Top early literacy apps 2014

I’ve spent far too much of the last couple of long weekends searching for, and trying out, new iPad apps for teaching early reading and spelling.

Every time I do this, I feel very sorry for parents doing the same thing.

There were 1729 search results on the word “phonics”, 7,960 on “reading” and 2634 results on “spelling”. Where to start?! Even an opinionated person who knows what she’s looking for gets a bit overwhelmed.

There are few really good early literacy apps

Most early literacy apps are frankly dross, IMHO. I wouldn’t want any kids I know to use them.

A lot of expert reviewers also seem to recommend apps that make me scratch my head, and wonder whether they really work with reading/spelling beginners, or understand our spelling system.

I ended up deleting most of what I downloaded, because most of them looked better in the store than they were when I tried them, and some looked downright confusing and possibly harmful to children’s learning.

However, there were quite a few nice ones I hadn’t seen before. Some of them are fairly teddy-bearish and really only suitable for ages 4-7, but lots of them can also be used with older, low-progress learners too.

Apple versus Android

If you don’t have a tablet computer but are thinking of buying one, the iPad clearly has the best range of good quality early literacy apps. Lots of them also work on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

If you already have an Android tablet computer, you can get a few good apps for it, but I don’t know of very many. I don’t have an Android device myself, but I went searching in Google Play for apps that looked good a while ago, and came away very disappointed.

In the list below, I’ve put an *A* in brackets with a link to the relevant page of Google Play with apps that are also available for Android.

Links to the iTunes store

The iPad app links in this post are all to the Australian iTunes store. I think if you’re outside Australia you can just replace the “/au/” in the URL with your country code (e.g. “/nz/” for New Zealand, “/gb/” for the UK, “/us/” for USA) to get the relevant app from your local iTunes store, but please check you’re in the right store before spending any money.

Apps that work with sounds/letters outside words

Some apps work with sounds and letters/spellings outside the context of words, but these days I tend to prefer apps which focus on working on sounds and letters in real words. They’re just more relevant and meaningful.

However, apps I do sometimes use to focus on letter formation/recognition include Blobble Write HD, Oz Phonics Intro to Reading (Sound to Letter activity) (*A*), Oz Phonics 1 (Sound Match activity), Montessori Letter Sounds (Letter Sounds activity), ABC Ninja, Little Finder ABC and Letter Sounds 1 Pro (*A*) (but the latter is pricey at $24.99, and I turn off the mnemonics, as I prefer to avoid teaching anything learners won’t need later).

Focussing on initial sounds

There are also a few apps that work on hearing initial sounds in words and selecting/writing the first letter, which can be nice as a starting point for real beginners, as long as they then quickly move on to working on sounds/letters in other word positions, and don’t get into the habit of focussing on word beginnings and guessing the rest.

The best initial phonics apps I can find are Preschool University ABC Magic (eight apps in total), Funimal Pairs, Phonics Match (*A*), and First Letters and Phonics (in the settings, turn on Phonics not Letter Names).

Little Matchups is also quite nice to teach the correspondence between upper and lower case letters (in the Library setting, turn on ABC Letter Sounds and turn the rest off).

Best beginner apps

The following is a list of my 25 favourite apps for beginners who are working with the Basic Code (one letter = one sound) in all word positions in two and three-sound words (Vowel-Consonant words like “up”, “on” and “at”, and Consonant-Vowel- Consonant words like “pig”, “ran” and “cut”).

The apps I haven’t blogged about before are listed first, so if you’ve read previous blogs and already tried those apps, you can skip the last section of this blog post. But if not, don’t forget that some of the best, tried and true apps are near the end of this blog post.

phonics heroPhonics Hero

(This paragraph updated 26/10/15) My absolute favourite app for little kids is Phonics Hero, but when this blog post was first written it was having iOS compatibility problems so I didn’t say much about it. Its simplest activities are perfect for teaching tiny children about sounds and letters, and its most difficult activities target tricky spellings like the ti in action and fiction, and the si in collision and confusion. It has 850 games/activities in 26 levels, built round a rescue narrative like a proper computer game. There is an explainer video on their website. The app requires an internet connection, and there’s a free 7-day trial period before they ask you to pay a $49.99 six-month subscription for a child account. School accounts are also available. Phonics Hero is also available as a computer program, again with a free seven day trial period. (Note that when updating this paragraph I added an affiliate link. If you follow the link and subscribe, I will get a small commission. Since I’ve been recommending Phonics Hero for nearly three years for free, I decided to accept an affiliate link when it was offered).

Initial Code Sounds WriteInitial Code

I am possibly a little biassed towards this app having recently done the excellent Sounds Write four-day training. At first I found the Initial Code app a little slow and confusing, but having done the training and realised that children aren’t meant to use it independently, and used it with a couple of real beginners, I like it a lot.

The part of the app I have worked through so far includes word-building, sound-letter matching, word reading and sentence reading activities. It starts off with five sounds and letters (a, i, m, s, t) and teaches these thoroughly before adding another three sounds/letters (n, o, p) and then another four (b, c, g, h) and so on.

