March 2019
Valerie Sartor, University of Akron, Akron, Ohio, USA

User-friendly, portable digital technology has changed the way we teach and learn (Churchill & Wang, 2014). The internet age has allowed information to become easy to locate and access. “Twenty-first-century technologies are also about the portability of mobile digital devices which now have the potential to allow any-time access” (Male & Burden, 2014, p. 424). Unsurprisingly, iPads and Chromebooks are becoming increasingly popular in many U.S. K–12 schools. These devices offer educational applications (apps), built-in accessibility features with user-friendliness for a diverse populations, and strong levels of support (Draper Rodríguez, Strnadová, & Cumming, 2014). Significantly, iPads and other tablets make it easy for English language learners (ELLs) to generate work and demonstrate comprehension. Such digital tools support diverse learning styles by providing creative ways to demonstrate understanding and proficiency.

Explain Everything and iPads

Because culturally and linguistically diverse student populations continue to increase in the United States, TESOL educators must identify instructional approaches that support our students. We need to educate teachers to use digital devices and software effectively. This means using technology that matches the tasks we designate to our ELLs. Moreover, technological choices would not only address learning in regard to cultural and linguistic differences, but also help ELLs to succeed academically, socially, and, eventually, economically. Our ELLs gain mastery using cutting-edge tech tools, and they also become adept at cooperating and collaborating with others in a face-to-face and distance environment using technology. Both are imperative for their future success in today’s workforce (Leu, Kinser, Coiro, Castek, & Henry, 2017).

Little is written concerning the effective and specific use of technology for ELLs because instructional software specifically designed for ELLs is lacking. But software such as Explain Everything, loaded on devices such as Chromebooks and iPads, work well for both mainstream students and ELLs alike. Explain Everything generates learning experiences that genuinely reflect the reality and skills needed for the 21st-century (Leer & Ivanov, 2013), allowing ELLs to engage in stimulating and technologically infused learning.

What Is Explain Everything?

Explain Everything is an interactive whiteboard application, relatively new and little known to many TESOL educators. This intuitive and user-friendly tool can produce high-quality video tutorials. According to a description from the iTunes Apple Store, Explain Everything is an “easy-to-use design, screencasting, and interactive whiteboard tool with real-time collaboration that lets users animate, record, annotate, collaborate, and explore ideas, knowledge and understanding.” Recordings can be easily converted to a MP4 file or published to YouTube or the cloud, all which are compatible with most learning management systems for K–12 and university settings.


The use of technology has positive benefits for students from culturally and linguistically different backgrounds (Crescenzi, Jewitt, & Price, 2014). According to Waxman and Padron (1996), effective instructional technology programs for ELLs must include

  1. flexibility to be used with students with varying levels of English proficiency;

  2. introducing and reinforcing vocabulary with a contextual framework;

  3. opportunities for students to speak, listen, read, and write; and

  4. opportunities for students to communicate with each other in meaningful ways (Waxman & Padron, 1996).

Technology helps ELLs build confidence as well as understanding because it has the ability to motivate without judgment. For teachers, technology can help them tailor the learning to meet all students’ needs and rates of learning. This helps ELLs gain more autonomy, and it helps teachers to offer fast feedback. All in all, the process enhances ELLs’ sense of mastery, responsibility, and control. Technology also offers a rich linguistic environment—it is easy to install translators, and the intuitive interface gives students the agency to make predictions as visuals and sounds are combined. With increasing technology, the role of teacher as authority figure decreases, while the power and learning styles of students are enhanced. Before this can happen, however, students must gain access to technology, and teachers must be educated to use it appropriately in the classroom (Norris, Sullivan, Poirot, & Soloway, 2003).

How I Used Explain Everything

Crescenzi, Jewitt, and Price (2014) describe how iPads promote successful learning among young, diverse students. Likewise, Maich, Hall, van Rhijn, and Henning (2017) studied how K–12 content teachers used iPads in their classrooms and found that many teachers spent as much as 30% of their day instructing via iPads. Their students felt comfortable and engaged using the tablets; however, the varying skill levels among students were perceived as a barrier.

