Top early literacy apps 2020

Most young children are already using apps on phones or tablets, at least occasionally. Whatever you think of kids’ screen time, we want it to be quality time. There is some evidence that interactive apps support early academic development, but finding quality early literacy apps can be difficult and time-consuming. Lots of what’s available is (IMHO) simply rubbish.

It’s helpful to read adult reviews of apps for children, but a lot of online information is available about them already, and to REALLY road-test an app, I like to watch a young child using it. My colleague Caitlin Stephenson and I have thus filmed Harrison (aged 4, nearly 5) trying out some of my favourite early phonemic awareness and phonics iPad apps for young children.

The resulting video is below. We hope it gives you a taste of how each app works, to help you decide whether it would suit the small person/people in your life. The video is 16 minutes long, and the apps tried are listed below (numbers in brackets are start times on the video clock):

The only tablet I have is an iPad, but some of these apps are available for other platforms. Many also work on iPhones. If you’re not in Australia, please note that my app store links are all to the Australian store, so you’ll have to search your local store for apps that take your fancy.

I’m not quoting prices here because they often change, and things that I’ve said are free suddenly aren’t, while things I’ve said are expensive drop in price. Also, some apps have hundreds of activities, while some have only one/a few, so it’s like comparing apples and banquets. I’ve decided to leave the value-for-money question up to you.

Other early literacy iPad apps IMHO worth considering for young children include:

Beginners’ decodable books allow children to practice phonics skills by reading stories  containing simplified spelling patterns, and some of these are also available as apps:

Apologies to all the people who make good apps of which I’m not aware. I’d love to hear about them, and wish I had more time to search for and try them.

I hope this blog post helps you find apps that the small people in your life enjoy, and which help them develop great early literacy skills.

22 thoughts on “Top early literacy apps 2020

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Karey, sorry, I don’t have an android device so I can’t review their apps. I use my ipad apps with my clients, so I have to buy them anyway, and since I have them and I also have a blog it makes sense to share what I’ve learnt about them. Most families and schools here seem to have ipads rather than android tablets, and they seem to have the best range of educational apps.

      Reply
  1. Rebecca

    Any suggestion for apps for middle school students with poor phonological skills? Understandably, most apps are for young children.
    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Hi Rebecca, when you say apps for kids with poor phonological skills, there are a whole lot of apps that speech pathologists use as part of articulation therapy, for kids who lisp or say “w” for “r” or whatever, but I suppose the speech pathologists you work with can tell you about them (yes, I googled you!). If working on phonemic awareness is what you mean, there are not a lot of great apps for middle school kids, this work mostly has to be done using non-tech systems e.g. David Kilpatrick’s One Minute Activities, Rosner stuff, and activities using letter tiles, or Lindamood-style blocks for kids who are fixated on letters and hard to get to think about sounds. Usually middle school kids are struggling with vowel sounds and their spellings/the extended code, and apps that I know of which target these are Oz Phonics 4, 5 and 6, Tricky Spelling, Phonics Finder, Reading Magic 4 and 5 and Spelling Magic 4, Forest Phonics, Howie Find Vowel, Build-a-word phonics, Word Works, Hairy Phonics and then Chimp Fu, Reading Doctor Letter Sounds 2, Sound Literacy (a framework program so it requires support from a knowledgeable adult), Word Up from Spell Links, Blast Off To Reading, Sounds Have Letter Teams 1-7, plus apps like Graphogame and Phonics hero include activities for older kids as well as littlies, but of course the themes might not suit older kids, there are teddies in Phonics Hero at the start but I haven’t done a lot of the harder activities, and likewise I haven’t played right through Graphogame, but it looks like it isn’t particularly childish. Hope that’s helpful, and all the best, Alison

      Reply
  2. M A Barlow

    This is brilliant and so useful. Many thanks for compiling as it can sometimes be a minefield as well as time consuming to navigate the 100s of apps out there.

    Reply
  3. Hagit Lahav

    Sharing it right away…
    “An app a day makes the students come our way”…
    I use some of the apps that are mentioned here.
    PLD apps are really preferred by my younger students.
    READING DOCTOR is by far the most used one, both the software and the apps.
    Each serves a pedagigical goal for me, and is really fun as students actually learn and practice quite intensively.These apps make literacy accessible and fun right on the tip/tap of the… tongue/ finger.
    Thanks a lot again!

    Reply
  4. Joe

    Thought Magic Spell would have had a mention on here, it’s a spelling game created by a really cool British and Australian startup called Brainbox Games. I know a lot of kids that play it here in Sydney.

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Hi Joe, thanks for pointing out Magic Spell, I bought it and had a quick look at it, and the long, written instructions at the start make it far too hard for young beginners with short attention spans, so it definitely doesn’t belong on this list. In the first activity I tried it presented me with a lot of misspelt words, which is not something I would ever recommend. The kids I work with have enough misspelt words of their own, without me presenting them with a whole lot more! So, sorry, but from what I’ve seen, I’m not much of a fan. It would be really great if game designers would talk to cognitive scientists who know how children’s brains learn to read and spell before designing literacy-related games, so that the games could be more inclusive and suitable for kids with weaker skills as well as the mainstream kids who are obviously the target market. All the best, Alison.

      Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Hi Ben, I wish I did know of good spelling apps for adults, there aren’t many, it really depends on what level of skills the person already has. Are you talking about very basic skills, someone who gets vowel spellings wrong, or someone who just struggles with homophones and multisyllable words? Alison

      Reply
        1. alison Post author

          There is an app called Tricky Spelling Homophones that might help. Phonics Finder has some long words, as does Spelling Magic 3 and Reading Magic 3. For advanced work there’s hardly anything available but you could try apps called Vocabulary: Greek Latin roots and Latin Vocabulary Quiz. Also The Prefix and Suffix game, though I haven’t had a close look at it. I sometimes get kids to use Syllable Word Search as it makes them focus on syllables, though it’s not my favourite. A friend of mine says her kids found the Simplex Spelling apps good, but I can’t see one that works on word-building and multisyllable words. Sorry that’s not a lot of help, it’s slim pickings, I wish someone with good linguistics knowledge would team up with an app developer to create some apps for this, but I myself don’t have time. All the best, Alison

          Reply
          1. Ben Merrett-Troup

            Thank you so much Alison!! This is great. It will save me so much time and money. It is so hard to distinguish a good spelling ap from a bad one. Or more accurately a dyslexic friendly ap from a non dyslexic friendly ap.

  5. Amanda

    My son (2 years old) has a severe expressive speech delay and I was wondering what apps you recommend for speech?

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Hi Amanda, for a two-year-old I would not use apps to improve expressive speech, I’d use pretend play and other oral language activities. Your speech pathologist should be able to recommend activities and show you how to interact in a way that will help your child learn expressive language.

      Reply
  6. Kylie

    My daughter happily played with Nessy Reading and Spelling, not sure what you think about it but it is designed for primary school aged kids with dyslexia. Unfortunately you have to use a computer, but then maybe she did it willingly because she got to use my previously off limits laptop?!

    Reply
  7. Rhonda

    Hi Alison – Thanks for taking the time to review so many of these apps. Just thought I’d let you know that I discovered the Atlas Mission through your site. My 5-year old loves playing with it! It’s improved his reading pretty remarkably as well.

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Hi Rhonda, that’s great to hear, I must have a closer look at it, I just looked at the start and they seemed to be thinking along the right lines, so I added it to my list. Alison

      Reply
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