one-to-one technology initiatives (Penuel 2006) and blended learning models (Kirkley & Kirkley, 2004) rise in popularity, all educators must develop a deep understanding of how to use tablets, apps, and other emerging technologies to engage students in appropriate, meaningful and powerful learning activities.  A synopsis of TPACK’S dimensions are summarized in Table 1 and a more detailed description is included in Appendix A.

Table 1. Synopsis of TPACK’s Dimensions

Dimension Description
Content Knowledge (CK) CK refers to both the teachers’ deep understanding of the material they are teaching and the different devices (e.g. metaphors, examples, and non-examples) teachers use to explain the content.  
Technology Knowledge (TK) TK refers to teachers’ understanding of the actual technologies themselves.
Pedagogical Knowledge (PK) PK refers to the learning activities teachers design for students to engage the material to be taught.  
Technological Content Knowledge (TCK) TCK analyzes how the technology deepens students’ understanding of the content.
Technological Pedagogical Knowledge (TPK) TPK refers to how technology can enhance different instructional strategies.  
Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) PCK pairs the content to be taught with specific teaching methods that are content-specific.  
Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) TPACK is the alignment of content, pedagogy, and technology to produce meaningful learning experiences for students.


Research Questions

This study explored how university-based teachers in reading clinics used iPads with K-12 learners (referred to as “clients” in this report) in providing literacy instruction. Ten researchers examined the data collected at five different sites across the United States.

Table 2. University-based reading clinics iPad study sites and subjects

Site Number of      Teachers Semester of data collection Sessions
Boise State  10 Spring 2013 10 weeks, 2x/week
Coastal Carolina   9 Spring 2013 14 weeks, 1x/week
Towson University  21 Summer 2013 14 days/daily
U. of Nebraska  19 Summer 2013 14 days/daily


Western Illinois U.  17 Spring 2013 12 weeks, 1x/week

For a more detailed discussion of TPACK and its dimensions, please view Appendix A.

We framed our work by addressing the following four research questions:

  1. How confident are teachers in using iPads?
  2. What do teachers report as the high points of using iPads?
  3. What do teachers report as the low points of using iPads?
  4. How were iPads used?

How Apps were Introduced

Apps were a critical piece of this iPad study. The consideration for choosing a specific app depended heavily on the individual client and that client’s needs, which speaks to the central purpose of the reading clinic (Laster, 2013). The level of technological expertise among the professors also varied across the sites, with some professors being quite proficient and comfortable using apps while others were novices. Across all of the sites, 51 recommended apps and other uses of the iPads were formally presented. Although some professors were using the iPads for the first time themselves, professors carefully thought through apps to model, as well as created clusters of apps that were useful for particular literacy instructional needs.  At all the clinics, there was critical examination of apps via rubrics, charts, online review sites, and/or through discussion. Some supports that were helpful in guiding our thinking about apps included the resources listed in Table 3.

Table 3. Resources used to support apps

App Websites App Rubrics
Appitic – www.appitic.com Walker’s Evaluation Rubric for iPad Apps
App Ed Review – www.appedreview.com Tony Vincent’s App Evaluation Rubric

As we designed the study, we discussed in advance which apps would be useful to our teachers and their clinic students. As a group, we selected apps for their educational value (e.g., writing, phonics, spelling, etc.). as well as those apps that could be acquired free of charge. We created our initial list of apps (below):

  1. Popplet: We recognized this iOS app as having potential for organizing writing and capturing key ideas in a text.
  2. StoryBird: Although this was not an iOS app, it is a web-based application, which is accessible on tablet devices, and it provides a useful scaffold for reluctant writers.
  3. Inspiration lite: With this iOS app, students are able to create an array of graphic organizers, which can be applied to any disciplinary text.
  4. Educreations: This very popular iOS app provides students with a canvas that allows them to import pictures, compose text, and create drawings, which can be narrated, saved, and shared to produced a recorded lesson.
  5. Pic Collage: Using this iOS app, students are able to import images from the internet or their camera roll to create a collage, which students can use to illustrate their comprehension of a text.

