My Bookshelf

Sunday, January 30, 2011

StoryBuddy

Name: StoryBuddy by John Cotant
Designed for iPad
Price $2.99

Story Buddy is another app that facilitates the process of writing and creativity. The interface contains a simple layout that allows the user to design a story book complete with text and illustrations.  For writing, there is a text box feature that pops up the keyboard, or alternately, users can also select from a rainbow of colored crayons or pencils to hand write as well as illustrate their story.  There are 15 pages and a cover for each book, although students do not have the utilize all of the pages. Once users have composed their story, they select the "Read" feature and the composition is played back to them. Unlike Story Time, there are no speech options to orally tell their story.

The Good: I really enjoy the simplicity of this app. It's straightforward yet has enough options to make the process of writing appealing for kids.  I also believe the app could be tantalizing for students in the writing workshop as they could aspire to publish their final draft and share their accomplishments with classmates (putting to good use the document camera).  Teachers will also appreciate how engrossed their students are throughout the writing process (my daughter is voluntarily writing a fictional story as I blog this).

The Bad:  Again, just due to the fact that the drawing/writing app can be a bit clunky for us neophytes, it could be a slight issue, although young children probably won't bat an eye.  The eraser feature is a little quirky in that it is laborious to get all of a mistake erased.  Lacks a speech recorder.

I give this app Thumbs Up 

Can Book Reports be Fun?

Name: A Mini Book Report by Nth Fusion LLC
Designed for iPad
$0.99

The book report goes digital! Any parent who has ever experienced the 11th hour rush to motivate their child to get a book report written will be intrigued by this app.  Well, there's a genuine reason that most kids don't like writing book reports: they're boring.  This app is designed to eliminate some of that tedium by providing a little splash to the classic regurgitation of facts with colorful graphics and...colorful graphics.  Essentially, the structure of the book report remains static with students inputting the familiar architecture of characters, setting, problem, solution, and overall opinion of the book. Children also have the option to share their book report via email.

The Good:  Children who are currently expected to write book reports by their teacher will of course gravitate to this colorful app.  Any kid will choose the iPad over paper.  Novelty is fun. The option to convert the book report to a PDF is also an attractive option for those teachers who require book reports.

The Bad:  It's a book report, must I go on?  Okay, let's talk some basics of reading comprehension.  The book report provides teachers a snapshot of basic literal understanding of facts.  Students tell the setting, the characters, the problem, solution, and if they liked the book.  Hmmm, I bet 98% of kids could gather those facts from the back of the book. Moreover, let's say they read the book, how well are they able to understand the text at a higher level?  Can they demonstrate inferential thinking?  Does this app allow teachers or parents to observe that?

Comprehending text is a complex act and in my opinion, shouldn't be reduced to a book report. If we want children to demonstrate their understanding of a text, then we need to provide rich literacy experiences that not only facilitate reading comprehension but provide ongoing assessment opportunities. Wiki's, online discussion boards and good ole fashioned book clubs are tools that can both simultaneously instruct and assess.  It is through language and discourse with others that our students build their understanding.  Save yourself the $0.99 and go buy your child a cup of hot chocolate and discuss a great book together.  I'm willing to bet that a trip to Starbucks and a book talk with mom or dad will trump this app any day of the week! 

I give this app Thumbs Down

Writing Workshop goes Digital

Name: StoryKit by ICDL Foundation
Designed for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad
Cost: Free

Well, I knew right away I would love this app when both of my kids chose to spend their Saturday night writing instead of watching t.v.  And just to clarify, this app is not titled Writing Workshop goes Digital but that is truly what came to my mind when I first sat down and tinkered with it.  StoryKit is an app that was originally designed for the iPod Touch (obvious by the size of it on the iPad) wherein users can create an original story through writing, speech, or manipulation of four preloaded books.   Users can add illustrations through "painting" as well as sound effects.  Once the story is complete, users can share it by sending it to the ICDL server which in turn sends the user an email with a link to their story.  This can then by copied and shared to friends on Facebook, Twitter, or even email.  An FAQ of how StoryKit works can be found here: StoryKit FAQ