Parental or teacher/tutor supervision is needed to make sure that children are actually tracing the letters and reading the words, and to talk about what you’re doing to make it more interesting. There’s little edutainment value here, just solid skills practice. Having spent a day downloading apps that scream “Fun For Kids!!!”, but which teach very little or might actually confuse children about sounds and letters, gave me a greater appreciation of this app’s simplicity, clear focus and intensive opportunities for practice.

Price: Free for the first bit, $2.49 for the first half and $3.79 to unlock all the content. For iPad only. First sounds/letters introduced: a, i, m, s, t (like the Dandelion books). British accent.

Sentence Reading MagicSentence Reading Magic

This app is from Preschool University, which had me downloading it straight away, as I love most of their other apps. It contains a Sentence Building activity, where you make sentences with 2, 3, 4 or 5-6 short, simple words. This is great for learners who are struggling with putting sentences together as well as reading/spelling. They can see they’re making progress even though the steps are very small.

The two-word sentences are things like “Rob cut” and “Pam fell” and the longest sentences are things like “He gets it for Dad” and “The six kids are not sad”. There are some capital letters, as well as some words with spellings beyond basic one-letter-one-sound relationships, but enough structure in the activity for this not to trip up the learners I know.

There’s also a Sentence Reading activity where a sentence is presented with a blank picture box above it. I ask learners to read the sentence and then tap the box to check if the picture matches their sentence.

This app also has a “Sight words” activity, with a word flashcards section (which I never use) but also a section where three or four high-frequency words appear in boxes, one of them is spoken and the learner has to find the right word and move it to a blank box at the bottom of the screen. Another “trick-you-into-reading-and-always-getting-things-right” activity, not flashy, but nice.

Price: free lite version or $3.79 for the “deluxe” version. For iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. American accent. Suitable for all ages.

Reading RavenReading Raven

This app is intended for children aged 3-7, but it’s not so kiddie that it can’t be used with slightly older children.

In the menu, there are five activities I wouldn’t bother with. Two can be accomplished just by visual matching: Letter Matching and Word Matching. The Vocabulary activity for ages 4 and up can be accomplished just by listening to words and matching them to pictures, so it’s not really a literacy activity. The Word Tracing activity designed for ages 5 and up would be great except that as you trace, the letter name is spoken, not the sound. The Word Groups activity is a funny mixture of initial sounds and rhyming work, which I found very confusing. So I’ve turned these five activities off in my copy, leaving six activities that I think make this app still well worth getting.

There is a Letter Tracing activity which requires you to trace pretty accurately, and makes you start and finish in the right place. There’s also a nice “catch the butterflies” activity where you have to listen for sounds and find the right letters. When you make mistakes an adult voice corrects you and then a kiddie voice cheerfully says “try again!” or “keep trying”.

There is a Word Beginnings activity with pictures on flowers, and a bird flying past dropping letters. The learner has to put each letter on a picture starting with this letter, and when they do, the reward is the written word and a voice saying, for example “Ay makes the sound ‘a’ as in apple”. I could do without the letter names, and I’d prefer that the rest of the words were printed on the flowers so that the letters could be dropped into them. I’d also prefer that there weren’t long words like “apple” and “table” here, but anyway, as initial phonics (rather than synthetic phonics) activities go, it’s OK.

The Word Building activity gives you the relevant letters and a picture, and you have to assemble the word, with circles marking where to put each letter. You hear each sound as you move it, and if you get stuck an arrow shows you what to do next. Then the words is sounded out and the letters merged. A Word Spotting activity has a frog on a lily pad and flies with words on them buzzing overhead. A voice says (for example) “catch the flies that say the word ‘sat'”, and if you do, the frog eats them. There’s a cute “aw, that’s not it” kid’s voice message if you get it wrong, and the frog’s tongue goes after the fly, but doesn’t eat it.

My favourite activity in this app is the Reading Aloud one for ages 5 and up. A word is presented and sounded out, and the learner is encouraged to run her or his finger under the word and record his or her own voice saying the word. This recording is then played. Kids love recording themselves, and this activity encourages them to say words in a stretched-out way and listen for the sounds. There are also some little sentences to read and record, like “a tan cat” and “Nan sat”.

There are a lot more activities in this app which I haven’t had time to play through, but enough here to make it worth getting. There’s a choice of four fonts, and upper and lower case. I suggest using the lower case ball and stick style font, even if your child is learning to write cursive at school. I’m kind of over using cursive with real beginners. You end up with all sorts of confusion about what’s core and non-core in letter shapes. The letter m ends up often having three humps, and the letter n two. The letter o gets a little stick poking out of the top. The letter r looks more like a v. I know my materials include a cursive option, but I’m thinking of getting rid of it as more trouble than its worth.

Price: $4.99. For iPad only. First sounds/letters introduced: a, s, c t, n. American accent.

rainbow phonicsRainbow Phonics

The first activity is a decodable book with sentences like “A man sits in a pit” (he has furniture in there, and appears to live there). He does some tap dancing, his possessions animate, then he has a nap. So not literature, but nice decoding practice.

The second activity presents a series of pictures (a pot, a cat, a cap, a spinning top, and so on) with words next to them, but a letter or two replaced by dots (e.g. next to the cap is “ap”). The learner has to build each word from a limited array of letters, with each sound being pronounced as it is moved.

