iPad Apps for Literacy Instruction

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February 2013

By Elaine Cheesman, Ph.D.

App Chat LogoUsing iPads for literacy instruction opens up many stimulating opportunities. These tablet computers are portable, easy to use, and there are countless “educational” iPad applications, or apps, available. Finding high-quality apps, though, poses a daunting challenge not recommended for the faint-hearted. This search can take hundreds of hours and waste more than a few dollars.

It can be challenging to locate worthwhile apps that reinforce literacy instruction in phonological awareness, phonics (reading and spelling), vocabulary, morphology, text comprehension, and written expression. This article will help locate apps for teachers, parents, and students—apps that are fun, easy to use, and (don’t tell the kids!) educationally sound!

A forthcoming article in Perspectives will expand upon the advantages of using iPads in the classroom and provide additional information on iPad Assistive Technology. (To learn more about Perspectivesclick here.)

What are the advantages of tablet computers?

Unlike desktop computers, tablet computers, such as the iPad (and iPhones) are lightweight, portable, and kid-sized. The long battery life means they can be used at home, in school, in trains, planes, and automobiles—literally any place where one can sit down. iPads start instantly and can be closed in the middle of an activity at a moment’s notice. Most apps are reasonably priced, and range from free to about $25, although some specialty apps (e.g., for Speech and Language Pathologists) can be quite expensive.

What should I look for in a good app?

A good app is educationally sound, versatile, and worth the price. Here are a few considerations.

  • Intended user: Is the app meant for students to use independently or with a teacher or parent? Teacher-utility apps are meant for teachers to use in planning or delivering instruction.
  • Breadth and depth: Is the content accurate and research-based? Are activities varied, with multiple levels of complexity? Is there scaffolding to support learners of different abilities?
  • User-friendliness:  Is it intuitive? Can the user move easily between tasks? How do teacher-utility apps improve teaching quality or save time and effort? Are oral or written instructions readily available? Do web-links enhance the content?
  • Images and sound:  Are the illustrations, graphics and sound attractive and engaging? Do they enhance content, or detract from it?
  • Feedback:  Is the feedback timely, specific, and motivating? Is feedback delivered at multiple levels?
  • Engaging: Do the activities promote involvement? Are there motivating goals and attractive rewards? Are activities interactive and challenging and do they involve problem solving? Are student apps fun and enjoyable, compelling students to want to use them again and again?

Some worthwhile apps to consider

The following apps have been carefully selected to meet most of the criteria outlined above. Each is identified by the app name, developer, iTunes URL, intended audience, content, and a brief description. All are affordable for the teaching professional or parent.

  1. SoundLiteracy
    Developer: 3D Literacy, LLC
    Teacher utility; Phonemic awareness, Phonics (spelling), Morphology
    User(s): Teacher with student
    Sound Literacy is a large, well-organized collection of electronic “tiles.” It includes blank tiles for phonemic awareness activities; graphemes—individual letters and consonant and vowel clusters such as sh, ng, igh, aw for phonics activities; and morphemes—prefixes, suffixes, Latin roots, and Greek combining forms—for advanced word study activities. It also includes sound charts for consonant and vowel phonemes. Teachers with Apps named it one of the 12 Best Apps for Special Needs of 2012. Disclosure: A portion of all proceeds benefits The International Dyslexia Association.

  3. Beginning Sounds Interactive Game
    Developer: Lakeshore Learning Materials
    Phonological Awareness
    User: Student independent
    Students match pictures that share the same beginning sound. If the child makes an incorrect choice, the picture re-circulates for another try.

  5. Letter Find
    Developer: Matthew Thomas
    Alphabet (letter naming)
    User: Student independent
    Letter Find challenges young children to identify a pre-selected lowercase letter when it is among many other letters. Children tap on the letter, which turns green and provides a pleasant sound if correct, and red with a buzzer sound if incorrect. The negative feedback, though, is quite amusing to some children, who persist in responding incorrectly to hear the buzzer.

  7. LetterSchool
    Developer: Boreaal
    Alphabet, Handwriting, phoneme-grapheme correspondences
    User: Student independent
    This app provides three progressively more challenging ways to practice writing numerals and manuscript letters—both lowercase and capital forms—in three different typefaces (Handwriting Without Tears, D’Nealian, or Zaner-Bloser). Each of the three practice activities includes immediate, explicit, and engaging feedback. The app is very intuitive; children as young as three learn to use the activities with minimal instruction. However, very small children may not have sufficient finger strength to do the most difficult activities without parental assistance. The introduction to the letter includes a keyword picture and sound, which present the most common short vowel and consonant sounds with only two exceptions: The keyword for the letter u is “unicorn” and for x, “xylophone.” The benefits of the letter formation practice make this a very worthwhile app!