With these three apps and one web-based application s as a starting point, teachers quickly began to conceptualize how they could use apps as part of their instructional practices. The apps that were utilized changed and increased over time as each site developed its own protocol for use of apps. As a result, the total number of apps used by the participants in this study swelled to 259.  With the increasing number of apps, multiple sites utilized the expertise of the participating teachers to demonstrate apps. Apps were also shared during the seminar period of the clinic, which was designated time for only teachers and professors to meet without the presence of the young students.

At both of the Nebraska sites, apps had been used in their clinic for four semesters, so many of the teachers and faculty had much experience with various apps. Presenting apps was a required piece of an assignment and, as such, individual teachers took turns presenting to the larger class.  At Towson University, advanced clinic teachers at the beginning of the course similarly presented key apps to the novice clinic teachers; as the semester progressed, though, teachers spontaneously communicated about new apps daily. For teachers at Boise State, there were apps pre-loaded on the iPads from the university. The professor consulted with Common Sense Media, http://a4cwsn.com/, http://www.mrandrewsonline.blogspot.co.uk/, http://www.appsforlearningliteracies.com/ for information on appropriate apps.

At one site, a representative from Apple came to the clinic seminar and demonstrated certain apps for teachers. The chosen apps were limited to what was on the iPad cart provided by the College of Education. If there was a cost to the app, then it was not demonstrated nor recommended to the class. However, some teachers did purchase apps for their own iPads, which they used at clinic during tutoring.

Several professors talked about some of the challenges related to working with iPads and apps. There was a time challenge in procuring and organizing the iPads, accountability, ongoing maintenance, and decisions about who was responsible for downloading apps. Other challenges included having people feel comfortable enough to want to use the technology.  Our research questions addressed some of these challenges, as you will see below.

Data Collection

Data collection protocols were the same at each site. The sites included Boise State University (Idaho), Coastal Carolina University (South Carolina), Towson University (Maryland), University of Nebraska (2 different clinics), and Western Illinois University. At each site, the pre-& post surveys were administered to the teachers. We also asked the professors at each site to make observations and collect artifacts. Some of the artifacts collected were teacher lesson plans, client reports written by the teachers at the end of clinic; written or digital samples of students’ work; and teacher reflection logs. In table 2, we offer more specific details about number of participants and duration of data collection at each site.

Data Analysis

A survey research design was employed; that approach necessitated both qualitative and quantitative data analysis. First, we relied on statistics to analyze the data for Question #1 and Question #4, as was appropriate. Quantitative analysis of the Pre- & Post Surveys for Research Question #1 included the following steps:  1. Answers were given numerical values; 2. Means were calculated; 3. A t-Test was used to analyze the growth of teacher knowledge; 4.    .  For Question #4, researchers made tallies of which specific apps were used.

Second, we used qualitative data analysis techniques. We coded and analyzed all observations, artifacts, and reports of apps used. Using a constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1990), we had several phases of data analysis, as follows:

Phase 1: Site researchers independently coded the data from their own site for Questions #1, #2, #3, and #4. A central, private website was created to share data among researchers.

Phase 2: In conference call meetings, researchers discussed the process and fine-tuned any analytic approaches. Specific discussion focused on discrepancies concerning Question #1 (two sites had more detailed responses than the other sites). Categories for coding responses to Question #2, Question #3, and Question #4 were established.  For example, for Question #2 sample categories included “operations/mechanics/physical features” and “motivation” as high points of iPad use.

Phase 3: Updated data were shared across researchers using the private website. Data were re-coded by non-site researchers in categories of use.  Emerging themes were also noted.

Phase 4: All data were cross-checked by going back to the site directors.  Further discussions about the data and corroborating artifacts, such as client reports and observations, revealed results about the differences and commonalities among the sites.

Phase 5: Several researchers focused on macro-levels of categories of technology use, novice-established use, and other emerging themes.


Our results include detailed descriptions of how iPads were integrated at each of the reading clinics. In the first section, we describe important aspects of the contexts of iPad learning. Secondly, we address each of the research questions: 1. How confident are teachers in using iPads?  2. What do teachers report as the high points of using iPads?  3. What do teachers report as the low points of using iPads?  4. How were iPads used?  In reporting our results, the quantitative and qualitative pathways are utilized to fully address our four research questions. It should be noted that the site at the University of Nebraska had 19 participants in their second clinic, which were not included in some of the calculations because they did not receive the pre-survey.  Thus, some of the results report n=57 in which Nebraska’s second clinic was not included; other results included both clinics at Nebraska, so n=76.

