2020 update: this is a 2012 blog post and not all games listed are now available.
Holidays are coming up, when kids like to muck around on computers, and parents try to get them to use computers for LEARNING, cleverly disguised as fun.
Here are a few good-quality, free literacy games on the internet, sorted from very simple to more complex, which you might like to try persuading your kid or kids are fun.
Note that a few of these games take a while to load, as they contain a lot of sounds and pictures, so be ready to distract/amuse your learner while that happens, so they don’t just decide the program isn’t working and take their goldfish internet attention span elsewhere.
For beginners – sounds and letters
Phonics Hero: This is the internet version of a great little Ipad app that starts off teaching basic sound-letter correspondences in fun activities, and works its way systematically up to spelling and reading words. Free 7-day trial, after which they invite you to subscribe. (Please note that as of 1/7/15 this link is an affiliate link, meaning that if you follow it and then subscribe, I receive a small commission. Since I’d been recommending Phonics Hero for over two years I thought it was OK to accept the offered link).
Phoneme pop: Choose a group of letters and sounds, and then one of these is spoken and the child has to pop all the bubbles that letter is attached to, and get them to fall into a container at the bottom of the screen.
Sound Sea: Choose a target letter from the drop-down menu (e.g. d), and then a range of letters start appearing and disappearing in a fish tank, and the learner’s job is to click on all the target letters (e.g. all the d’s) and not any of the other letters. When you get it right, a fish giggles and a talk bubble says “well done”, when you make a mistake it just says “oh no” and keeps going. (update 22/8/15, the link to this program no longer works and I can’t find a new one, sorry).
Letters and Sounds Phase 2: Initial Sounds Match: This is a memory game where you have to match a letter with a picture that starts with that letter.
Phonic Fighter: A letter appears on an alien spaceship, and then you have to click on a picture that starts with that letter (but there’s no spoken words to tell you what each picture is, and some of them are a bit tricky e.g. inkwell) to shoot the spaceship before it shoots you. Parental assistance is probably needed here, to make sure it’s successful and fun.
River Rhyming: Help a character cross a river by listening to and looking at a word, then clicking on a rhyming word from a selection of three. Unfortunately you can’t click on the choices so you can hear them as well as see them, and a lot of the time it’s possible to do this activity by visually matching the ends of the words, but anyway, it should help develop awareness of rhyme and sound patterns in words.
3-sound words (CVCs)
Jim’s Whirlyword Machine: A machine that seems a bit more like a poker machine than I’d really like (but that might just be me) spins letters around and when they stop you have to read the word created and decide whether it’s a real word. In the hardest level you have to decide if they’re words from a particular word group, e.g. things in the garden.
The Word Wheels: Make words by starting and stopping wheels containing onsets and rimes, then scroll through the pictures to find the matching picture, and press the “check” button. Or you can choose the picture first.
Reading Machine: A picture appears with three words, and you have to click on the word that matches the picture to get applause. Errors are ignored. A bit klunky-looking, and there is the occasional “ar” word (I guess it’s American), but kind of cute.
3 Letter House: Choose a vowel sound (you can also choose a rime, but I’d suggest sticking to a single vowel). The game then generates 3-sound words with this vowel, and the learner has to decide whether this is a real word or not, and then choose whether to change the first sound, last sound, or both, to make another word.
Starfall: Collection of phonetically graded onscreen books, and when you click on a word it is sounded out, with each letter highlighted as it’s said. Really great except I wish they wouldn’t treat very decodable words like “is”, “and” and “has” as whole chunks, and sound them out too.
Phonics Play Buried Treasure: Click on the words “get coin” and a coin appears with something written on it. If it’s a real word, put it in the treasure chest. If not, put it in the bin. If you’re right, a pirate does a dance on the water. If you’re wrong, he moans and falls in the water. Another version of this game is called Picnic on Pluto, and a further version is called Dragon’s Den.
Pick a Picture: This game presents a word and four pictures. Learners have to read the word then click on the picture that matches it, to receive applause and balloons. If they make a mistake, a balloon deflates with an amusing sound that some kids will probably like. Unfortunately there are some two-syllable words mixed into the otherwise simple words presented, but they don’t contain hard spellings.