  9. Starfall Learn to Read
    Developer: Starfall Education
    Phonics (decoding and spelling); interactive book (decodable)
    User: Student independent
    This app mirrors the decoding and spelling activities in Starfall.com. It includes making words from common rimes (e.g., at in cat, ake in cake), sorting one-syllable words by syllable type, games for matching words and pictures, decodable stories, and engaging cartoon videos explain phoneme-grapheme correspondences. The speech is a child’s voice, with excellent and accurate pronunciation.

  11. Bob Books #1 – Reading Magic HD
    Developer: Learning Touch
    Phonics (decoding and spelling); interactive book (decodable)
    User: Student independent
    This app is an interactive version of the decodable “Bob Books.” Students practice spelling common CVC words within the context of simple stories; the task menu provides four levels of progressively challenging tasks for beginning readers.

  13. Word Wizard – Talking Movable Alphabet & Spelling Tests for Kids
    Developer: L’Escapadou
    Phonics (spelling)
    User: Teacher with student; student independent
    This app is appropriate for both spelling practice in teacher-directed small groups or for independent practice using pre-set lists of words: CVC words, high frequency words, and common content words (numbers, colors). Settings are easily changed to suit the purpose of the activity; for example, when touching each letter, a human voice speaks either the sound (good for single letter-sounds) or name of the letter (appropriate for digraphs). A unique feature is that “naughty” words are transformed instantly into “oops.”

  15. SpellingCity
    Developer: SpellingCity
    Phonics (reading and spelling); vocabulary; alphabetizing and handwriting.
    User: Teacher with student; student independent
    This app features seven activities to reinforce spelling, vocabulary, and alphabetizing skills. The sample lists include homophones and content-based words (e.g., colors, beach, space). However, one can easily create custom lists to practice any spelling pattern using a personal account on the free, accompanying website. Words to spell are dictated using a natural, human voice, and words are all put into the context of a sentence. Personal lists also feature a choice of appropriate sentences to include in the activities! An added bonus is that any word list can be easily printed in manuscript or cursive on “lined” paper, combining spelling and handwriting practice.

  17. abc PocketPhonics: letter sounds & writing + first words
    Developer: Apps in My Pocket Ltd
    Alphabet (letter naming, handwriting), Phonics (spelling)
    User: Student independent
    This app provides individualized spelling instruction in a carefully sequenced progression of consonant and vowel sounds, starting with single letters and progressing to consonant and vowel digraphs. Players sign in by name, enabling the app to track individual progress. A human voice pronounces the phonemes (e.g., /kw/) and then prompts the player to trace the grapheme (e.g., qu,) that represents the sound. After reading and writing isolated phoneme-grapheme associations, the player uses known graphemes to spell words, sound-by-sound (e.g., quit). The correct response rewards the player with a comical illustration of the word’s meaning. The app includes digraph ng, unvoiced th (with) and voiced th (then), a rare and welcome feature in phonics apps! However, the app could be improved with a more animated and less monotone voice.

  19. PopOut! The Tale of Peter Rabbit
    Developer: Loud Crow Interactive Inc.
    Vocabulary, Comprehension; interactive book (literature)
    User: Teacher or parent with student; student independent
    This award-winning interactive book is one of several produced by Loud Crow Interactive http://loudcrow.com/, a company that converts children’s literature and comic books to an electronic form that truly enhances the text and vocabulary, a rare feature among interactive books. In The Tale of Peter Rabbit, a pleasant British voice reads the narrative, while the app highlights each spoken word. At the end of the page, one can tap on any word to hear it pronounced again. Like the other Pop Out books produced by Loud Crow Interactive (The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, The Night Before Christmas), the interaction mirrors the original pop-out effects as it reinforces rich vocabulary (e.g., the animation and text illustrates how Peter squeezed under the gate.). Loud Crow also produces Goodnight Moon, several Boynton books (e.g., Barnyard Dance! Moo, Baa, La La La!), Charlie Brown stories (e.g., It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown), and the first-ever, fully interactive comic book app, Marvel’s the Avengers: Iron Man – Mark VII).