Contexts of iPad Learning

The environment in which teacher professional learning occurs is significant. Commonalities among sites are discussed in this section, as well as descriptions of each university.  Although all of the findings derive from reading clinics/literacy labs in the United States, there were variations. Six different clinics (at five different universities) and several professors resulted in slightly different logistical aspects. Specifically, there were variations in when the programs took place, how long (days/weeks) each program was, and technological supports. In this section, we provide specifics about the contexts relative to hardware and connectivity.

The level of technology available and effective connectivity for each site made a difference in the flow of instruction. Across all sites, most universities provided iPads for the use of teachers/students in the clinics. At some sites, the teachers brought their own iPads to use for tutoring. On a weekly basis at Western Illinois University, the professor checked out iPads on a cart for teachers to use; while at other sites, teachers brought their own iPads to use with their clients. At Coastal Carolina, the university had funded 10 iPads specifically for their clinical experience. The University of Nebraska also had iPads available for the clinic, as did Towson University (which was funded by a grant from that institution). Additionally, many of the teachers had iPads to use because their local school district provided them.  At Boise State, there was a wired and wireless environment for the clinic. The clinic used three rooms and one of the rooms included five desktop computers with T-2 connectivity.

When using laptops and iPads for instruction, connectivity was also an issue at several sites. For Towson’s summer clinic, limited internet connectivity caused difficulty because it was based in an urban school that was under-resourced (when the reading clinic was held on campus, this was not an issue). Western Illinois University also had frequent issues with the connectivity due to structural issues in the building.

Question #1: Confidence in Using iPads

For research question #1, How confident are you about using the iPad in personal use, professional use, and the clinical practicum?, the first analytic step was to align the participants’ pre- and post-survey responses from the five reading clinic sites using a numerical Likert scale. The responses ranged from a low of one signifying “It scares me” to a high of four with respondents indicating “I love it.” Pre- and post means were compared using a t-test. Post-test responses were significantly more positive than pre-test responses [t(56) = 3.875, p<0.001]. That means that teachers gained confidence in using iPads over the course of the semester in reading clinic.

The majority of the sites collapsed this question into one broader question “How confident are you in using an iPad?  However, two sites, Towson and Western Illinois, queried teachers for dispositions towards iPad used in three domains: personal, professional, and practicum. See Figure 2 for a graph summarizing the responses to this question.

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 5.57.45 PM

Question #2: High Points in Using iPads

Data analysis for participants’ open-ended qualitative responses to question #2: What have been the high point/advantages of using the iPad? was completed through an inductive process. Six codes were generated: operations/mechanics/physical features, personal uses, professional uses, pedagogical uses, motivation, and not applicable (see Table 4 for coding examples).

Table 4. Coding examples for Research Question #2. What have been high points of using the iPad?

Code Example  (post responses)
Operation, Mechanics, Physical Features -Positive “Portable. Easy to download apps.” (Western Ill.)
Operation, Mechanics, Physical Features -Negative “I have an iPad but not many apps.” (Boise)
Pedagogical uses or applications “Used it to practice skills I am teaching my client” (Towson)
Personal uses or applications “At home I use it for pictures, reading, online use.” (Coastal)
User motivation “Client was motivated to continued working when he could use the Doodle Pad app.” (Towson)
Professional Uses (Non pedagogical) “At school it helps with testing and organization” (Coastal)
Not Applicable “I never used the iPad.”

Using a constant comparison analysis, the 57 participants’ responses were coded at the site level and then combined across the five sites (see Figure 3). A key finding was that there was a dramatic increase from pre to post in the recognition of the pedagogical potential of the iPad and the potential for motivating and engaging students through the use of this technology.