Unfortunately not all the consonant sounds are crisp, and the “o” sounds a bit like an unstressed/schwa vowel to me. The vowel letters are red and the consonant letters are blue, OK. As each word is correctly built, its picture disappears and its word is completed. Consonant digraphs like the spellings “ck”, ‘ll” and “sh” are introduced fairly quickly, which I quite like. If you don’t bring in “ck” soon after learning “c” and “k”, kids try to put one of these after a vowel during word-building, want to know why they shouldn’t, and the word-final “ck” spelling is the best answer.

If using this app with older learners, turn the iPad’s sound off first, so you can skip the kiddie music at the start. The pictures are nice, probably still OK for older primary aged children, though students in secondary school might baulk at them. Once you’re through the decodable book, you can turn the sound back on for the wordbuilding activity.

Once you’ve covered the basic code and the consonant digraphs (ck, ll, sh, ch, qu and ng), this app starts work on vowel spellings (ai, ee, oa, igh, oo, oi, ow, ar, air, or, ear and ur).

Price: the first three sets of activities are free, the full version is $6.49. For iPad only. First sounds/letters taught: s, a, t, p, i, n, m. British accent.

big top phonicsBig Top Phonics

This app is Australian, which I admit might be why I include it here, I wish there were more apps in the accent my learners speak. There are six activities.

Hear and Write is a letter-matching and letter-tracing activity, but if you feel like just scribbling, you can, so at first it probably needs to be done with adult supervision. Sounds are spoken when letters are chosen, but not as they are written. There are arrows showing you how to form each letter.

Beginning Sounds is an activity where a picture is presented and the learner has to tap on it to hear the word, then find the initial letter. Words contain 2, 3 or 4 sounds, sometimes with consonant blends and digraphs, so it could confuse some children. End Sounds is the same thing but for end sounds, it includes a number of digraphs, both vowels and consonants. So this is quite a step up from the basic code. Sadly, there is no Middle Sounds activity.

Segmenting sounds is a word-building activity, where letters must be moved to carriages on a train to make a word. There are three-sound words but also four-sound words. The screen is quite busy, and you get a verbal reward and the train toots and drives off when you’re correct. Errors are ignored.

An activity oddly called “Game” goes back a step and is a memory game matching letters and the initial sounds of words represented by pictures. The final activity, “Quiz”, has a Ferris wheel with four compartments, each marked with a vowel digraph, and you have to choose the right digraph to complete a word represented by a picture in the middle of the wheel e.g. the “ai” to complete the word “rain”. So this activity is harder than the basic code, and not for beginners. However, as it’s highly structured and has just a few choices, I sometimes use it when I am explaining to interested children that there are lots of different vowel sounds apart from the basic “a, e, i, o, u”, spelt in different ways.

Price: $2.49. For iPad only. First sounds/letters taught: s, a, t, p, i, n. Australian accent.

Phonics Read CVC 100 wordsPhonics Read CVC 100 First Words

This app does one simple thing well, which I always like. A word appears on the screen, with each letter in a bubble. When you touch each letter, you hear the sound. The consonants are nice and crisp. you then have to blend the word and find the matching picture from a choice of six. The only spellings used seem to be one letter = one sound, Basic Code ones, in three sound words, though I haven’t yet played through all 100 words.

If you get the right picture, a rising tone plays, everything rotates and flies off the screen, and the next word and set of pictures appear. If you get it wrong, a chime sounds and the picture you touched rotates. You can touch every incorrect picture and you get the same response.

You can work in either upper or lower case. I recommend lower case, as that’s what’s used most in books. This is a great app for use with older learners, as there’s nothing kiddie about it.

Price: there is a free version with only 20 words, or the full version with 100 words is $1.29. For iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. The version I got from the Australian iTunes store sounds like British English, but the store says US English is also available.

Learn To Read With PipLearn to Read With Pip

The narrative in this app is targeted squarely at little kids, but some of the activities could be used with older learners. The main menu items in it are Voyage, Stories and Games.

I found the Voyage menu confusing. It links to some instructional videos that I didn’t like much (the one on segmenting has sounds which are not crisp, so I won’t be showing it to anyone) plus a couple of sounds-without-letters activities – an “I spy” initial sounds one and an oral blending one. Anyway the sounds in these activities are nice and crisp, and they don’t take long.

Then there is a “Splat” activity which would probably upset animal liberationists, where (for example) chickens moving round the screen have letters on them and you have to “splat” the ones for a given sound. It’s funny and cartoony and I’ll use this quite a lot.

The Stories activities are very short and an the storylines are odd, as you’d expect when restricted to using only four letters and a few “sight words”. Words aren’t automatically sounded out, but if you touch them, what looks like a cross between a piano and an old car pops up, with the word printed where the rear windscreen/sheet music would be, and dots underneath. If you touch the dots, you can hear each sound, then if you touch the Pip icon you can hear the word sounded out. A “game” that follows each book requires the correct word to be selected from a choice of three and placed in a little sentence. Nice.