  21. Nursery Rhymes with StoryTime
    Developer: ustwo™
    Phonological Awareness, Comprehension; interactive book (literature)
    User: Teacher or parent with student; student independent
    This interactive book reads familiar nursery rhymes aloud. The exquisite illustrations invite young children to trigger the interactions, which reinforce the content of the nursery rhyme.

  23. Word Wit
    Ballpoint Inc.
    User: Student independent
    Designed for English-Language Learners, or native-speaking middle school students and older, Word Wit makes it fun and easy to learn the difference between frequently confused words (e.g., affect/effect). It presents sequential activities that include explanations, quotes, and quizzes designed to deepen one’s understanding. Wrong answers cycle back for added practice. One can look up words individually, or let the app randomly select word pairs for you.

  25. Vocab Rootology HD – Greek and Latin Roots and Etymology
    Developer: PrepInteractive
    Morphology, Vocabulary
    User: Student independent
    This is a flash-card tutorial of Latin roots and Greek combining forms for the serious, older student, teacher, or parent. It features flash cards for pre-testing and study, drills, and a report card to track progress. It is one of the few apps to provide feedback on a grading scale (A to F), appropriate for more mature audiences.

  27. Inspiration Maps
    Developer: Inspiration Software, Inc.
    Written Composition
    User: Teacher with student; student independent
    Inspiration Maps is a portable version of the popular Inspiration composition software; it helps organize topics for writing or studying with graphic organizers. It includes dozens of pre-made templates in a variety of forms, both expository (e.g., compare and contrast) and narrative.

  29. Draw Everything! GLOW Note Free!
    Developer: Jae Kwang Lee
    Teacher Utility
    User: Teacher with student; student independent
    This app is a portable drawing/writing surface with day-glow colors. Kids can use it to practice writing letters and numbers; teachers can explain concepts electronically and display it on an overhead projector.

  31. Smart White Board HD
    Developer: Pad read
    Teacher Utility
    User: Teacher with student; student independent
    This app is a portable, electronic white board for use by students and teachers. Kids can use it to practice writing letters and numbers; teachers can explain concepts electronically with the option of displaying it on an overhead projector. It includes four “pen” colors for detailed explanations.

  33. Explain Everything
    Developer: MorrisCooke
    Teacher Utility
    User: Teacher for the student (prepared in advance); student independent
    This is an extremely versatile app for teachers in primary grades through university courses. Instructors can import pictures, PDF documents, and Powerpoint files into the app, where one can augment them with annotations, animated arrows and shapes, pictures, even a laser pointer! There also is the option to record a video of the presentation, including handwriting on the screen, voice, and animated laser pointing. The finished products can be saved as a PDF document or video, which can be shared electronically with students. It is easy to learn and fairly intuitive.

  35. Dropbox
    Developer: Dropbox
    Teacher Utility
    User: Teacher, parent and/or student
    Dropbox is a free cloud storage system that synchronizes files. Files placed in this folder are accessible through applications and a website, so you are able to access the file anywhere there is an Internet (or telephone) connection worldwide. One also can create folders accessible by several people. This is the perfect application for teachers and students on the go! You never have to search for the latest version.

How can I search for worthwhile apps?

New apps arrive on the market almost daily. Several websites have good lists and reviews. First, search the websites below. Next, do a web search using the name of a specific app. Results may provide additional reviews and movies of the app in action on www.youtube.com. Next, go to the developer’s web site for more information and user reviews. Finally, go to the app store. Pay attention to the poor reviews as well as the positive ones! Use your expertise to critically evaluate the content; many apps described as reinforcing “phonemic awareness” actually dealt with phonics (letter-sound correspondences) or phonological awareness (syllables and rhyming tasks).

Excellent lists and reviews can be found at these sites:

Your recommendations are encouraged!

If you would like to recommend an app, send me the information via email at: DrECheesman@Gmail.com. Include:

(a) the name of the app
(b) the developer
(c) the URL
(d) the intended user (student, student-teacher, or teacher utility)
(e) the domain (phonological / phonemic awareness, phonics–both reading and spelling–, fluency, vocabulary, morphology, text comprehension, written expression.
(f) a short description.

Dr. Elaine Cheesman teaches at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. The courses she developed are among the nine university programs officially recognized by the International Dyslexia Association for meeting the Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading.

Copyright © 2013 International Dyslexia Association (IDA). We encourage sharing of Examiner articles. If portions are cited, please make appropriate reference. Articles may not be reprinted for the purpose of resale. Permission to republish this article is available from info@interdys.org.