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 6.01.52 PM

Question #3: Low Points in Using iPads

Participants’ open-ended qualitative responses were also coded using a constant comparison, inductive process at the site level and then across the five sites for question #3: What were the low point/disadvantages of using the iPad? Four broad codes were identified: instruction, time, device, and concerns; see Table 5 for examples of teacher voices that illustrate each of these categories.   Figure #4 gives a visual representation of teachers’ perspectives on iPad use. For the most part, by the end of clinic, teachers had only two major concerns s about the iPads: lack of connectivity and difficulty typing on the devices.

Table 5. Coding examples for Research Question #3. What have been low points of using the iPad?

Code Example  (post responses)



“Technology is great as long as it is working well. We come to rely on it and when it doesn’t work we have to be flexible especially when using iPads for a lesson.” (Coastal Carolina).




“Which apps are the best? We don’t always have time to research those apps and have to just jump the gun and purchase something that may not be beneficial.” (Western Illinois)




“The lack of Internet connection & lack of apps sometimes made it hard to incorporate in my lessons”. (Towson)




“For the price of an iPad, I could purchase a very nice laptop that can do loads more than an iPad.” (Boise State)

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 6.03.30 PM

Question #4: Uses of the iPads

This Question asked, “What apps/programs/websites have you used on the iPad? On the pre-teaching survey, 76 teachers reported prior use of 126 distinct applications, websites, or programs on the iPad. Altogether, there were 194 apps/websites/programs mentioned: 30 of the apps were mentioned by more than one teacher.  The overall mean of prior use of apps per teacher was 2.55; means by location were University of Nebraska (1.3), Boise State (1.4), Towson (1.76), Western Illinois (3.82), and Coastal Carolina (5.59).  However, the most common response was “no experience with the iPad” from 24 teachers. The next most common responses (with the number of respondents in parentheses) were the following: “games” (10), Educreations (8), Facebook (8), Safari (8), dictionaries (6), email (6), iTunes (5), Edmodo (5), Pinterest (4), Popplet (4), and Who Am I? (4). Of those responses, Educreations, Popplet, Who Am I? and a dictionary would most likely be used with clients. Twelve of the 30 apps mentioned by more than one teacher were non-educational (e.g. Facebook, weather, YouTube) or possibly used for professional support (iTunes, email, Dropbox). In summary, one-third of the teachers had no experience with iPads and the mean prior use of apps was low, except at Coastal Carolina. Although a large number of apps/websites/programs were mentioned, 96 of them were mentioned by only one teacher, and about half of those were non-educational. In general, the teachers did not have an established practice of using iPads in their teaching prior to this study’s clinical experience.

On the post-teaching survey, 76 teachers reported use of 233 distinct apps/websites/programs on the iPad. Of the apps, 61 were mentioned by more than one teacher, and there were 447 total mentions of apps used. The overall mean of apps used per teacher was 5.88; means by location were Boise State (2.4), Western Illinois (5.18), Towson (5.24), UNL (6.47), and Coastal Carolina (11.33). The apps most commonly mentioned (with the number of teachers reporting in parenthesis) were the following: Opposites (23), AudioNote (21), Dictionary (20), iCard Sort (17), Kid Doodle (16), Popplet (15), Who Am I? (11), Chicktionary (10), Educreations (10), Quizlet (8), Camera (7), Edmodo (7), Safari (7), Clock/timer (7), Trading Cards (6), and Word Zombies (6). Teacher narrative descriptions of use, as reported in lesson plans, client case studies, and reflection logs, confirmed that all of these apps and tools were used with clinic students.

Faculty at the clinics also provided descriptions of how the apps were used by the teachers during clinic. They noted six instructional contexts: writing, spelling, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and four aspects of reading. A seventh category included apps that were teacher-support tools. The writing apps included writing pads (Kid Doodle, Bamboo Paper, Paint Sparkles, Life Cards) and multi-page books for images and text (Educreations and StoryBird).  Apps used in support of writing included Notes, Google Images, Dragon Dictation, and Trading Cards. Spelling apps were used for word sorting (iCard Sort) and game-based practice (Chicktionary, Word Zombies, Little Speller, Sparklefish, and Spelling City). The phonics apps were all game-based practice: ABC Magic, Tic Tac Toe, Word Wunderland, Phonics Awareness, Wheels on the Bus. Teachers used audio recorders for fluency instruction, asking clients to practice reading a passage and then record it in AudioNote, Dragon Dictation, or QuickVoice. The clock or timer tools were used for timed readings for fluency.