There are also some harder books (e.g. Goldilocks) in which the words suitable for a beginner to read independently are highlighted. If you touch them, the piano/car contraption appears and the app helps you sound them out. Now this, I like. I have often thought someone should get normal, interesting books, computerise them, and include a way to set their level of decodability electronically, highlighting words with sound-letter correspondences the learner knows. Then they can be jointly read by adults (the harder words) and beginners (the words they can decode), thus providing both successful decoding practice and a good storyline. This is the first time I’ve seen this attempted. App developers, please take note.

There are also activities where you’re shown two pictures and one word, and have to touch the right picture (nice), and another one where you hear a sound and have to assemble the three letters on the screen to spell it (nice again). Errors are ignored and hints provided if you make too many of them.

There are a few bugs in this software, e.g. the words on the screen don’t always match the ones spoken exactly, and in the Games menu, the high-frequency words game links to the Splat activity. I hope and expect they will iron these out in free upgrades. One other annoying thing about this app, at least for Australians, is the sound of a fly buzzing. Maybe it’s meant to be a bumblebee, with pleasant summer associations for the app’s UK authors. But to me, it sounds like a blowie, and I just want to SPLAT it. I also wasn’t keen on their use of mnemonics like “sneaky snake” and “pretty pony” for each letter, which seem like extra, not-very-useful cognitive load.

Price: Free for the first bit, then you can buy extras at various prices: the first ones seem to be Letters – Reception at $2.49 and Practise Letters with Pip – Year 1 at $2.49. First sounds taught: s, a, t, p. For iPad, iPhone and iPad Touch. British accent.

Ladybird I'm Ready For PhonicsLadybird I’m Ready For Phonics!

This is another app that takes time to review properly because you have to finish one level before you can unlock the next. So please excuse me for only having played through part of it and then looked at online information to find out the rest. It has slightly kiddie themes, but a non-bolshie nine or ten-year-old would probably not be bothered by them.

It starts off with the whole alphabet on the screen, and when you touch a letter, a screen with that letter and an initial phonics activity (here are two words starting with this letter, find the third one) appears. It includes hard words like astronaut and ambulance, and to succeed, all you have to do is look at the first letters. So I’d skip it if I could. In the next level, Funky Phonemes is an activity where letters are presented and learners are asked to record the sounds. Then they are presented with a word starting with that sound/letter. Another sigh.

The next activity, Brilliant Blending, presents printed words, and the learner has to choose the correct picture from a choice of three. The error message is a chime sound and a voice saying “try again”, and the screen presentation is uncluttered and not too kiddie. Very nice.

Super Segmenting is another nice activity, where you choose a picture, hear the word, then are provided with all the letters needed to write it and lines to put them on. Sadly you don’t hear each sound as you move the letter down, so I will be saying it and insisting my learners say it too. A cat says “well done” if you’re right.

Top Tricky Words is the last activity in the second level, and it falsely tells learners that “a tricky word is a word that cannot be phonetically decoded”, when many of the words on at least the first “tricky words” list are actually entirely decodable (as, a, is, it, in, an, I). So I won’t be asking my learners to use this activity.

The next levels up seem to contain the same activities but with harder words. I will have to find a kid willing to play through this app so I can see if there’s anything else good at the higher levels. But anyway the Brilliant Blending and Super Segmenting activities make it look worth getting.

Price: $6.49. For iPad and iPhone. First sounds/letters taught: s, a, t, p, i, n. British accent.

The Reading GameThe Reading Game

This app is a bit homemade-and-funny-looking, but the Starter version is free and there’s enough useful stuff in it to make it worth getting, and worth considering the paid upgrades.

A cartoon picture appears (such as a man) with a written question (such as “Am I a pin?”). There are two answer buttons, one marked “yes” and one marked “no”. If you press the correct one, the answer button you pressed turns green, and the correct answer is spoken e.g. “No, I am a man”. If you get it wrong, it says exactly the same thing but the answer button you pressed turns red. There are no rainbows and no cheering, so some learners used to more clearly differentiated feedback might not be sure whether they were correct. I’ll probably throw in a few little cheers to help learners get going with this.

Next it asks you to choose a letter to complete a word in a sentence e.g. a picture of a long narrow safety pin, the sentence “I am a thin p_n” and the choices “a” and “i”. Whether you get it right or wrong, the correct letter then flies into the word. Then words are missing from sentences and you have to choose the correct one, which flies into the sentence.

This app probably needs to be used with adult support, for all but the most motivated users. It’s not what my niece, in her younger days, would have called “the funnest”. It has a score at the end, which might help motivate students to see if they can get 30 out of 30. I’m thinking of using this app particularly with kids who also have oral language difficulties, and often struggle with True/False format questions.

Price: Free for the starter version, the first upgrade is $3.79. For iPhone and iPad. American accent.

Fitzroy readersFitzroy Sounding Readers

I think I’ve been playing “can’t see the wood for the trees” with the Fitzroy Readers. They’ve been around for years, and most people in my state know about them, and don’t think of them as news. I live and work a stone’s throw away from their office and school, and have and use some of their readers and workbooks. I know they’re a successful synthetic phonics program. But I’ve only just bought their first app, prompted by a parent of one of my students who has been using it over the holidays (thanks, Karly!).

Books 1-10 are where you should start with beginners, and getting these books as an app makes them very affordable. When you touch each word in these books, it enlarges on the screen and is sounded out, one letter at a time. A red underline appears under each sound as it is spoken, and then under the whole word as that is spoken.

