Feb. 28, 2014 at 4:32 PM ET
It's hard to imagine how kids (and parents!) ever survived an hour-long wait at the pediatrician's office or traffic on the freeway without an app for instant pacification. If you've ever wondered whether you could help boost your kid's reading skills at the same time, check out these great learn-to-read apps reviewed by Common Sense Media.
Elmo Loves ABCs for iPad (Ages 3+; iPad; $4.99)
Elmo Loves ABCS for iPad combines a collection of mini-episodes from the Sesame Street TV show with a variety of engaging interactive activities that are just perfect for preschoolers. Learning the alphabet becomes fun as your child actively plays with Elmo. This app uses many interactive aspects of alphabet learning including tracing, letter recognition, object association, and singing the alphabet song. The video clips give the app variety, and the two modes of play complement one another. Elmo's narration is positive and helpful, if a bit repetitive for parents. Kids who already love Elmo will love learning the ABCs with him.
What parents need to know:Elmo Loves ABCs for iPad is an engaging, multi-faceted app for learning the alphabet. In one mode of game play, kids will choose a letter, trace it, watch three video clips about items that start with that letter, color in pictures of those items, and play a hide and seek game. In another mode of play, kids will identify a letter from a group (in uppercase and lowercase), hear the sound that letter makes, identify an item from a group that begins with that letter, and see the video for that item. A music note link from the game page plays one of four video renditions of the alphabet song, including one version where Elmo invites you to sing along. These many features bring the app to a sizeable 538 MB. Frequent instructions and encouragement are given by Elmo often during the game, which requires tapping and active participation throughout. Kids who can trace and identify letters can basically move through the game on their own. Learners before that stage will want more help from parents, while learners after that stage will find good practice and reinforcement, but not much challenge. A link from the main page gives the option of buying more games; but its default position is to be locked. Parents will want to keep the store lock enabled to prevent purchases.
Bob Books #1 - Reading Magic (Ages 4+; iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch; $2.99)
Bob Books #1—Reading Magic is an excellent introduction to phonics for young children, or a nice companion to the printed Bob Books (a systematic method of teaching kids to read). Since you can either control the difficulty level or set it to Automatic, this app will grow with your learning child, and keep their interest as they read and re-read the sentences on each page. The artwork is simple, just as in the printed Bob Books, but the added elements of color and animation are well done and attractive.
What parents need to know:Bob Books #1—Reading Magic is an educational experience that will gently teach your young children early phonics by teaching the sounds that letters make and how to combine them to make short words. Your children will drag the letters for the given word to the proper place below the picture, while the app sounds out the letters and reads the word aloud. Children's efforts will be rewarded when the black and white screen transforms to color and the drawings become animated. There are twelve pages and each one has four levels. You can customize the settings to suit your child's current phonics knowledge and reading level.
Bob Books #2 - Reading Magic HD (Ages 4+; iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch; $3.99)
Bob Books #2—Reading Magic HD is an excellent literacy app that teaches early reading in a gentle, interactive way. Kids slowly become more comfortable with letter sounds, reading short words, and spelling as they go through the 12 pages on each of the four levels. The artwork and feel of the app is the same as for the printed Bob Books, with the addition of soothing colors, fun animation, interactive games, and a gentle voice.
What parents need to know:Bob Books #2—Reading Magic HD is an interactive reading and spelling app for very beginning readers. It presents 12 pages of a book, which can be played on four different levels where kids spell most of the words in each sentence, one at a time. The pictures on each page starts out as black and white, and slowly fill with color as kids spell the words. The words, letters, and sentences are all read or sounded out for the child, with repetition and spelling tasks teaching step by step. The four levels gradually increase in difficulty, from dragging and dropping letters to match words, to selecting letters on one's own to spell the given words. On each level, tapping words or letters results in their being read or sounded out loud. Once some of the pages on a level are completed, the level selection screen shows how many pages out of 12 have been completed for each level.
Martha Speaks Dog Party (Ages 4+; iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch; $2.99)
With Martha the talking dog as this party's affable host, kids will enjoy playing the four different mini-games that all help teach vocabulary lessons. Pop a party ballon to choose a game and play dress up with a selection of adorable canines. Take a picture of your creation and learn that your dog's outfit is very "fashionable," plus exactly what that means in kid-friendly terms. Or play "Chow Time" and choose the dog plate that matches Martha's instructions; for instance: "Which is the checkerboard plate?" Then feed the dog his party food by swiping a finger around the plate to move the doggie's slurpy tongue. The best thing about the app is how it integrates the learning into the game in a way that doesn't interfere with the fun while also offering lots of encouragement with "yay"s and "good job"s. Kids younger than 4 might have difficulty with some of the concepts (machine vs. nature) and vocabulary (nautical). One slight annoyance is that the volume controls seem buggy -- a player can control the volume of Martha's voice, but not some of the other sound effects, so they can be quite loud. Overall, this is a super fun party that's worth the RSVP.
What parents need to know: Martha Speaks Dog Party is an educational app tied into the popular PBS television show. The four mini-games in the app give kids different opportunities to learn new words like "amble" and "fabulous." Parents should also know that even though preschoolers might enjoy the TV show, the vocabulary games in this app are best for kids in the 4-7 range.
Learn With Homer (Ages 4+; iPad; free with in-app purchases) Learn with Homer is an outstanding way to get kids excited about all of the amazing things to learn about and enjoy through reading. Reading is the key! Something (and probably many things) on this app will strike a chord of interest with almost any kid. In addition to the excellent systematic phonics lessons here, there's lots of interesting content about things like frogs and world music, fiction, poetry, songs, and a free-drawing feature, so even kids who aren't quite ready to read or haven't been bitten yet by the love-of-reading bug can find something fun. The app also encourages kids to think critically about what they're learning by answering comprehension questions, drawing their ideas based on content-related prompts, and recording answers to general interest questions. The positive feedback ("Hooray and Happy Day!" and "Wiggly ears cheers!") can feel a bit over-the-top after a while. But that's about all to nitpick about this very thoughtful reading app. In many ways, reading is like entering a conversation with life, and Learn With Homer helps kids begin that magical journey.