Most of the apps used for vocabulary involved engaging with words: Opposites, iCard Sort, Mad Libs, Word to Word, Word Dynamo. There were two reference tools (Dictionary, Visual Thesaurus) and a vocabulary notebook (Moleskin Virtual Notebook).

The reading apps fell into four categories: writing apps used for reader’s response (Popplet, Educreations, Quizlet, Trading Cards, Graphic Organizer, Idea Sketch); comprehension support tools (Safari, Google Images, Camera); inferencing practice (Who Am I?); and ebook reading material source (Storia).  Finally, teacher support tools mentioned by two or more teachers on the post-teaching survey were Edmodo, Dropbox, Power Teacher, 3 Ring, Class Dojo, and Facebook.

During their time at the clinics, the teachers gained knowledge of 107 more apps (126 apps named on the pre-survey and 233 apps named on the post-survey). Of the 61 apps/website/programs mentioned by two or more teachers on the post-survey, 33 were present on the pre-survey and 28 were not. Teachers used newly learned apps in all instructional contexts, including Kid Doodle, StoryBird, and Notes for writing; Chicktionary for spelling and Endless ABC for phonics; Idea Sketch and Storia for reading: Mad Libs, Visual Thesaurus, and Moleskin Virtual Notebook for vocabulary; and Dragon Dictation and QuickVoice for fluency.

Teachers gained experience in using apps at more than twice the pre-tutoring level: The mean of prior use of apps per teacher was 2.55 and the post-tutoring mean of apps used per teacher was 5.88. Most importantly, they shifted from use of apps for personal purpose (weather, banking) to use of apps for educational purposes. Observations by the clinical supervisors/professors confirmed that teachers used apps for multiple purposes across the six instructional contexts, and used them flexibly within the contexts. In general, it was observed that the teachers developed an established practice of using iPads in their teaching by the end of their experience at the clinics.

Table 6:  iPad uses according to Content Knowledge (CK)

Category            Purpose            Example of Apps
Writing 1.     Writing pads

2.     Multipage electronic books

3.     Support tools

1.     Kids Doodle

2.     Educreation, Story Bird

3.     Notes, Google images, Dragon Dictation, Trading Cards

Spelling 1.     Word sorting

2.     Spelling games

1.     iCard Sort

2.     Chicktionary, Word Zombie

Phonics 1.     Games/practice 1.     ABC Magic, Phonics Awareness, Phonics Tic-Tac-Toe
Fluency 1.     Audio recorders

2.     Timer

1.     AudioNote, Dragon Dictation, QuickVoice

2.     Clock/timer

Vocabulary 1.     Engaging with words


2.              Reference tools

3.     Multipage vocabulary notebook

1.     Opposites, Mad Libs, Word to Word, iCard Sort, Word Dynamo

2.     Dictionary, Visual Thesaurus

3.     Moleskin Virtual Notebook

Reading 1.     Writing pads used for comprehension activities


2.              Supportive tools for comprehension

3.     Inferencing

4.     Reading connected texts

1.     Popplet, Educreation, Trading Cards, Graphic Organizer, Idea Sketch, Quizlet

2.     Safari, Google Images, camera for videotaping story parts

3.     Who Am I?

4.     Storia

Teacher Support 1.     Used by teachers 1.     Edmodo, Drop Box, Power Teacher, 3 Ring, Class Dojo, Facebook

Table 6 outlines the variety of purposes the apps were used for along with examples for each category.

Macro Overview of Uses of iPads

Table 7 categorizes the apps with a different lens than the one described above. This categorization is similar to the pedagogical and technological aspects of the TPACK approach. A key finding was that further analysis of the apps that teachers chose to use revealed that drill-and-practice type of activities were dominant. Yet, a respectable number of apps required students to generate their own texts as they created content and thus fell into our overall category of “uses technology in active or transformative ways.”

