German Language Training App for Primary School Children
Educational Technology, Graz University of Technology, Austria
Educational Technology, Graz University of Technology, Austria
Educational Technology, Graz University of Technology, Austria
Abstract Mobile apps and the gaming industry experienced continuous growth and
popularity over the last couple of years. While children have always played games for fun,
researchers, recognized the promising possibilities behind games in the field of education. As
nearly every child is in possession of a mobile device today, the sector of digital game-based
learning is of special interest. Since primary school pupils often find it difficult to acquire
good language skills, this research study deals with the creation of a prototype for tablets to
support language training within primary schools. For the evaluation, a field test among
children in Austria was conducted in order to see whether benefits could be observed. The
extremely positive field test strengthened our approach and further motivated the participants
to play the game even after the test was finished.
The Digital Age has widely spread across the world. The 2012 Horizon Report on Higher Education (Johnson et
al, 2013) described mobile apps and tablet computing as near-term horizon trends, which will become extremely
important for education in the upcoming years. In the field of higher education in particular, the growth of
mobile apps is above average. This supports the key trend: people consider the ability to learn, access
information, study, or work ubiquitously with no restrictions of time or location to be of great importance.
Today's students are used to being surrounded by numerous technologies and have access to the internet any
time anywhere (Nagler et al, 2017). While it is obvious that the world is in a process of adoption, the question
must be posed against this background of whether current teaching and studying methods are still effective
enough. By making use of Web 2.0 technologies, this already began to change in a meaningful way (O’Reilly,
2006). Latest research in Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) provides guidance and approaches regarding
how to use technology for the education of today's students called seamless learning (Sad & Ebner, 2017).
Until now games have been predominantly regarded as entertainment and pastime. While researchers view
games in education as path-breaking, there is strangely little material to be found as yet about the actual
educational use of digital mobile games. Nevertheless, researchers have begun to recognize the value for science
and education represented by successful commercial games. James Paul Gee (2003) from the University of
Wisconsin-Madison was one of the first to pay attention to Digital Game-Based Learning (DGBL). Gee noticed
that researchers, teachers, and even families could benefit from studying with commercial games by applying
the underlying game study principles to universities, schools, and even homes. Furthermore, the learning
principles derived from successful games are supported by research in cognitive science (Gee, 2003).
This publication discusses the creation of a German language training app for primary school children and the
related difficulties upon a conducted field test.
In this paper, we will answer the following Research Questions (RQ):
• RQ1: Are benefits to be gained from DGBL for primary school children in German language training?
• RQ2: What difficulties do children encounter while interacting and learning with an app?
• RQ3: Is it possible to observe similarities in the mistakes children make?
In order to provide a thorough and adequate answer to these research questions, we developed a prototype app
for tablets at Graz University of Technology. Moreover, we conducted a field study at a primary school in
Austria to test the prototype app in a suitable environment.
The Process of Learning
Learning can be described as an active cognitive process, in which knowledge and understanding are created by
the learners themselves (Motschnig-Pitrik & Holzinger, 2002; Ebner & Holzinger, 2002). In addition,
researchers claim that the process of learning is strongly connected with bringing knowledge into practice. Back
in 1916, John Dewey (Dewey, 1975) coined the famous and frequently quoted phrase "learning by doing".
Students need to be encouraged to gain sustainable knowledge. Further, Vygotsky (Vygotsky, 1980)
summarised the connection between interaction and learning with only three sentences:
1. The current knowledge base of learners influences their future success.
2. Interaction enables the creation of knowledge.
3. Interactive problem solving is the goal of learning.
Researchers recognized that students not only learn best from generalisations or abstractions (DiSessa, 2001).
They rather also learn via principles derived from their personal experiences. The next time they are confronted
with a problem, such knowledge can be utilized and generalization can take place. This leads to the conclusion
that students should pursue learning by doing than by memorising numerous textbooks (Gee, 2013).
For decades, the transfer of knowledge in education has been provided through reliance on the the use of books
and students willing to put in countless hours memorizing their content. Even today, children in schools and
students at universities are used to gaining knowledge from textbooks, at least in Austria (Nagler et al, 2016).
For the most part school systems continue to hold on to this method of education. Textbook use still accounts
for at least 70% of the classroom instruction and provides guidance for teachers in the fulfilment of their
curriculum (Tyson & Woodward, 1989).