The pictures in these books aren’t slick, but they’re like the pictures in many other children’s stories. The stories aren’t literature, like any beginners’ decodable books that can only contain little words with simple spellings. However, my experience is that most younger kids, and slightly older strugglers enjoy them – they’re just happy to be able to actually get the words off the pages by themselves.

In the Settings of these books, I suggest using a Strict Phonetic pronunciation, sounding out wherever possible using all rules, and that the word “a” be pronounced as “ay” not “uh”, as this helps avoid confusion between the letters “a” and “u” in little words.

Price: $12.99, so about $1.30 per book, cheap as chips. For iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. First sounds/letters introduced: a, b, c, d, f, h, i, m, n, o, r, s, t. Australian accent.

hooked on phonicsHooked On Phonics

This is a series of decodable books that have cartoon illustrations which help create an interesting/amusing narrative, even though there are very few, very simply-spelt words in the first books.

However, there is no sounding-out of words in these books, the iPad just reads whatever words are printed at the bottom of the page. So it’s probably best for beginners to use these books with an adult who can show them how to say each sound and then blend it into a word.

Price: The first four books are free, and then you can buy a few more at a time or get the whole set of 33 additional books for $64.99, which is a bit less than $2 per book. For iPad, iPhone and iPad Touch. American accent.

The word monstersThe Word Monsters

These are cute little decodable books, with cartoony pictures, funny sound effects and of course monsters (but not really scary ones). Older kids who like cartoons might like them as much as young kids, but they’re not really suitable for teenagers or adults.

The first sentences are things like “I am Tag” and “I can hop”, and when you touch the words they are sounded out, letter by letter. You can also touch a speaker icon to hear the whole sentence.

If you touch things in the picture, you get animations, sounds and written and spoken words. Many of the words presented are much harder than the ones in the story text, but oh well, it reads them to you, it doesn’t expect beginners to read them independently.

Unlike many early decodable books which have only four or five pages, the first one has eleven pages of decodable text. Good value. There is good information for parents and teachers and you can download teacher notes and free print activities that go with each book from the Mindconnex website, things like tracing, copying and matching letters to pictures with that initial sound.

There is also a Games section in this app, which includes a “Phonics Fun” game, where a letter name (which I could do without) and sound are heard and you have to find all the pictures starting with that sound, from a choice of six. The pictures are all labelled, so it’s working on sounds-and-letters, not sounds alone, which is good. The words are not all decodable for beginners (apple, astronaut, alligator, etc) but the focus is first initial phonics so it probably doesn’t matter. Errors get a sad little chime sound and a bit of animation, but aren’t as interesting as the spoken reward sound and animation. Next it asks you to choose all the things that END with a given sound (Hooray! Beyond initial phonics!).

Another game is called “Story Details” in which little sentences from the story have to be completed by dragging the correct word into them. These test for comprehension of the story e.g. you see a picture of a monster, and the sentence “I am ___” with the choices being “Tag”, “Bug” and “Pop”. I’m going to have to reread the story to answer this myself! But I really like this activity.

There is also a memory game called “Word Works” where spoken and written “tricky” words like “are” and “I” and “am” (what’s tricky about “am”?!) are matched. Then it has words like “umbrella” and “flower” which are neither high-frequency nor suitable for beginners to attempt to read, so I won’t be using this activity with beginners, and I suggest you avoid it too.

Price: the first book is free, the next five are $9.99 if bought as a multipack, so $2 per electronic book. For iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. First sounds/letters: s, a, t, p, i, n. American accent.

abc pocketphonicsABC Pocketphonics

This is another very simple, well-structured app designed for very little kids who are just starting to learn about sounds and letters.

The teaching sequence starts with s, a, t, p, i, n, like in Jolly Phonics. Each letter is traced, and there’s a setting in the app that makes you stay within the lines, though you can do a bit of scribbling along the way or at the end, and it doesn’t seem to mind. Then you listen to sounds and choose the correct letters from a small array, not the whole alphabet, to build words.

The sounds are crisp and there are cheering pencils, spoken praise, music and a relevant picture when you get it right, after which the word is sounded out. Sometimes there’s even a relevant sound effect e.g. after the word “sip” the girl who appears drinking from a straw is doing what I’d strictly call slurping. The on-screen instructions are written not said, so the app assumes a level of adult supervision, at least for starters.

Price: Free Lite version, or $3.79 for the full version. For iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. First sounds introduced: s, a, t, p, i, n. American accent.

REading Magic 1ABC Reading Magic 1

I’ve raved about these Preschool University apps before and they stand the test of time, I use them constantly. However, I only use Skill 3: Reading in this app, because Skills 1 and 2 work on sounds without letters, and I don’t know of any convincing research that suggests this is a worthwhile thing to do.

A large blank box appears at the top of the screen, and a three-sound word appears at the bottom of the screen in boxes representing each of its sounds e.g. the word “fuss” is in three boxes, “f”, “u” and “ss”. I ask the learner to read the word then tap the large blank box to see if the picture matches their word. The pictures are photos, and classical music plays between each word.

