My Bookshelf

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tools for the Listening Center: PicPocket Books

PicPocket books (various titles) by PicPocket Books, LLC
Some books available in Spanish and Dutch
Priced from $0.99 to $8.99
Designed for iPod, iPhone, and iPad (select titles)

Pic Pocket books provides storybook read alouds for preschool through elementary students.  Several children's titles are available from Mother Goose nursery rhymes to various picture books. Authors are not always well known but the quality of the books is decent nonetheless.

Like many of its counterparts, this app provides an oral rendition of a book narrated by an expressive storyteller.  In some of the texts, users have the option of following the highlighted text as it is being read.  Many of the books contain sound effects when the user touches part of the picture. For example, in Tractor Mac, when the reader touches the tractor, the engine sounds up; likewise, geese quack when pressed upon.

The Good:  This is a great app for teachers to use in a listening center or as part of the listening component to The Daily Five.  The fact that the books are available on an iTouch makes it even more appealing for my school district. We don't yet have funds to purchase iPads for each classroom, but we do have enough sets of iTouches available.  This app would be wonderful for teachers to use in lieu of the clunky, old fashioned listening centers that we currently have.  In some of the titles (Yum, Yum, Yum) the reader can control the page turning and in others (Sunny Bunnies) pages are turned automatically. I actually appreciated the ability for children to turn pages themselves as some kids need to spend more time processing pictures in order to construct meaning from the text.  

The pictures in each text are colorful and vibrant.  The Yum, Yum, Yum book was one of my favorites with its creepy yet grabbing claymation; kids will love the monsters. PicPocket also provides many nonfiction texts. Moreover, the narration is well done by theatrical readers. As an added bonus, several of the titles are also available in Spanish which is so important for our ELL students.

The Bad:  It would be helpful if all books had the option to disable (or enable) page turning.

I give this app Thumbs Up!

Blogger's Note:  Two of these texts were downloaded through promo codes available to reviewers of apps. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Leveled Readers: The App Version

Learn to Read Books by Visions Encoded
Texts Authored by Celesta Thiessen
     I See Animals at the Zoo
     I Paint a Rainbow
     Little and Big
     At the Pond

Developed for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad
$1.99 per book

Hurray! Leveled readers for the iPad.  As previously mentioned, I recently completed one of my intervention lessons mainly using  apps found on my iPad.  This will be a review of some of the texts used during that lesson as well as additional Learn to Read books published by Visions Encoded.  I will begin by defining exactly what constitutes a leveled reader.

Leveled readers are a staple of many elementary teachers instructional diet.  We use these for guided reading, intervention, and even mini-lessons.  Leveled readers range in difficulty from Level 1 (A) all the way to Level Z (which according to Fountas and Pinnell, are considered chapter books appropriate for 8th graders).  Now mind you, book levels are not always consistent from one publishing company to the next, however, it is generally agreed upon, that a level 1 equals a level A; a level 2 equals a level B; and levels 3 and 4 equal a level C.  As the levels get higher, the numbers and letters don't correlate so cleanly.   The texts that I review here, range from levels 1-3. Therefore, I have qualified them below according to the descriptors set forth by the creators of guided reading, Fountas and Pinnell (2007), as written in their text, The Continuum of Literacy Learning.

Level 1 (or A) books are composed of predictable  and simple sentence patterns using one line of text on each page.  Vocabulary is familiar and is generally found in the reader's oral language.  Pictures assist in word identification and meaning. Level 1 texts contain one syllable words, easy high frequency words, and spelling patterns that are easy and decodable.

Level 2 (or B) texts are also predictable and contain patterned sentences that repeat.  Vocabulary is familiar to the child and aided by pictures. These texts can begin to get slightly longer and may have up to two lines of text per page.  High frequency words are easier and spelling patterns are simple and decodable.

Level 3 (or C) texts begin to become more challenging for the reader.  Level 3 books can have 2-6 lines of print per page.  Readers cannot solely rely on the predictable pattern of these texts as they can vary.   Likewise, pictures do not carry the majority of the meaning; it is through the text that much of the understanding occurs.  Punctuation can now include apostrophes, quotations marks, periods, commas, and question marks.  A greater variety of high frequency words is employed.

Learn to Read books are leveled 1-3 (A-C).  They contain colorful photographs, a voice over option that allows the text to be read  as words are touched, and the option of sight word practice of high frequency words found in the text. I reviewed all of the texts listed above.