However, scientists maintain the position that textbooks are one of the worst educational inventions and simply
do not work as well as people think (Graesser et al, 2004). Such books are mostly filled with generalizations and
abstractions, which are not ideal for learning purposes, as research recognised (DiSessa, 2001). The ability to
receive information with context is a key part of the studying process (Barsalou, 1999). Programmers will not
learn how to write computer code by reading a book. James Paul Gee from Arizona University is convinced that
studying takes place while experiences are made (Gee, 2013). With the help of teachers, such experiences can
lead to the creation of mental models and deep knowledge.
Primary school children in particular are confronted with difficulties when it comes to gaining valuable
experiences. Much effort and commitment must be put in by teachers to design these experiences in an
appropriate way, while making sure that important learning concepts receive the attention they deserve (Gee,
2013). From a research perspective, the call for a new educational technology such as DGBL is obvious.
Digital Game-Based Learning
The term Game-Based Learning has its roots in the Anglo-American region (Le et al, 2013). In the past decade,
the number of published essays, papers, and articles about the effectiveness of DGBL has increased. James Paul
Gee's "What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy" (Gee, 2003), Marc Prensky's
"Digital Game-Based Learning” (Prensky, 2003) and Richard Van Eck's "Digital game-based learning: It's not
just the digital natives who are restless" (Van Eck, 2006) are only some publications to be mentioned. Those
authors already started to highlight the importance and power of DGBL in education years ago.
Game-Based Learning (GBL) is a concept in which selected problem scenarios are embedded into a play
framework (Ebner & Holzinger, 2007). GBL is similar to Problem-Based Learning (PBL), which assumes that
the process of solving everyday problems generates knowledge and supports learning in an efficient way (Hung
et al, 2008). This approach has shown various advantages, especially in the field of medicine (Barrows and
Tamblyn, 1980). Furthermore, proponents of PBL argue that learning fades out after the basic education in
school. A famous advocate of PBL, Karl Popper (Popper 1995), brings in an even broader supportive view. He
says that "Alles leben ist Problemlösen [life is all about problem solving]," which means that we need to solve
problems throughout our entire lifespan, and that the opportunities for everyday learning are thus omnipresent.
While the interest in games as learning tools was not of much interest at the beginning, public attention
eventually increased due to three main factors (Van Eck, 2006). The research conducted by DBGL advocates in
the past years is the first factor, which contributed to more attention. Secondly, today's generation of young
people demonstrates a change in behaviour. These so-called "Digital Natives" demand information in new ways
(Van Eck, 2006). The Horizon Report in 2012 supports this factor in one of its identified key trends for the
future: “People expect to be able to work, learn, and study whenever and wherever they want to” (Johnson et al,
2013). The third factor is the gaming industry, which will generate revenues of nearly $108.9 billion in 2017,
verifying the popularity of games in contemporary society.
Games in Education
The role of games in education is becoming more important. The mobile gaming sector is more attractive than
ever before. Almost every child aged 15 in Central Europe owns a smartphone or mobile device (Hannak et al,
2012). In Austria already, each child aged 10 years owns his/her own device (Grimus & Ebner, 2014). Over the
past years, such devices continued to grow in power, which is also a benefit for learning purposes.
As mentioned before, today's schoolchildren demand different types of education. In a world where children
grow up with smartphones, tablets and the Web 2.0, textbooks are outdated. Prensky (Prensky, 2003) estimated
that kids spend up to 10,000 hours playing computer games before they reach the age of 21. In addition, a
survey among 2000 children revealed, that children spend on average one hour a day playing video games
(Rideout et al, 2005). While the gaming industry was able to grow with the help of this addictive behaviour,
researchers recognized the possible power of games in education.
The introduction of Digital Game-Based Learning, for the purpose of enabling positive study effects for school
children, is expected to bring a lot of potential with it. Games cut out the boring aspects of learning with a
textbook. Games cause children to unwind and loose the feeling of being forced to study. In addition, games
promote an intensive personal debate about the game, as players need to think through various challenges. As
argued before, problem cases are introduced and arranged by difficulty, so the players are not overtaxed.
While a child plays a game, several iterative phases can be observed. In the middle of these phases, the game
cycle takes place. Around this event, the player constantly receives feedback from the game. Such feedback not
only helps the players to improve and rethink their actions, it also encourages them indirectly to learn in a deep
way. In addition, to the system’s feedback, players are rated and evaluated by their actions. Good games keep
track of a player’s progress and motivate one by awarding achievements or collectables. The last event in the
cycle is a player’s behaviour. The actions and decisions of the player determine the feedback. If players get
stuck in certain sections, good games make sure to deliver the necessary information to them. All those iterative
phases throughout the playing process lead to the collection of data. Such data can be used for Learning
Analytics, which allows measuring the learning results. This analysis is then used to determine the positive and
negative effects of using the game for educational purposes.
