Review: Oxford Bookworms for iPad

With the age of tablet PCs and e-readers now well upon us, I have been surprised to see a lack of ELT-related content available for these formats. It seems many publications are print-only or still accompanied by ‘interactive’ CD-ROMs. It was therefore a welcome and pleasant surprise when I was offered the chance to review some titles from the Oxford Bookworms series that have been made available as iPad apps.

‘Front page’ of The Wizard of Oz

As with their print counterparts, the Bookworms apps are available in 5 stages, each with a different number of ‘headwords’ and a total word count varying with the level. All of the titles are adapted versions of classic titles such as The Wizard of Oz (Stage 1), The Jungle Book (Stage 2), Gulliver’s Travels (Stage 4) and a number of different Sherlock Holmes tales (varying Stages). The app itself downloads and installs to your iPad just like any other app store purchase and one click on the icon and you’re away.

At first I was a little wary of these being ‘adapted classics’. My experience of using readers based on well-known stories in class has not always been good as it often feels like certain events and characters are crowbarred in just because they are in the original. However, I found these adaptations much easier to read. The ‘retelling’ authors and editors have done a good job of ensuring that the text flows well and also maintains the tricky balance of being pitched at the right level without affecting the story adversely. It is also very refreshing to see that even the Stage 1 stories are written in past simple (I’ve never been a fan of those readers that ‘simplify’ everything by narrating in present tenses).

Reading the stories on the iPad is a comfortable experience. The layout of each page is clear as are the headings and the font used (although an option to adjust the size of the font would have been a nice addition). There are also a number of illustrations throughout each book which add colour, atmosphere and detail to the chapters. The pictures are also presented with captions in a ‘gallery’ at the end of each book, providing a nice way to review the story and examine the pictures in more detail.

Clear illustrations add to the reading experience

Navigating the book apps is very straightforward - you simply touch on of the tabs on the main screen to go to the relevant section. The contents are all hyperlinked so tapping on Chapter 5 for example will take you straight there. Page turns are done either with a swipe across the screen or by using the arrows in the bottom-right corner and the ‘home’ button is always present in the bottom-left of the screen. The app also remembers where you were the last time you were reading so a simple tap on the ‘continue’ button allows you to pick up where you left off.

There is also an audio narration to go with each page of the story. There is an option to have this play automatically with the pages turning themselves. Alternatively, the reader can tap on the speaker icon in the centre of the navigation bar at the bottom of the page to listen to just that section of the story. I have had my doubts about the need for audio recordings with graded readers for a long time as I have often observed students not actually reading while the narration plays. I let a student I work with on a one-to-one basis explore the titles a little and his finger instantly went to the audio button and it took some persuading to get him to try reading first without listening (which he was more than capable of). There is also the fact that the story is often read out at a speed much slower than even the L2 student can read at. In the Bookworms series, the recordings are clear but they are very slow, even at the Stage 4 level. Indeed, the same student I mentioned just above told me that the stories were interesting and fun to read but the recordings were ‘a little boring’. Once he turned them off, he started to read at a much more natural pace.

The app versions are intended to promote extensive reading and provide ‘a rich self-study experience’. In line with those comments, there is a refreshing lack of comprehension activities and language work. I often feel such ‘extras’ only serve to interrupt the reading process and it’s good to just let our students read in a normal manner every so often (a point also raised in my recent review of World Adventure Kids). The only activity to come with each app is a quiz based on the vocabulary in the story. Through the settings, the reader has the option to choose the correct definition for a given word or the correct word for a given definition, which is a nice touch. One small criticism I would make of the quiz feature is that if you choose incorrectly from one of the four options, you have no chance to try again and choose from one of the remaining three answers. A second chance would provide a good opportunity for the reader to think a little deeper and learn from their mistake.

A sample quiz question

There is also a glossary available on the main screen which provides an alphabetical list of selected words from the story with accompanying definitions. This is a nice touch but I couldn’t help but feel it could have been more extensive and interactive. The list in each book is a little on the limited side with only about 60-70 words in the Stage 1 and 2 titles. Also, the reader has to exit the story and come back to the main screen to access the glossary. If there was some way to have certain words ‘highlighted’ in the text itself with an option to click on them and see explanations, it would make the glossary feature more interactive without disrupting the flow of the story too much.

Correction: After initially publishing this review, I was contacted by a representative from OUP who pointed out that the glossary is actually interactive!! The words in the text are highlighted in a different colour and tapping on them reveals a definition of the word. How did I miss that? Well, in order to not distract the reader too much, a deep red (close to black) colour was used. The problem for me was that I am colour blind and find it difficult to distinguish between dark shades of red and blue and black. To my eyes, the whole text was black!! However, other people I have since shown the app to assure me they can see the glossary words in a different colour. Sorry about that! It is something to be aware of if you plan to use these titles though.

Despite some shortcomings with the accompanying audio and the glossary, I think the Oxford Bookworms series of story apps are worth a look for students (young teens, teens and adults) of a (pre-)intermediate level and upwards. The focus is very much on the stories themselves which are in turn engaging and well written for the levels they are aimed at. I would certainly recommend them to parents who approach me with the usual ‘what can we do at home to support our child’s learning?’ or ‘how can we encourage more reading?’ questions. Reading on the iPad will be a comfortable and enjoyable experience with the usual advantage of being able to carry several titles with you at any one time - a great way to encourage extensive reading in the digital age.

Check out the OUP app catalogue for the full range of titles and price details.