If learners are not sure what all the sounds are in a word, they can tap the relevant letter box(es) to hear it/them. The consonant sounds are nice and crisp, but the vowels are American so sometimes they are a little bit confusing for those of us with an Australian accent.

Price: the lite version is free, the full version is $1.29. For iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. American accent. Suitable for use with learners of any age (no childish pictures or music).

Spelling Magic 1ABC Spelling Magic 1

Another great app from Preschool University that does a single, important thing – word building – very well.

There are two main menu items, one of which allows you to build words using just the necessary letters/spellings, and one in which you have to find the right letters in an ABCD layout alphabet. I mostly use the former activity, because my priority is getting learners to successfully segment little words and build them with letters, not practice finding letters in the alphabet.

Some of the words in this app and the previous one are a bit obscure, e.g. the underside of a mushroom for “gill” and a chrysanthemum for “mum”. But I’ve found that learners don’t blink at my explanations about these. They are used to learning new words, and here are some more.

Price: the lite version is free and the full version is $2.49. For iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. American accent.

Little Learners Love Literacy 1 appLittle Learners Love Literacy books

There are five sets of Little Learners Love Literacy books available for the iPad, each with five books. They’re much cheaper than buying the paper versions of the books, and less likely to get dog-eared or lost, unless you lose or break your iPad, but then if you get a new one you can download them again without having to pay for them.

I like these stories because they have a very Australian look and feel, and follow a proper synthetic phonics sequence where just a few sounds are introduced, practiced to automaticity, then more gradually added. They’re intended for children in their first year of school, and if I was a multimillionaire I’d buy every Australian classroom of five-year-olds a couple of sets, plus a few for every school library, and know I’d done more to stamp out poor literacy (and all its future dire consequences) than just about anyone.

There’s a setting in these books that, if turned on, speaks each word when you touch it (but doesn’t sound them out letter by letter first). I always turn this off, otherwise many children just touch the words and hear them, they don’t sound them out for themselves. Unfortunately smart kids can easily turn it back on, so in the next version I will be nagging the publisher to protect it with an “are you an adult?” question.

Price: $6.49 for each set of 5 books, so about $1.30 per book. First sounds/letters introduced: m, s, f, a, p, t, c, i. Australian English.

Oz Phonics 2Oz Phonics 2

The activities in Oz Phonics 2 I use most with real beginners are activities 1-5, and the first test in activity 13.

In activity 1 a word is spoken, then each sound is heard, and the learner has to find the right letters from the whole alphabet, arranged in ABCD layout (I’d prefer a QWERTY layout, but I guess that’s picky). The number of letters can make this activity tricky for real beginners, but it’s OK for ones who already recognise most of the letters. The vowels are red and the consonants are black, and there are two copies of the letter “y” (a red one and a black one), and the digraph “th”, but they don’t seem to come up in the words, so perhaps they’re just there to fill out the 4 X 7 grid.

Activity 2 is a simple wonderword puzzle, where you have to find three-sound words and slide your finger along them to remove them from lists on either side of the puzzle. As you find each word, its letters move to the top of the screen and you hear their sounds as they do. Once the word is at the top of the screen, it is spoken. Nice, and kids enjoy this, and want to keep playing.

Activity 3 is called Missing Sounds, and a picture and a word is presented on the screen, but the first letter of the word is missing. There are four letter choices at the bottom of the screen, and you have to drag the correct letter into the word to hear it sounded out, then said as a whole word. Activities 4 and 5 are the same as Activity 3, but with the last sound and then the middle sound missing. This is one of the few apps available which gets away from the traditional focus on word beginnings, and works on word endings and middles too, hooray. It’s also suitable for any age group as there are no kiddie pictures, nursery rhymes or other stuff you can’t use with older learners.

Price $3.79. For iPad only. Australian accent.

Howie Finding VowelHowie Finding Vowel

This app requires learners to complete words by adding vowel spellings to them, which is a nice change from all the apps that focus on word beginnings and sometimes endings. It has five levels that cover all the main vowel spellings. With beginners I just use Level 1: Short Vowels.

A word with its vowel missing appears in a hotdog bun next to a cartoon hungry monster, and the question is asked (for example) “Which vowel do you hear in ‘tip’?” A choice of four letters are available, each on a hotdog. The learner has to find the correct letter ‘i’ and move it (with the hotdog attached to it) into the word (and the hotdog bun). They get two tries before the app tells them the answer.

Once the word and hotdog is assembled, the word is sounded out (not always with crisp consonants, sadly) and then the monster eats the hot dog, with suitable expressions of enjoyment and appreciation.

Each level requires learners to feed the monster ten hotdogs, so this app can get a little boring unless you’re the sort of child who likes repetition (kids on the Autism Spectrum often do, I see one little chap who always asks to use this app as a reward). To make it more interesting I sometimes time learners, and we see if they can achieve a Personal Best at feeding the 10 hotdogs to Howie.

Price: free for the lite version, and then if I recall correctly, the in-app upgrade (which doesn’t seem to be findable via iTunes) was just a couple of dollars. For iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. American accent.

