Someone suggested a while ago that my print-and-laminate movable alphabet has been superseded by clever movable alphabet apps.
I had been wondering this myself, especially on days when I misplaced one or two pieces, or had to spend five minutes putting it back in order after a group of especially curious and creative kids had had their way with it.
So I downloaded what looked like the most promising of these apps – called Sound Literacy – and tried it out.
In a world where you can get lots of great apps for just a couple of dollars, it seemed a little pricey at $25.99, but I crossed my fingers you get what you pay for, and forked out.
I was hoping it would do everything my alphabet does without the setup time, and without having to carry an extra thing around (I carry my iPad round already). Plus I envisaged that it would say sounds and words as well as representing them visually.
What spellings does the Sound Literacy app contain?
Sound Literacy has a number of "pantries" of different spellings/word chunks:
- Alphabet: single letters arranged in alphabetical order, plus two punctuation marks (hyphen and apostrophe). There is a page of lower case letters, then a page of upper case, although none of the other pantries contain upper case letters. Consonant tiles are yellow and vowels are red. The letter "y" appears twice – one red (as in by, happy and gym) and one yellow (as in yes). There is no indication from the tiles which ones are only used as beginning spellings, and no way of knowing which sounds they represent, as the current app has no voice output (apparently the next version will have this).
- Consonant teams: Three pages of two-letter and three-letter consonant spellings, but the logic of the groupings escapes me. Beginning and ending spellings are mixed together, as are ones that go with "short" vowels and ones that go with other vowel spellings, and common and rare spellings. For example, the last page includes the Latin spellings ci, ti, si and xi, which occur in words of more than one syllable, followed by ff, ll, ss and zz, which are used in simple three-sound words with "short" vowel spellings.
- Vowel teams: Three pages of vowel spellings of two, three and four letters. The first page has 20 spellings, the next one has nine all ending in "r" (ar, er, ir, or, ur, ear, our, yr, re) and the last page has four (ae, al, ough and é). I don't understand the basis for these groupings and I can't find an explanation. There are no split vowel spellings (a…e as in take, i…e as in mice etc) and there seems to be no way to make spellings into the middle of which a consonant can be inserted.
- Endings/rimes: 3 pages of what the app calls rimes, starting with "short" vowel ones, then the Latin endings "tion", "sion", "ture" and "sure" (but not ssion as in mission), and then some "a…e" and "i…e" rimes plus "ain" and "ard". I don't know why these particular rimes were chosen, and I don't plan to use any of these, as I think it is confusing for learners to work at both the single sound level and with larger chunks in the same app. I'd rather get learners to build "an" out of "a" plus "n" than have an additional, separate piece for it which seems to suggest that this is a different thing from the one you can build with its component letters.
- Prefixes: 5 pages of prefixes. Again I won't be using these because I think by the time you get up to working on prefixes, it should be much quicker to just write the words than use a movable alphabet.
- Suffixes: 7 suffixes (s, es, ed, en, er, est, ing), three of which are also spelling alternatives for single phonemes, and the rest of which are easy to build with individual spellings, and don't really require separate pieces. So again, I don't envisage using these.
- Bases: four pages of Latin and Greek bases, such as flect, verse, morph and ortho. I can't imagine myself using these e.g. taking the base "psych" and then assembling "ologist" and "iatrist" using individual letters from the alphabet pantry. If you're ready to learn the words "psychologist" and "psychiatrist", you're probably ready to just write them, and would find it annoying to have to wade through the relevant pages and find the right tiles to spell them.
- Blanks: Tiles in 10 different colours which you can add to other pantries, or use to create a new pantry. Blanks come in two sizes.
How does it work?
The screen has two sections: the pantries at the top and the working area at the bottom. You can set up grids/Elkonin boxes (see this previous blog post if you don't know what they are) in the working area for learners to slot spellings into, if they need a bit of extra structure.
You have to use the app in landscape view because if you turn the iPad to portrait view, you cut off the end of the pantries. No problem, I wasn't going to use it vertically anyway, but some people might want to.
This app doesn't come with any suggested activities, it's just a framework program containing lots of spellings and larger word chunks that you can configure as you see fit, but you have to work out how to use it.
It's not something that a learner can use much by her or himself. It requires you to know what your target sounds/spellings are, what sort of words you're going to build, and then you have to create the activities, just as you must with a physical movable alphabet (though when you download mine you get a handout of suggested starting sequences to make).
There is a function called Sound Maps which lists the phonetic spellings of all the consonant sounds on one work space (including "hw" as in "whale", which is not a separate sound in Australian English), then all the vowel sounds when you turn the page.
If you press and hold on any of these sounds you get a popup list of the main spellings e.g. if you hold "u" you get u as in cup, ou as in cousin and o as in mother (but not o…e as in done, oo as in flood or oe as in does).
I think this is supposed to be used to show learners which spellings go with which sounds, but until it has a voice output function I can't see why anyone would realistically use it much. It's also possible to take any spelling and put it on any sound, for example take a "t" and put it on the sound "ee", though the sound "ee" is never represented by the letter "t".
Customising Sound Literacy
This app is very customisable – you can make your own tiles in any colour, two sizes and organise them into multiple pantries for multiple students.
The question is, will people have the time, even if they know how? I've had this app for a few weeks now and have been meaning to create a version of my movable alphabet on it to use with my students, but so far this hasn't made it to the top of my priority list.
Advantages over physical movable alphabets
- No moving parts to bend or lose (yay).
- Never run out of letters. You can make the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious if you like, try doing that with a standard movable alphabet with just a couple of "i"s.
- If you are already carrying an iPad around, extremely portable.
- No need to pack spellings up into specific locations when you're finished. When you're finished with a tile, just flick it towards the top of the screen and it disappears.
- The Elkonin boxes are nice, especially the fact that you can just add boxes by tapping a plus sign, and remove them by tapping a minus sign. Also, each box expands to fit any tile, whether it is a single-letter spelling or a four-letter one.
- I think this app overreaches by trying to represent too many things – sounds, morphemes, rimes, suffixes etc etc. Movable alphabets are for literacy beginners, not for much more advanced learners who want to spell words like "pneumonia" or "anxious". They should focus on representing sounds used in one-syllable words (some of which are also morphemes, such as "s", "ed" and "er"). There is nothing to stop anyone from deleting all the pantries with extra stuff in them, but why pay for them in the first place?
- Not having split vowel spellings is a big disadvantage in my opinion, I use these pieces in my own alphabet all the time.
- It can't be used in groups of more than a couple of students at a time, as the letters and workspace are too small.
- I was pretty disappointed to find that this app had no associated sound, but then you don't get sound with manual alphabets either.
- The only place in this alphabet that contains explicit information about sound-letter relationships is the Sound Maps section, and as I've said, I query the usefulness of this section. My movable alphabet spelling tiles to have example words on them illustrating each of the main sounds that spelling represents.
- I found it a bit disconcerting that the app's information page says that it teaches the "alphabetic principal", and their web page says the draw mode can be "used for all manor of analysis". Don't tell Annabel Crabb.
If you're working 1:1 or with a pair of learners, not in groups, you already know exactly what order you're going to teach phonemes and graphemes, and you have time to set this app up in a way that facilitates this sequence, this app is probably going to be very useful.
However, I'm not throwing away my trusty movable alphabet in order to use this app all the time, principally because of the lack of split vowel spellings, the small size which makes it unsuitable for groups, and the amount of work I will have to put into customising it to suit my preferred teaching sequence. That might have to wait till the next school holidays.