On closer examination, one could come to the conclusion that games are justifiable learning tools. Numerous
papers and essays discuss the positive effects of games, but take no spin on the disadvantages. Richard Van Eck
(Van Eck, 2006) is a proponent of games as learning tools, however, he also warns about categorising all games
as effective. In his opinion, researchers must not only clarify why DGBL is effective and valuable, but also
provide instruction on how and in what context usage must take place, in order to support the learning process
in the best way possible. Furthermore, Marc Prensky described the problem of “academizing games” or
“sucking the fun out”. Games are complex: They combine art, design, and creativity. When researchers started
to create games, these key properties often lacked attention, resulting in products, which did not increase
learning efficiency. Nevertheless, games still had an impact on the effectiveness of learning. At the present time
the problem of creating games with educational value, which are still fun to play, is being sorted out (Van Eck,
An Austrian survey of 2015 revealed that many primary school children are dealing with orthography problems
(Bruneforth et al, 2016). Furthermore, this led to the conclusion that pupils find it especially hard to acquire
such skills. In a continuum of orthographies, the so-called shallow ones (Serbian or Turkish) are on the one side,
whereas the deep ones (English, French) are on the other (Ebner et al, 2017). It can be stated that German
orthography is situated in the middle. According to Nerius (2007), this position is determined by the relationship
among phonemes and graphemes in German. Phonemes are the tiniest units when it comes to articulation, which
may result in a different meaning if wrongly spelled. Such phonemes are connected with the graphemes. Nerius
(2007) further recognised that German orthography and alphabetic writing systems depend on how well pupils
can use the correspondence between phonemes and graphemes. This is especially crucial, as it enables children
to convert spoken language into words and in reverse. In a more straightforward way, it can be said that children
learn these correspondences by time. They gain the ability to transfer spoken words into spoken language and
make use of alphabetic strategy (Ebner et al, 2017).Older concepts of learning German orthography focused on
the memorization of single words. Children would learn words and the correct spelling through time. However,
new approaches are appearing on the horizon. A promising concept is named "cognitive clarity" (Ebner et al,
2017). In this particular method, students are able to recognize the structure behind words (Müller, 2010) and
therefore gain more perception of the language (Valtin, 2003). However, an approach like this one is only
feasible in classrooms, when it can be implemented by teachers or students.
The IDeRBlog is a web-based platform helping children in school to improve their writing skills and to develop
orthographic competences. (Ebner et al, 2017). The authors further clarify that the primary goal of the platform
is not to transform writing by hand and replace it with a digital keyboard. Their intention is rather to make
active use of the advantages of the digital age to a greater degree. Behind the platform’s surface, an intelligent
dictionary ensures that multiple analyses are performed to improve the language skills (Ebner et al, 2017).
While children are only required to know the application of the alphabet, the dictionary offers more features,
such as morphological strategies. When a pupil uploads a written text to the platform, the intelligent dictionary
identifies spelling mistakes, provides immediate feedback and hints to the users. As children are confronted with
their mistakes, they can learn by them and further reflect on them afterwards. By this means word structures are
learned and help to improve future writing (Tsesmeli & Seymour, 2006). Teachers also profit from the analysis
of the intelligent dictionary, as orthographic problems are revealed. In addition, the developers created links
between different types of mistakes and to the quantity of exercises provided in the training database (Ebner et
al, 2017) in order to meet multiple demands.
The platform went public in October 2016 and initial tests were conducted at two partner schools until
December at the end of the year (Ebner et al, 2017). After the first test period from October until December, 360
texts written by pupils were submitted to the platform. As only two schools actively used the platform until
then, this result is very promising as a high acceptability can be observed. The goal of using a very appealing
design to encourage students could be achieved. Moreover, the intelligent dictionary identified a total of 549
mistakes in all the submitted texts. Feedbacks and hints could be delivered by the algorithm to nearly a fifth of
all spelling mistakes. A deeper analysis revealed that most mistakes could be classified into specific categories.
