March 2019
Eric Bodin, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA

i+1, sustained silent reading, read-alouds, academic language. Stephen Krashen has introduced many of these phrases to us, and he again has made his case for developing high levels of literacy in a short article in the California School Library Association’s CSLA Journal (2018). One of his recommendations is that there should be “well-funded and well-supplied libraries everywhere” (p. 18). It seems that Jeff Bezos and the engineers at Amazon have been thinking the same thing! Though perhaps they mean the libraries to be “self-funded and Amazon supplied” through the form of the Kindle e-reader. So how do Kindle e-readers work in the ESL context?

I used a Kindle e-book in my college level ESL Reading class for the extended reading portion of the coursework. We used the novel The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick. I also required the students to buy the audio book in order to experience the “immersive reading” feature. I did not require the students to buy a Kindle device because the free Kindle App was available for them to read and listen to the book, and I wanted to keep the costs down. I had two Kindles that I brought to class to let the students try, and several students bought Kindles during the class. In addition, some students had Kindles before we began the class, so about half the class had Kindle devices and half did not (no one bought a hard copy of the book). Following is a list of some of the features on a Kindle, and my evaluation of their pros and cons for ESL students.

Kindle Feature Evaluation for Use in ESL Reading

Word Wise: Shows simplified vocabulary above difficult words.
Pro: Helps students learn difficult words easily by building English to English semantic relationships.
Con: Gives hints in different languages - this may not be good for more advanced learners.

Vocabulary Builder: Remembers dictionary lookups.
Pro: Allows easy review of new vocabulary in different formats including flashcards with dictionary information and the original context.
Con: Teachers do not have easy access to student vocabulary investigations.

Dictionary: Provides dictionary entry for a word with an extended press.
Pro: Specific dictionaries (including learner dictionaries) can be associated with this feature. Provides dictionary information very quickly and easily.
Con: Multilingual dictionary options available – this may not be good depending on teacher goals.

Notes: Tags reader notes to a word or phrase.
Pro: Written record of observations or questions can be useful later in class discussion. Notes can be exported.
Con: Easy sharing of notes/highlights may lead to misrepresentation of how much thinking a student has done.

Wikipedia: Provides information from Wikipedia with an extended press.
Pro: Easy identification of cultural information such as place names or people, which allows students to understand the story more easily.
Con: Information can be wrong or misleading.

Audio Book: Provides audio of written text and highlights phrases as they are spoken.
Pro: Allows integration of reading and listening. Increases sensory input for students and makes more memorable. Allows for hands free homework!
Con: Not available on every device. Adds cost. Quality varies.

Common Student Objections and the Instructor’s Response

I don't like reading off a screen: I haven’t known anyone who tried using the basic Kindle (not a Kindle Fire) that didn't change their opinion of reading from a screen. The screen really feels like you are reading from paper.

Kindles are too expensive: The basic version (doesn't have audio capabilities) can be bought refurbished for US$60 or sometimes US$40 when they are running a special. This is within the range of an ESL textbook, but also provides access to many cheap or free books. Also, the Kindle app for a smartphone is free and provides full access to audio book integration.

Conclusion and Reflection

At the end of the semester, I had my students write feedback with the prompt: What did you like/not like about using the Kindle version of a novel? Of the 14 students, 13 said they liked the Kindle version. I think they liked it because the Kindle makes extended reading more accessible by lowering the barriers to increased comprehensibility of input (mainly with Word Wise, Dictionary, and Vocabulary Builder). The incorporated audio book option also gave more variety of input. If I do this again, I will be more purposeful about requiring students to listen and read at the same time, instead of giving them the option (however, I am not sure how I would verify this). I was surprised by the usefulness of the Wikipedia lookup features and how it drew students into the story if they knew just a little more information about places or references to historical people.

For the ESL Reading class, the Kindle lacks features that would allow teachers to be more involved in student learning (note to Jeff Bezos) such as being able to compile the words that students look up for review or evaluation purposes or being able to verify how much audio students had listened to. Also, the availability of multilingual input may hinder the students’ development of English semantic relationships and mask low proficiency (but it could benefit, too). Overall, I think that the Kindle shows lots of promise for helping students to develop English proficiency and, despite my objections, I would not hesitate to use it in an ESL Reading class again.


Krashen, S. (2018) Do libraries and teacher librarians have the solution to the long-term English language learner problem? CSLA Journal, 41(2), 16–19.

Eric Bodin has taught ESL in Ames, USA; Almaty, KZ; Istanbul, TR; and now Iowa City, USA. He believes electronics will not replace teachers, but will make them more effective, which will result in more literates, more multilinguals, and better communication worldwide.