Little Stars Word WizardLittle Stars – Word Wizard

There are actually two Word Wizard apps available for the iPad. I use Word Wizard by L’Escapadou occasionally, it’s a talking movable alphabet, a fairly basic one with a robotic voice. But Word Wizard by Little Stars is an app I use constantly, often as a reward for whoever finishes their written work early. It’s a game where two people race to see who can read four words the fastest, but kids who don’t like competitive activities can also play this app solo.

The words at the start of this app are three-sound ones with simple one letter = one sound spellings like “sad”, “nod” and “lip” but after a while some digraphs and longer words start appearing with which absolute beginners may need help. The app assumes that you know one sound for each of the letters of the alphabet.

One thing I especially like about this app is that it often presents two words with the same first letter(s) at the same time e.g. “hog” and “hot”. This forces kids who are inclined to look at first letters and guess to read right through the words. When they don’t, I often take advantage and beat them at this game (for once), then give them a pep talk about how they can beat me if they just remember to read right through the words. This seems to have the desired effect.

Price: Free! For iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. American accent.

The bug is in the mugSilly Sentences 1 (not available in 2018)

This app asks you to choose a vowel (presented as Aa, Ee, Ii, Oo or Uu) then tells you both letter name and sound, and presents a couple of words containing the sound (I could do without this intro). Then it shows you nine words containing that vowel. They are mostly three-sound words and basic, one letter = one sound relationships, but sometimes they throw in a consonant digraph (as in “duck”) or two consonants before the vowel (as in “frog”), though not so much that it’s really a major problem for beginners.

The learner’s job is first to read the words and then tap them to expose the relevant pictures and see if they were right. Then they have to match the words to the pictures (unfortunately when you touch the words, the app reads them aloud, so learners don’t have to actually read them), then put the correct vowel sound on pictures (sadly for non-Americans the “O” versus “U” example words include the contrast “mom” and “mug”), then match sentences like “The duck is in the van” to pictures. Often, all you have to do to succeed on this last part is read the first word or two of the sentence. But anyway, this app gets kids to read quite a lot of little words in a short space of time, so it’s useful.

Price: Free for the lite version, $3.79 for the full version. For iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. American accent.

Little Reader Three letter wordsLittle Reader – Three Letter Words

This app presents learners with between one and six pictures down one side of the screen, and one and six scrambled matching words on the other side. The pictures are clear photos, but when you have five or six of them on the screen at once they get pretty small, so I usually set a maximum of four words at a time in the settings, and for absolute beginners I choose a lower minimum, sometimes just two words and two pictures.

When the relevant picture is touched, the word is spoken, so there’s no room for confusion about what word each picture represents. When you put the picture with the right word, there is a satisfying click. If you get it wrong, there is a “boing” error sound and the picture bounces away. I’ve known one or two kids who were more motivated by the boing sound than the click, so deliberatey made mistakes, sigh. When will game designers learn to make getting things right reliably more fun than getting them wrong? The spoken rewards when you complete a page say things like “awesome” and “Perfect”, and there are no dancing teddy bears or bunny rabbits, so this app is useful with learners of any age.

I suggest you set this app up with sound on but audio hints and tile magnet off, and turn off the “other 3 letter words” in the library (so your beginner is not meeting tricky spellings).

Price: there is a free “lite” version, but the full version won’t break the bank at $1.29. For iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. American accent.

Little SpellerLittle Speller – Three Letter Words

Little Speller presents the learner with a photograph and three letters to build the associated word in tidy boxes at the bottom of the screen e.g a picture of a saucepan lid, the letters “d”, “i” and “l” scrambled around it, and three boxes below. When you get letters correct they lock in with a satisfying click, and when you get them wrong, there’s a “boing” sound that some kids really like and will seek to keep hearing, drat it. Incorrect letters bounce out of the box as they go boing. It’s possible to turn other sounds off in this app, but not the boing sound, double drat.

I suggest that in this app’s settings you have the sound, word hints and visual hints on, but letter hints and letter repeat off. I use random word order, and letter order left to right (so that kids build the words from left to right, they don’t put the last letter in first), plus I use lower case letters and in the library I turn off the “mixed words” (some of which have tricky spellings).

Price: there is a free “lite” version, and the full version is $1.29. For iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. American accent. Suitable for learners of any age.

Bob Books Magic 1Bob Books Reading Magic 1

This app is gentle, friendly little one for young absolute beginners. It contains little cartoons which you touch to colour and animate, and then you have to build words, e.g. the first person is called “Mat”, and then there is a “cat”. The screens are uncluttered and only the letters you need are provided. These letters are at first greyed out in the boxes into which you have to build the word, so its’ at first a simple letter discrimination and matching task. Only later do these hints disappear. A quiet bleepy error sound doesn’t seem to worry or excite too many kids. Words are then sounded out and put into a little sentence, with an additional colour animation.

I suggest that for beginners you set this app up in the options to choose its level automatically, have background music sometimes, sound effects always, offer hints by wiggling objects and that the spelling be phonics (sounds) not letter names.

Price: there is a free “lite” version, and the full version is $4.99, For iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. American English.

Starfall learn to readStarfall Learn To Read (*A*)

The activities in this app are also available for free on computers (Click here to try them). But sometimes a computer isn’t available, so having the iPad version can be handy.