Since May 2018, with the help of a federal grant that supports training K–12 educators to gain a TESOL endorsement from the state of Ohio, I have been also training these teachers to use Explain Everything as an educational tool to support ELL learning in their K–12 classrooms. Teachers have tried the following activities: 

  1. Create instructional videos for their ELLs.

  2. Scaffold the creation of ELL-made videos that demonstrate knowledge of content and language objectives.

  3. As a class, ELLs with their teachers create welcome videos for new students arriving from other countries.

These teachers have also demonstrated how they teach specific skills using a best practices protocol, called SIOP, here.


Explain Everything has great advantages: It is portable, intuitive, and cost effective—but like other technology, it can be difficult for teachers to adopt. Two factors intrude. My teachers reported that their school districts changed tech protocols regularly. Consequently, due to shifting politics and perspectives regarding technology, teachers lacked enthusiasm for learning yet another device that is touted as an innovative tool. Second, Explain Everything, despite being intuitive, requires a significant time investment to master all its features. My cohort teachers needed extended time and practice to learn to use the software. They recognized the value but lacked time to intensively learn and practice.

Finally, we must consider the digital divide. Many ELLs have no iPads, or even internet access at home, so their chances of practicing Explain Everything after a class session are often nil. For those interested in adopting this software and other iPad technology, I suggest that teachers apply for grants. Also, teachers who have mastered the device could also offer demonstrations at in-service trainings to persuade their colleagues.

Future Research

Research indicates that teaching and learning for ELLs might improve as a result of using technology in the classroom. More descriptive, correlational, and especially experimental research is needed to validate this premise. Additionally, longitudinal studies are needed to research how ELLs’ cognitive and affective outcomes change over time as a result of using technology (Padron & Waxman, 1996). Specifically regarding iPads and Explain Everything, other issues to consider include finding effective ways to train TESOL educators to gain necessary tech skills and abilities, and understanding and overcoming factors hindering TESOL teachers from using technology.


Churchill, D., & Wang, T. (2014). Teacher’s use of iPads in higher education. Educational Media International, 51(3), 214–225.

Crescenzi, L., Jewitt, C., & Price, S. (2014). The role of touch in preschool children’s learning using iPad versus paper interaction. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 37(2), 86–95.

Draper Rodríguez, C., Strnadová, I., & Cumming, T. (2014). Using iPads with students with disabilities: Lessons learned from students, teachers, and parents. Intervention in School and Clinic, 49(4), 244–250. doi:10.1177/1053451213509488

Leer, R., & Ivanov, S. (2013). Rethinking the future of learning: The possibilities and limitations of technology in education in the 21st century. International Journal of Organizational Innovation (Online), 5(4), 14.

Leu, D. J., Kinzer, C. K., Coiro, J., Castek, J., & Henry, L. A. (2017). New literacies: A dual-level theory of the changing nature of literacy, instruction, and assessment. Journal of Education, 197(2), 1–18.

Maich, K., Hall, C. L., van Rhijn, T. M., & Henning, M. (2017). Teaching and learning in two iPad-infused classrooms: A descriptive case study of a dual classroom, school-based pilot project. Exceptionality Education International, 27(2).

Male, T., & Burden, K. (2014). Access denied? Twenty-first-century technology in schools. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 23(4), 423–437. doi:10.1080/1475939X.2013.864697

Norris, C., Sullivan, T., Poirot, J., & Soloway, E. (2003). No access, no use, no impact: Snapshot surveys of educational technology in K–12. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 36(1), 15–27. doi:10.1080/15391523.2003.10782400

Padron, Y. N., & Waxman, H. C. (1996). Improving the teaching and learning of English language learners through instructional technology. International Journal of Instructional Media, 23(4), 341–354.

Dr. Valerie Sartor is in charge of the TESOL Endorsement at the University of Akron; in addition to TESOL courses, she also teaches instructional technology and literacy classes. In 2014–2015 she served as the Global TESOL Fulbright Fellow in Russia.