Table 7. iPad use according to Pedagogical/Technological type (PTK)


Number of Uses

Type Example
101 Drill and Practice Spelling, Sparklefish, Opposites
72 Writing/Creating Content Pages, StoryBird, EverNote, TradingCards,

Haiku Deck

44 Teacher Utility Educreation, Timers, Edmodo, recorder,

Nearpod, Class DoJo, DropBox

25 Other Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter. Bing/Google Searches
22 Story/Book Reading Storia, Toy Story, Curious George, Farfaria,

Bible, Books, Pearson e-text

17 Multiple Suite PBS Kids, Reading A-Z
17 Draw/play DrawSoFree, KidDoodle
16 Other Reading Activity MadLibs, Who Am I?
13 Video/audio Video Star, YouTube, Camera/Video Recording
11 “Mindless” Games TicTacToe, TempleRun, SubWay Surfer
12 Reference Dictionary, Visual Thesaurus
6 Graphics/Images Camera


The findings from this research present some considerations for educators in integrating technology, specifically iPad apps in literacy instruction. First, we link this work to previous theory and research as we draw broad conclusions from the findings.  Second, we align some of the results with the TPACK framework.

Dimensions of iPad Use

Our findings show the shift from teachers’ use of apps for personal purpose to use of apps for educational purposes. Teachers reported using apps across multiple instructional contexts; these data were corroborated by observations by the professors. There was significant growth in how confident the teachers felt about using iPads for literacy instruction.  Furthermore, teachers used the apps flexibly within the clinics; this is important as the focus of the clinical experience is that the teachers, when they choose appropriate modes of instructional delivery, keep the specific needs of their students as their primary focus. In general, by the end of their clinic experience, the teachers developed a regular practice of using iPads in their teaching. All of these findings about teachers in reading clinics show a marked improvement over previous studies of technology integration by teachers in reading clinics (Tysseling & Laster, 2013).

Teachers, in general, felt confident with the technology. However, we note a need to continue to focus on intentionally organizing and planning for the best pedagogical integration of technology. Our data reveal a continuum of teacher-centered to student-centered ways that iPads were used. In some cases, students were supported with the iPad technology to be agents of their own learning; there were, for example, many uses of apps that required students to generate their own texts.  Still, the overwhelming use of the iPads was for drill-and-practice activities. While there needs to be support for teachers to gain technological skills, there is an even stronger need to align pedagogy and technology in thoughtful and critical ways. Ertmer and Ottenbreit-Leftwich (2010) note that technology in K–12 settings has not been sufficiently used to support student-centered instruction, but relegated to a content-delivery system by which students engage in traditional literacy-related activities. One challenge for teachers is to “use technology to

facilitate meaningful learning, defined as that which enables students to construct deep and connected knowledge, which can be applied to real situations” (p. 257). Furthermore, this is an echo of earlier work with teachers in reading clinics (Dubert & Laster, 2011; Tysseling & Laster, 2013). Revisiting TPACK is helpful as we focus on the need to create meaningful engagement and advance learners’ competencies (Koehler & Mishra, 2009).

Alignment with TPACK

Below is a discussion of how the findings of this study line up with key principles of TPACK (Koehler & Mishra, 2009).

Organizing and planning for integrating technology in literacy instruction. Successfully integrating technology in pedagogical practice requires an investment of time in pre-planning and organization. This includes assuring appropriate levels of hardware (e.g., iPads) and reliability of connectivity to minimize interruptions in instruction. In this study, other organizational considerations arose regarding maintenance of multiple-user iPads. One site solved this by dedicating responsibility to one individual. In addition, developing policies ahead of time for selecting and purchasing new apps by either university, school, or individual teacher is crucial.

The advance planning by professors in this study included deciding which apps to introduce to the teachers in their reading clinics/labs. While the initial four literacy apps might have seemed limiting to some experienced technological users, the introductory list served as a launching point for novice users. Identifying trustworthy websites to evaluate additional apps may have encouraged teachers to independently explore other apps. However, most of the websites (except App Ed Review), did not provide teachers with instructional ideas or thoughtful evaluations of the apps. Rather, the websites linked their descriptions of the apps back to the commercial site for purchasing apps. In this way, the websites did not advance how teachers used the apps; rather, they supported teachers in searching and locating apps.