The first five sections are the ones to use with real beginners. After that more complicated spellings start being introduced. There are little books with animations, and if you touch the words, they are mostly sounded out, though some of the words they designate as tricky ones to be memorised as wholes, such as “on”, are actually easy to sound out, and beginners should be encouraged to do so. Each book focuses on a particular “short” vowel.

There are also little word-building activities, sometimes using onset and rime, but they sound out the rime at the start of the activity, so I have learnt to cope. In the fifth book there is a memory game where words have to be matched to pictures.

There are also little videos with titles like “how the alphabet got its order”, which I don’t like much, and don’t use.

Price: $3.79. For iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. American accent.

Kids crosswordsKids’ Crosswords (no longer available in 2018)

This is a simple, little kids’ word-building activity in a crossword format, and as the format isn’t totally kiddie, I sometimes use it with older learners.

It starts off asking you to just build a single three-sound word, then a four-sound one, then two three-sound ones that overlap, then three overlapping three-sound words. At first it’s just a letter matching activity, but once you get to crossword 7, the crossword grid goes blank, and you have to touch pictures to hear words and then sound them out and put the letters in the correct order. The reward for correct answers is that the black-and-white picture for that word spins around, and becomes bigger and coloured in.

Unfortunately the sounds in this app are not all crisp (it says “puh” for “p” etc), and occasionally I get a vowel or two wrong because of the difference in the app’s accent and my own, but otherwise this is a nice, simple word-building activity in a slightly different format from the others listed above.

I suggest you set up the options as Spelling: Phonics, Font: Chalkboard, Letter case: Lower case, Sound effects on and Auto Advance on.

Price: free for the “lite” version, $1.29 for the full version. For iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. American accent.

Apps that teach skills beyond the basics

Some of the above apps also teach skills beyond basic two and three-sound words with just one letter for each sound, and there are a number of others that extend on basic skills, though not as many as I would like.

This blog post is already too long, so I will just list them, and leave reviewing them for another time.

I hope this blog post saves you many hours of searching for and trying out apps. Please share it with others who might also be interested, and tell me if you find great apps that are not on this list.

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9 thoughts on “Top early literacy apps 2014

  1. Melissa

    Alison – you are a legend!  Your whole site contains such wonderful information and always written in a style that is interesting to read!  This list of great apps is such a time saver!  I'm a SLP in Queensland and regularly recommend your blog to parents.  Your resources are great to use in therapy too.

    One other program I like to use is 'PAL' program – Phonological Awareness for Literacy (version 2) developed by the University of Qld.

    Thanks for all you do!     : ) Melissa


    1. alison Post author

      Dear Melissa, thanks for the lovely feedback and for pointing out that PAL should be on my resource lists – I have added it under the “small group” and “catch-up” headings but if you think I should alter that please let me know. All the best. Alison

  2. Pingback: Early literacy apps for iPad | Speak Well

  3. Tami Reis-Frankfort

    Hi Alison,

    I have just read your great blog post on decodable books. Great – as always! I have put it on our blog.

    It occurred to me that you might like to review our some of our new sets of books. We have a series for older, struggling girl readers called ‘Rescue’
    and a series for young readers that takes them all the way to the end of the phonic code. This our Level 4 Dandelion Readers books.
    Let me know if you are interested and we can arrange to send you the books.

    Also, we have new Dandelion Launchers iBooks on the iTunes iBookstore. They are iBooks not apps. Unit 1 is free to download. We have enhanced them with sound files so that beginner readers can hear sounds and words abounded out with correct pronunciation. It has been shortlisted for an Early Years ICT award. Anyway – we would love it if you would review any of the above.

    Many thanks and regards,

    Tami Reis-Frankfort
    Phonic Books

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Tami, I would LOVE to review your books and show them to people here, I am constantly raving about Magic Belt, Alba, Totem and Talisman, which I use a lot and now my schools and many of my clients have copies, and I get great feedback on them from kids and the adults they work with. I also have some of your Dandelion Extended Phonic Code books and a workbook, but I haven’t yet bought the whole set as funds don’t permit. I’ve searched the Australian apps store but can’t find your books there, maybe they are just in the UK store? I’m not sure how we would access them from here. I should add your Dandelion launchers to my blog post but I don’t actually have them to count the PGCs in the first one. Could you do that for me? In our wait-to-fail system I don’t get to work with many five-year-olds, so they are not something I would use a lot myself. But I think all public libraries and school libraries should have them, and being able to show people how their children can actually read them is often the “aha” moment when parents realise that the books they’re getting from school are the wrong sort, and they need decodable books. Great to hear you’ve been shortlisted for an Early Years ICT award. I can’t even get decodable books up as a category for 5-6 year olds in the Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year awards! Myself and Pamela Snow tried, and were basically told to talk to the hand. Sigh. Anyway we will keep plugging away…All the very best, Alison

  4. Kerry

    AMAZING!!!!! Thank you so much for all the leg work. I am here searching for resources for a) my letter-recognising-toddler and b) my Thai-speaking-only Grade 5 student and have come away happy on both counts. THANK YOU!!

    1. alison Post author

      That’s great! I am always worried that I don’t have enough time to keep the site really up to date but if it is still giving people useful leads that’s fantastic. Thanks for the nice feedback. Alison


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