As teachers are able to view a qualitative analysis of all spelling mistakes, they can help students to improve
their skills. In addition, different exercises are available for children and teachers in order to advance their
language skills. To ensure future optimization, we use learning analytics for an in-depth analysis (Siemens,
2012) to get a better understanding of the difficulties pupils are facing. By collecting a greater amount of data
with the increasing number of active users on the platform, a performance prediction for the children can be
made, together with several other useful features (Ebner et al, 2017).
Over the past couple of years, many apps have been developed at Graz University of Technology (Ebner, 2015).
It is crucial to conduct a field test in order to find out whether an application can actually support the process of
learning. As mentioned above, the approach and effectiveness of DGBL is strongly connected with key aspects,
such as the learning system or the design of the game. There is thus no guarantee that every application helps
children with the acquirement of new knowledge. Mobile applications must be evaluated in a practical way so
that useful feedback can be provided. The common paper-pencil feedback method does not deliver the
qualitative information, which is required to perform a valuable evaluation.
In the beginning, all children in the classroom were given iPads with the prototype learning app installed.
Afterwards they were asked to play the game for a specific length of time. During this timeframe, monitoring on
how they interacted with the game took place, in particular what reactions were caused by different game events
and whether there were any visible problems. For documentation and evaluation, images and videos have been
made. As children are usually shy with researchers and their questions, they might very quickly begin to feel
uncomfortable. To cope with this problem a separation into groups was made. The ranking technique was
selected for the interviews with the children. In the beginning, each group was given five statements and five
smileys. These questions mainly asked if they found it easy to use the game, if they had fun, or would like to
play the game again in the future. The distributed smileys ranged from a neutral to a very happy one. After each
playing session, the groups then decided on a smiley for each question, coming up with an ultimate decision that
each child agreed on. Afterwards, each working group sorted the statements in a freely chosen chronological
order. This method is especially interesting, as children among themselves need to discuss and elaborate the
game (Fischer, 2007). In the meantime, the discussion within each group was observed and documented.
Through the execution of the cut-off technique, it was possible to observe children in an imperceptible way.
Moreover, the children did not feel annoyed or uncomfortable during the field test, which led to qualitative
Prototype – The Chocolate Factory
The Chocolate Factory is a tablet app, which aims to help primary school children to improve their German
skills. It is a hybrid application and can therefore be played on iOS as well as on Android devices. Children
choose between different types of levels and challenge themselves in order to collect ingredients to create their
The app provides four different categories of challenges, as shown in Fig. 1. The first category is called
“Right/Wrong” and requires pupils to correctly identify the notations of words. Children are confronted with
five random words, which need to be marked as correct or false. Each word contains multiple sources of false
notations, whereupon one is selected randomly. After a child submits an answer, the app provides textual
feedback. If a wrong notation was chosen to be correct, the correct notation is presented to the child, as shown
in Fig. 2.
Figure 1. Overview of the game level categories.
In the second category (Fig. 1), pupils are confronted with multiple sentences that need to be completed. Each
sentence contains exactly one word on which children need to decide whether upper or lower case is applicable.
This type of level helps to observe if children are able to deduce such a decision from a specific context. After
an answer is submitted, the game provides feedback on the correct solution and indicates wrong answers.
Figure 2. Wrong answer with correct answer as a feedback.
The third category challenges children to complete words with a specific missing character. Many German
words can be tricky for young kids. Levels of this kind thus try to clear out common language mistakes, such as
the distinction between “d” and “t”. The last category combines all three of the previously mentioned levels and
serves as a bonus level.
After the completion of a level, players are rewarded with some necessary ingredients to produce chocolate. In
this game, the pupils can collect milk, beans, and fruits. Milk and beans are required for the production of a
chocolate bar. In addition to this, fruits are utilizable by players to produce different chocolate flavours. The
main goal of the game is collecting all types of chocolate bars. With the use of collectables, children may forget
about the fact that they are learning while actually playing the game.
One of the most important aspects of a language-training app is the database of words. It is crucial to use
appropriate words that can actually help children to improve their writing skills. If the data is not well chosen,
pupils might easily feel overwhelmed and learning benefits may be destroyed even before the game starts. The
words for this prototype are thus derived from the dictionary of the IDeRBlog platform. This relationship
provides a great benefit as the data is directly fetched from the pool of words frequently spelled incorrectly by
the users. As mentioned above, children use the IDeRBlog platform to upload their written texts. An algorithm
checks for mistakes in the statements and provides immediate feedback. The IDeRBlog system can thus provide
a suitable pool of common incorrectly written words for the app. Proper words, based on age group, are
provided for the different games in the app. The results of each game round are sent back to the IDeRBlog
system for evaluation. Based on the answers from the pupil, new words are chosen for the next exercises. The
link between the game and the IDeRBlog is considered extremely valuable for both systems. They profit from
each other and more data is collected in the background to develop better exercises. Furthermore, the quality of
the game is increased as the previously gained knowledge helps to realize educational benefits.