What parents need to know: Learn with Homer is a learn-to-read app for kids ages 3 to 6 that incorporates drawing, voice recording, stories, songs, and more, along with more traditional phonics exercises. A beautiful map on the main page presents all of the options kids can explore: Learn to Read, Story Time, Discover the World, and Homer's Clubhouse. Clear verbal instructions guide kids in all areas. The systematic, sequential phonics program provides kids with lessons, then interactive activities, and a review before moving on to the next level. Within Discover the World, kids can learn about topics ranging from zoos to the five senses. The stories are beautiful, and include many genre-specific sections, like poetry and folk tales. Kids are encouraged throughout the app to draw or voice record their thoughts about everything they're learning. Up to three kids can have individual user accounts on one app, and parents can view progress of each kid aligned with their parent account.
Montessori Letter Sounds HD (Ages 4+; iPad; $2.99) Parents and kids who already know and like the Montessori way of teaching -- simple, quiet, and self-directed -- will love Montessori Letter Sounds. Those who are expecting more action, noise, and sparkly graphics may not find these games as "sticky" as others. That said, there's no question that the games are age-appropriate and exceptionally well-crafted, and that the progression in which they are introduced to young kids is gently-guided-yet-self-directed learning at its best. Also, the supplemental activities that are offered in addition to the games are fun and can be played at any level. What parents need to know:Montessori Letter Sounds HD doesn't have any fast-moving graphics or loud bells and whistles, which makes it a gentle way to introduce very young app users to pre-reading learning games. True to Montessori learning methods, this well-designed app teaches pre-reading skills such as letter sounds and shapes in colorful, uncluttered, and self-directed activities. Simple games, such as writing letters in a "sandbox" and matching letter sounds to photos on cards, mirror the tools used in real-world Montessori classrooms. This app will be helpful for pre-readers, and especially useful for kids already learning within the same methods.
Reading Rainbow (Ages 4+; iPad, Kindle Fire; free) Reading Rainbow is a nostalgic touchstone for many of today's parents, so there's bound to be some concerns that the app can't live up to the landmark television program. In this case, those fears are unfounded, as it keeps the focus strictly on education and the joy of learning. Host LeVar Burton returns as a guide through the app, but lets the books and the users be the star. And the promised future enhancements, such as the "book report" feature that played heavily in the show, are another reason to get excited. Stickers help keep kids motivated, and parents can monitor how often their kids use the app.
A few improvements would make the app truly sing. First, the monthly subscription fee is steep. Given the large collection of books available, it's not unreasonable, but it will be a deterrence to some. Second, we'd like to see more interest areas to choose from when setting up profiles -- some kids will struggle to select three of the presented topics. And finally, we'd like to see the narration highlight words as they're read, but that's a minor quibble.
What parents need to know:Reading Rainbow offers a library of books to users, themed according to a child's interests (action adventures, magical tales, etc.). Kids can choose to have a book read aloud to them or to read the book themselves. To access more than one book, however, you'll have to subscribe to the app -- a $10 recurring monthly fee or $30 for six months.
Starfall Learn to Read (Ages 4+; iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch; free) Starfall Learn to Read really maximizes on the learning in a fun way. It takes every opportunity to label the letters and letter sounds. Even as kids tap on the "next" arrow, the arrow turns into the target letter and kids can hear the letter sound again. The mini-books have a nice progression when kids read them in order. For each vowel sound, there's a good mix of reading, games, songs, and videos. It would be nice to label each mini-book so that if parents and kids wanted to practice a specific vowel sound, they could easily find the appropriate book. While it's fun to see how they've incorporated some interactive elements into the activities, those who use the website will find few surprises.
What parents need to know: Starfall Learn to Read is an app version of the stellar learn-to-read website, Starfall. The app has the same content as the "Learn to Read" section of the site. There are 15 mini-books, each focusing on a specific vowel, along with videos and activities to enhance literacy learning. As with other Starfall apps, the thorough and careful design keeps kids focused on learning.
Feel Electric! (Ages 5+; iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch; free) Feel Electric! shows clearly how interactive, instructive, engaging, and just plain fun quality, well-planned educational apps can be. Whether your kid is feeling "content," "annoyed," "stressed," or "proud," there are many options here to help him or her learn how express emotions more clearly. Options include three games; a "zany" story maker; Electric Company videos; photos (which you can tag on the screen with stickers indicating how the photos make you feel); an emotion-words glossary with more than 50 words; and a digital diary to record your moods with the help of "Mood Dude," an adorable mood-defining character. Kids can also add their own videos and photos to their own diary. This app is part of a military families initiative to help kids whose parents are deployed express their difficult emotions, but all kids can benefit from learning to connect inner emotions to spoken and written words, rather than repressing them or acting out in destructive ways. So much helpful, real-life learning packed into one free app ... and it's tons of fun, too!
What parents need to know: Feel Electric! is a tremendously creative app that teaches kids emotions and language skills. The app's features—videos, photos, games, and emotions-related vocabulary building activities -- star the talented young cast of the PBS show The Electric Company showing kids how to express their emotions with words. This app was created in conjunction with a military organization called Military Families Near and Far that supports kids who have parents in the military. There's not much direct focus on military families on this app (at the time of this review, just one video features people in uniform); it's more generally an app to help all kids learn ways to express their emotions in healthy ways and improve their command of the English language at the same time.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.