The Good:  Well, from a teacher's standpoint I love that this app is all about creative expression!  Writing Workshop teachers will delight in children's ability to create a personal narrative or realistic fiction story.  To test the waters, I tried this with my own two children (Thomas who is in second grade and Maeve who is a fourth grader).  Now, mind you, my mini-lesson at home was a demonstration story about our dog Ruby and her personal issue with chronic flatulence, so right away, I grabbed their attention (if only all teachers could hook kids in with tales of farting in their mini-lessons - I think we'd have 100% engagement!).  Immediately, both of my kids wanted to write a story.  My daughter, of course wrote about the number two fun topic for kids: barfing.  She decided on using the voice recorder to tell her story and created the illustrations along with.  Here is a link to her literary creation: Maeve's story  (I can tell that the Wimpy Kid books have rubbed off on her). It's important to note that students can also type text with their story using a popup digital keyboard. 


Alternatively, students can also edit four existing stories that come preloaded on the app. One text is titled, The Rocket Book, a classic children's story about a rocket that travels upwards through and apartment building (cute story).  The remaining three books are Fairy Tales: Humpty Dumpty, The Three Bears, and The Three Little Pigs. Many teachers of Writing Workshop who complete a Fairy Tale Unit of Study may find this app helpful in scaffolding student's writing of fairy tales.  I think it has the potential to help kids understand the genre.

The Bad:  This app does have some resolution issues. Originally designed for an iTouch, it is thus small on the iPad.  You can increase the size but then you lose resolution.  Also, the four preloaded books are a cute idea but really didn't grab my kid's attention.  Anecdotally, I find that not all kids enjoy rewriting endings or alternate plot lines (but it doesn't hurt to try, especially for our reluctant writers).  Likewise, as stated above, I do think the preloaded books could be tried in a Fairy Tale unit of study.   Also, I found the drawing tool a bit awkward (my kids were fine) but perhaps if the app is rewritten for a larger screen, the drawing will be more comfortable.

I give this app Thumbs Up

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Cat in the Hat - Dr. Seuss

Name: The Cat in the Hat - Dr. Seuss by Oceanhouse Media
Designed for iPhone and iPad
Designed for Android Market
$3.99

Dr. Seuss. Need I say more? The reviews for this app were pretty stellar when I first looked into purchasing it. Not only did users give it high ratings but it also received the 2010 Parents Choice Silver Honor for Mobile apps. Basically, this is an ebook of the classic text, The Cat in the Hat, that also provides several options for viewing: read to me, read it myself, and autoplay. I began by exploring the read to me option. Here, a narrator reads the story aloud while the words are highlighted on the screen. The book also does some zooming in and out, similar to a video. Moreover, there is a feature that allows the user to tap on the pictures and words appears. So, for example, if the text says "something went bump", the user can tap on a picture of children appearing to jump out of their seats and the word jump appears.
Likewise the user can tap objects in the picture, such as The Cat in the Hat's bowtie, and the word bowtie appears. In the read it myself option, the user reads the book but still has the option of tapping on words to reveal the spelling. In the autoplay option, the book is read aloud, but the child doesn't have to turn the pages manually.
The Good: Parents and teachers can never go wrong with Dr. Seuss. These texts develop rhyming skills and are engaging and imaginative. This app is simple to use yet diverse for all types of readers from emerging to fluent.
The Bad: Does not have a lock feature for autoplay which could be a hazard for little fingers.
I give this app thumbs up. Oceanhouse Media also has several other Dr. Seuss texts available for purchase (some free options exist as well).

Word Magic

Name: Word Magic by anusen.com
Designed for iPhone and iPad
0.99 available in iTunes

As I explore more and more apps on mobile devices, I notice that many of the educational apps billed as instructional tools could actually be used as an assessment tool for teachers. Take for example, Word Magic. This little app could be a quick way for teachers to assess young students' phonological awareness and letter/sound correspondence. Phonological awareness simply refers to the ability to hear the sounds in words. Letter/sound correspondence is applying the correct letter to the sound in the word. Both phonological awareness and letter/sound correspondence are critical skills for young children to develop as they aid in the ability to decode words. Moreover, several studies have demonstrated that these skills are predictive of latter reading success. Phonological awareness skills includes such abilities as rhyming, blending, identifying syllables, segmenting sounds in a word, and hearing initial, medial (middle), and ending sounds.