Based on survey responses, the teachers in this study doubled their repertoire of apps used in their tutoring instruction. The preponderance of use of 10 specific apps may indicate that once the teachers identified highly effective apps, they concentrated on mastering them. Given the relatively limited time period of instructional tutoring sessions (typically one semester), it is possible that the teachers–having gained familiarity with technology–are poised to explore and use more apps at increased rates with their future students. It is interesting that there were no reported challenges of teachers feeling overwhelmed at the sheer number of availability of apps.

Developing teachers’ technological knowledge (TK). Based on the first question’s findings about teachers’ confidence, it is apparent that the participants in this study initially had a range of experience with the tablet technology, from very little to highly familiar. Over the course of the tutoring sessions, this shifted to most teachers reporting greater ease. Therefore, in a supportive environment in which their learning was guided by experts, interaction with peers, and an opportunity for purposeful use of apps, the teachers developed increased facility with using apps in their instruction. The initial step of research in gathering teachers’ input about their familiarity with iPads and technologies created a space for them to reflect on their technological knowledge and for some to acknowledge their fears and concerns in a safe environment. It also provided an opportunity for university professors to gauge the landscape of teachers’ skill levels and adapt instruction accordingly. The teachers remarkably developed an established practice of using iPads as part of literacy instruction by the end of their clinical experience.

Providing training through modeling and examples was supportive in guiding teachers in the selection and use of apps. Students at sites where the apps were modeled for them incorporated apps in their teaching practices at higher rates than sites where students were left to explore apps independently. This evaluative step was particularly important for educators to differentiate pedagogical practices that were meaningful and that best met the learner’s individual needs. This finding points to the need for more web-based resources and classroom instruction to model how apps can be used for instructional purposes.

Aligning educators’ pedagogical knowledge (PK) and technological knowledge (TK).

The teachers reported using a variety of apps designed to develop students’ reading and writing abilities. However, questions regarding why it was appropriate to use an app designed for reading or writing versus a paper-and-pencil activity that develops the same skills needs to be further explored. Puentedura (2010) describes a model for either augmenting instruction or transforming instruction through substitution, modification, augmentation, or redefinition (SAMR). Teachers can become aware, for example, that matching antonyms by using the Opposites app is only substituting a digital version of a paper matching game. Though the Opposites app to learn antonyms may be more engaging than completing a matching activity on a worksheet, the Opposites app does not, however, enhance how students abstractly connect with the concept of antonyms. On the other hand, having students create a video to explain a concept using a movie-making app such as Educreations or 30Hands transforms the learning experience from a traditional, paper-based approach into a multimedia format. In this way, the app redefines the learning artifact students create.

In summary, under the guidance of literacy professors, the teachers in this study to some degree integrated their emerging technological knowledge (TK) along with their developing language and literacy content knowledge (CK), as they engaged in new pedagogy practices (PK).


There were significant limitations of this study. As is typical of self-reporting methods, the self-reports of the teachers could be unreliable or inaccurate.  The variations in access to connectivity across the sites—and other variations—sometimes made for uneven data. Although the survey data was extensive, the observations by supervisors were less robust. Future studies may select alternate methodologies to gain a broader picture of the activities related to iPad use.


In sharing how reading clinics in a variety of university contexts across the United States were sites for preservice or in-service teachers to use iPads, we explored which apps were used and how they were used. Our pedagogical perspective is that we encourage student-directed, agentive uses of technology in clinics and classrooms; our data reveal that there has been improvement in this approach; yet, aspiring to more advancement is in order. We describe how teachers use technology in a continuum of teacher-centered to student-centered ways, with the hope that the emerging wave of technology – including the use of tablets/iPads – is one of students as agents of their own learning.

As school districts from across the United States continue purchasing tablet devices for all their students and teachers to use (Molnar, 2013), teachers and teacher educators need to understand best practices for teaching teachers how to incorporate apps meaningfully into their teaching practices. With this study, it was our intent to begin exploring this topic in the context of university reading clinics. Going forward, we hope that other researchers will build on our findings and continue developing high-quality pedagogy for appropriately supporting the integration of apps into the literacy curriculum of our 21st century schools.