In conclusion we conducted a field study among children in the second grade of an Austrian primary school to
test our prototype for the first time. A total of 16 children participated in the test with a balanced distribution
among 10 boys and 6 girls. We initially introduced the app to the children with the primary aim of helping them
to find and to start the game on their tablets. An Internet connection was already established before the field
study in order to avoid any unexpected problems. This encouraged the pupils to start playing the game directly.
As the game uses the device number as identifier, no registration process or other authentication was required.
Therefore, no difficulties have been observed in the first steps.
Figure 4. Positive feelings caused by correct answers.
While most of the children easily managed it to play the game and finish off their first exercise, some children
experienced difficulties with the tutorial provided in the game. The tutorial mainly explains the purpose of the
game and visualises it through textual information. However, the children largely responded by simply clicking
on the continue buttons and paid little attention to information of this kind. All participants submitted around
1900 answers within a game session of 30 minutes,. This impressive ratio leads to the conclusion that the game
design worked very well and children did not experience many difficulties in playing it. Further inconspicuous
observation by the research team showed that children faced some challenges in correctly pressing the buttons.
Sometimes a touch did not trigger an action and required them to press again. Increasing the touch area of
buttons definitely will solve this problem. The game idea of collecting ingredients and creating flavoured
chocolate bars was considered as positive. Nevertheless, the chocolate creator in the game demonstrated some
problems. The first monitored issue pointed out that the children mostly tried to drag elements rather than push
the designated buttons. Furthermore, the path from the game’s home screen to the chocolate factory was not
sufficiently highlighted for the children. The research team observed that at some point the children helped each
other out in the challenging exercises with which they were confronted. There was also a positive rivalry among
some boy players on the current level or progress, as Fig. 4 shows. This led to the belief that the original
intention of producing all types of chocolate was substituted by the number of collectables.
After the game session was over, we asked the children to form groups and discuss certain statements as
described in the previous chapter. The following statements were prepared:
1. The game was easy to play.
2. I liked playing the game
3. I find it great to produce my own chocolate
4. The exercises are easy for me
5. I want to play the game again
With the help of the cut-off technique, the children discussed their point of view in the group for some time and
then started to assign the smileys to the questions. Three out of five groups voted the chocolate creator as the
best feature of the game. The other two groups liked to play the game and wanted to continue playing. Some
children even asked the teacher to continue playing after the game session was over, showing a strong interest in
the game. On the other side, two groups found operating the game less easy than the others. This observation
helped to identify that different language skills among the children caused the problem. While some found the
games, the words and exercises easy to understand, some struggled with the exercises presented, as their
vocabulary was not advanced enough.
This research study paid attention to the use of German Language Training Apps in Austrian primary school
classes. We developed a prototype language trainer for iPad tablets and conducted a field test in a second grade
class. Sixteen pupils participated in the game session and completed nearly two thousand tasks within half an
hour. With the help of the cut-off technique, we obtained valuable feedback while children discussed the game
in an unobserved manner. The connection to the IDeRBlog platform in particular is of special interest as much
data is collected here in a short period. This data is provided to the IDeRBlog system and further improves the
platform as new analyses can be carried out. Learning Analytics also benefit from the new sets of data and
therefore more value is added to the accuracy and performance of the platform. This will ensure more
appropriate exercises in the future and deeper insights into spelling mistakes made in the defined age areas.
While the game generated great interest among pupils, there are still some crucial factors which can be thought
of, which ought to be suggested to developers of educational games. The usage of lots of textual information is
not effective as children simply click through all types of tutorials. Therefore, learning by doing seems to be a
good approach. They also favour to drag elements rather than touch them. In addition to this, a game should
notify the players about important events and provide call-to-action components to switch directly from the
current state. We concluded that children need guidance through the game. Overall, we suggest the use of game-
based learning in primary school as children really enjoy playing games on their tablets. Furthermore, it could
be observed that children did not feel disturbed or annoyed in any way by a learning game, but on the contrary
they enjoyed it very much.
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