Tell a T Rex: This great little game presents written questions such as “Can a hen hug?” and you have to read them and tell the T-Rex the answers, by clicking on a tick or a cross. The T-Rex then gets something to eat. If you get it wrong a sign says “try again”.
Blending Bingo: You have to first print off bingo cards before playing this game, and you need at least two players to make it fun. The screen shows a word generator where letters go round and stop to make words for you to cross off your card.
Poop Deck pirates: See below for details, this is mainly a vowel spelling game but if at this earlier level, use the Phase 3 CVC activity
Words with consonant blends
Wordblender: This activity is meant to work on consonant blends but a lot of the words don’t actually have consonant blends. Learners listen to a word, choose an onset and a rime, and put them in the blender to make the word.
Tell a T Rex: See details above, use Level 2 words
Poop Deck pirates: See below for details, use the Phase 4 CVCC and CCVC activities
Write A Postcard: Help Salty Sam write his postcards by finding all the words with a particular sound in them. Unfortunately the program is not 100% phonetically accurate (e.g. in the “ee” sound postcard, words like funny aren’t counted) and Salty Sam repeats the instructions a bit too much, but otherwise this is quite nice.
Poem Pack: Animated poems that each focus on a particular “long” vowel spelling. You can read them, do a sound search activity or a fill-the-gap one, or print them out if you like. Some of the themes are good fun e.g. meet the Creeps, who have smelly feet etc.
Snap It!: In Level 1 of this game, “long” vowel spelling is printed on one card and then words flash on another card. When a word appears that contains the target spelling, you have to snap it. In level 2, the second cards have a spelling missing and you have to snap if the target spelling completes the word.
Deep Sea Phonics: Asks learners to select spellings from a limited number of choices to assemble words e.g. a diver says the word “paint” and the program presents the spellings d/b/p, then ai/or/ee, then n/h/w, then d/t/ff. You have to choose the right spelling to fill the word’s gaps, and then the diver takes the item you’ve spelt out of a treasure chest. If you make a mistake the diver rolls his/her eyes and says “I don’t think that’s right”.
Pirate Spelling: Select spellings from a choice of three to fill gaps in a word, which animates a pirate and macaw. Please avoid the “Really Hard” level, though, because it presents two misspelled words and one correctly-spelt one. Looking at misspelled words can just confuse learners about what’s correct.
DJ Cow’s spelling patterns: This is a wonderword activity where you choose a target spelling and then click on the beginning and end of all the words in the grid with that spelling to eliminate them from a list. Most of the spellings targeted are vowels, but there are also some 2-letter and 3-letter consonant spellings (sh, ch, th, ck, wh, gh, ph, tch) plus a couple of patterns used in 2-syllable words (ful, ly)
Poop Deck Pirates: A pirate says “Aha me hearties, read the words, and keep the good ones” then throws up coins with words and nonwords on them. Learners have to click on a cross if it’s a nonword and a tick for a real word. This game’s main focus is vowel spellings but it also has activities that practice CVC words, consonant blends and consonant spellings ch, sh, th and ng.
Starfall: There are many activities for practicing vowel spellings in Starfall (see above)
Phonics Play Buried Treasure: See above for details. Phase 5 of the game works on vowel spellings. Another version of this game is called Picnic on Pluto, and a further version is called Dragon’s Den.
Pick a Picture: See above for details. Phase 3 contains two and three-letter vowel spellings, and unfortunately a few two-syllable words.
Tell a T Rex: See details above, use levels 3 and 4.
Words with more than one syllable
Planetary Plurals: A singular noun (e.g. bone, church, army, donkey, half, sheep) is presented and the learner has to type the correct plural (e.g. bones, churches, armies, donkeys, halves, sheep) to get a cheering sound and a point. If they make a mistake, the game says “oops”. A variation on this game is called Pond Life Plurals
Deep Sea Phonics: See above for details, the hardest level contains words of more than one syllable.
Starfall: There are some activities for practicing the spellings of multisyllable words in Starfall (see above)
If you want to buy a phonics computer game for use at home, Wordshark gets good reviews from kids I know, and is based on sound synthetic phonics principles. There are also a number of free crossword-generating programs on the internet, into which you can feed a phonics-based wordlist (click here to find lots), add a clue for each word, then hey presto! print out your own crossword. Armored Penguin has one such crossword generator.