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Appendix A: An Overview of TPACK

The first iteration of TPACK was PCK, and it was put forward by Shulman (1986, 1987).  PCK only consisted of the Pedagogical and Content Knowledge dimensions of TPACK because the field of instructional technology was still in its infancy when PCK was created.  Later Koehler and Mishra (2005, 2009) combined PCK with Technological Knowledge to create TPACK.  Although scholars have critiqued TPACK (Chai et al., 2012; Graham, 2011), it is a common theoretical framework used to conceptualize how instructional technology combines with teachers’ pedagogy and content knowledge to create and implement technology-enhanced lessons.  Before applying TPACK to in-service teachers’ use of apps, we will first operationally define TPACK’s different dimensions.

Content Knowledge (CK).  CK refers to both teachers’ deep understanding of the material they are teaching and the different devices (e.g., metaphors, examples, and non-examples) teachers use to explain the content.  CK is focused primarily on teachers’ knowledge of their discipline, and the depth of teachers’ CK is typically assessed on licensure tests.

Pedagogical Knowledge (PK).  PK refers to the learning activities teachers design for students to engage the material to be taught.  When considering PK, it is important to understand that both general and content-specific PK exists.  General PK includes teaching methods that cut across the curriculum, such as think-pair-share activities and using a K-W-L to activate student schema during a lesson.  Conversely, content-specific PK includes teaching methods that are designed to be used in individual disciplines, such as using Readers’ Theatre in an English Language Arts class and conducting scientific experiments in a chemistry class.

Technological Knowledge (TK).  TK refers to teachers’ understanding of the actual technologies themselves.  The technologies include existing technologies (e.g. writing utensils and whiteboards) and emerging technologies (e.g. tablets and apps).  Additionally, when considering TK, it is important to understand that both general and content-specific TK also exist.  General TK includes technologies that cut across the curriculum, such as SmartBoards and computers.  Whereas, content-specific TK includes technologies that are specific to individual disciplines, such as using graphing calculators in math class and using hot plates in biology class.

Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK).  PCK pairs the content to be taught with specific teaching methods that are subject-specific.  For example, American history teachers who are teaching about the Constitution may create a think-pair-share activity where their students first explore primary source documents related to the Constitution before sharing with a partner and then the class.  In this example, teachers combine their PK (e.g., the think-pair-share activity) with their CK (e.g. the primary source documents) to arrive at PCK.

Technological Content Knowledge (TCK).  TCK is similar to TK with the major difference being that TCK analyzes how the technology deepens students’ understanding of the content; whereas, TK is just the use of technology.  For instance, if students only input equations into a graphing calculator, they stay at the level of TK.  However, when students analyze why the equation they inputted into the calculator results in the calculator displaying a parabola or ray, teachers engaged TCK to enhance that learning experience.  In this way, teachers must have a deep understanding of the content they are teaching and how technology enhances their content to meaningfully engage TCK.

Technological Pedagogical Knowledge (TPK). TPK refers to how technology can enhance different instructional strategies.  For example, English teachers may want to do a writer’s workshop in which their students first compose a piece of writing and then their classmates offer them constructive criticism.  To enhance the writer workshop with technology, teachers can require their students to post their piece of writing to a digital learning community website (e.g. Edmodo).  Next, teachers can require their students read at least five of their classmates’ pieces and respond to them by offering constructive criticism.  The pedagogical element in this example is the writer’s workshop, and technology enhances it by allowing students to read and respond to their classmates’ writing in an online learning community.

Technological, Pedagogical, and Content Knowledge (TPACK).  TPACK is the culmination and extension of the three knowledge bases previously discussed.  TPACK is the use of technology to: (1) depict the content knowledge to be taught in a meaningful manner, (2) enhance the pedagogy used to engage students in the content, (3) overcome different challenges when presenting content to students, (4) activate student schema for specific learning tasks, and (5) advance student knowledge-bases.  For example, when students complete a WebQuest (Dodge, 2001) about a specific topic, TPACK is used because students are introduced to the topic, taught specific knowledge about the topic, explore the topic digitally, and create a product or complete a task to evidence their learning.