Word Magic is an app that allows children to demonstrate their ability to identify the correct beginning, medial, and ending letter in a word. In this app, a colorful picture is presented to the child along with a voice over stating what the picture is. Below the picture is the correct spelling of the word however one letter in either the beginning, medial, or ending position is omitted (depending upon the level selected). So, for example, a picture of a wand would present along with a child's voice stating "wand". Below the picture, a random selection of four letters are provided and users choose the correct option.

Users have the option of having sound or no sound. If a child incorrectly chooses a letter, the voice over says "you can do it" and the child tries again. Likewise, the app has several features which include ability level (users choose level one or two; in the advanced level, two letters are omitted instead of one). Users also have the option of sound or no sound, word length (from 3-6), and challenge time.

The Good: Overall, I found this a decent app especially as a quick way for teachers to assess a child's ability to hear sounds in words and/or correspond those sounds to the right letter. However, if a child does struggle with this app, a discerning teacher will need to reassess and discover if it is hearing sounds that is giving the child difficulty or letter/sound correspondence. They are two distinct abilities. Students can also use this app to practice phonological skills and letter/sound correspondence.

The Bad: Unfortunately, this app is not instructional in my opinion. It merely allows a child to practice some emerging literacy skills. If this were an instructional tool, a child would be able to slow the app down and hear the sounds that were confusing. Likewise, the child would be able to press the list of letter options to hear the sounds they make and continue on with an appropriate guess. Also, it should be noted that a child's voice says the picture's name. Although most of the time, I found the words clear to understand, there were occasionally times when words were confusing to hear.

Overall, I give this app a sideways thumb. It has some potential for assessment when used properly. Is good for practice but is not meant for instruction.

Alphabet by Kindergarten.com

Name: ABA Flash Cards - Alphabet by Kindergarten.com
Designed for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad
Free

This app is one of many designed to teach preschoolers and kindergartners uppercase letter identification. Learning letters and their corresponding sounds is obviously a critical skill in learning to read. Many children acquire letters and sounds through rich exposure to books and environmental print. Nonetheless, many children often require direct instruction of letters which is the purpose of this app.



This app operates by presenting children with colorful flashcards beginning with the uppercase letter A and a corresponding picture. A voice then states the name of the picture. For example, in the flashcard on the left, the voice says "Earth" and nothing more.

The good: The pictures in this app are colorful and engaging.

The bad: This app misses the mark completely on effective letter instruction. First, children are never taught the names of the letters, only the names of the object that begin with that letter. Therefore, young children must make a tremendous leap and internalize the picture with the letter name. Children only learn the name of the object in the picture. Apparently, the creators of this app assume that children can figure out the letter name by themselves (but isn't that the purpose of the app?!) Unfortunately, this app was intended for teaching letter indentification but derails and turns into a vocabulary lesson!

Secondly and equally disturbing, is that the corresponding pictures on some of the vowels are confusing. Children often learn letters and sounds simultaneously, so for example, when teaching children to idenftify an A select a corresponding picture that contains the general sound that the letter makes (airplane, apple). Unfortunately, in this app, perplexing images are chosen to represent the letter. Case in point, look at the E "earth". Why choose such an exception to the sound of E - the creators surely could've chosen a more common sound for the picture (egg, elephant). Even more befuddling is that they repeat this misstep for the letter O and use a picture of an owl. Again, better choices would've been (ostrich, orange, oval). Vowels are confusing for kids to begin with, why make it worse?

I give this app thumbs down.


Friday, January 28, 2011

Welcome!

Hello world. I am a Reading Specialist working in an elementary school who is interested in the proliferation of digital technologies, particularly mobile devices, within the school setting. I am also a doctoral student studying Literacy and Language. Although I embrace the power of mobile technologies, such as the Galaxy Tablet and iPad, I am also troubled by the sheer amount of applications some of which are not rooted in sound instructional practice. Which ones are better for my child or students to use?

Therefore, my goal is to provide one review per week (possibly more, depending on my time) of an application that strives to teach children an aspect of reading. I will review both iPad apps which are tightly controlled by Apple as well as android apps which have less oversight by Google. I will ground my reviews in theory and best practice as opposed to looking at merely the aesthetics of these applications. Stay tuned for my first review!
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