The Good: The photographs and pictures in all of these texts are colorful, engaging, and for the most part assist in word identification.  The content includes familiar and easy concepts that most children recognize.  For example, topics such as animals, counting, and colors are found in many of the texts. The option to practice sight words is attractive.  The print is spaced properly, uses large plain font and placed consistently on the top of the page.

The Bad:  Unfortunately, the leveling in these texts does not correlate to the qualitative leveling descriptors above.  In the books that I reviewed, there is no difference between levels 1 and 2 and 3 (other than the level 3 text provides a longer closing sentence).  For example, the level 3 text, Little and Big, is written like a level 2 text. This is problematic.  Teachers expect a big leap from level 2 to 3.  At level 3, readers have voice print match and are now able to read several lines of text that vary in pattern; they should no longer completely rely on the predictability of the text.  Learn to Read books do not adhere to this principle as evidenced in Little and Big which is pattern dependent. Also, in the Stars (level 1) text, the high frequency word "there" is used at the beginning of each sentence. "There" is a poor word choice for a level 1 reader. Furthermore, syntax changes occur in this text (ouch!).  Again, not appropriate for a level 1 book.  Moreover, there are some questionable vocabulary choices such as "wind turbine" in a level 3 text.  It is doubtful that many five year olds employ words like this in their oral language.

What I also found extremely troubling was the voice over option.  Initially, I was excited to allow my student to reread the text with the voice option. But to my horror, when we read Paint a Rainbow, the voice over read: I see a rainbow with the word "a" having a short /a/ sound.  The word "a" was read aloud like a sound as opposed to a word in every one of the texts that contained it.  Obviously, this is a developer's programming issue, but in the best interest of children learning to read, the voice over option should've been eliminated entirely.

If schools are considering purchasing these texts, the levels must be adjusted and the voice over option must be changed.  However, these texts will most likely do no harm to a child learning to read and parents may find them helpful.  Yet, as an educator working in a school, relying on generally consistent reading levels, I give these texts in their current state:

Thumbs Down

Blogger's Note: Several of these texts were downloaded through promo codes available to reviewers of apps. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Whiteboard HD

Whiteboard HD by Avici Software
Designed for iPad

As I wrote last week, I attempted to complete one of  my reading intervention lessons mainly using the apps downloaded on my iPad.  For the writing portion of the lesson, I used the app, Whiteboard HD.  Just as the names suggests, this app allows the child to write with their finger on a whiteboard style screen. Users can choose from various backgrounds including grid, lines, plain, or picture sync. I chose plain.  There is also the option to make diagrams with shapes and lines, import images, and change the color of the writing font.  Once work is completed it can be shared via email or Dropbox and displayed on an external monitor using a VGA adopter.

The Good:  This app operated just like a whiteboard. My student was able to write, erase, and eventually save his creation so we have an ongoing record of his work.  The option to have various colors, objects, and backgrounds was helpful although not necessary for the purpose of this particular lesson.  I also appreciated the fact that when he needed practice segmenting sounds in a difficult word, I was able to seamlessly move back and forth between his writing page and a "practice" whiteboard.  Sharing the pen was also a breeze.

The Bad:  For children, this is a difficult app because they simply need more space to write. When we got to the bottom of the screen, he ran out of room and was unable to finish his sentence.  There is no way to zoom out or scroll down or over for more whiteboard room. 

I recommend this app but not for use in a Reading Recovery lesson. It is better suited for the teacher as a means of demonstration or note taking.  Therefore, from an education standpoint...

I give this app a Sideways Thumb.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Can Reading Recovery Go Digital?

First off, I am not a trained Reading Recovery teacher, although I do have similar training in a framework called Early Reading Empowerment (ERE).  Reading Recovery is a one on one lesson designed for first grade struggling readers and is one of the few reading interventions that has been shown to close the achievement gap for students at risk of reading failure.  Reading Recovery teachers are highly trained and receive rigorous professional development throughout their tenure.  The materials necessary for a Reading Recovery lesson are rather simple: magnetic letters, a small whiteboard, sentence strips, markers, writing journal for the student, running record forms, and leveled texts. The basic framework of a Reading Recovery lesson (or other stepsister frameworks like ERE) is something like this:
  • 10 Minutes: rereading books for fluency practice, reading the new text introduced yesterday (while the teacher takes a running record
  • 10 Minutes: word work and writing
  • 10 Minutes: reading a new book at my instructional reading level
It is necessary to note that Reading Recovery teachers are not only taught how to conduct a lesson with these materials, but more importantly, they are taught specific coaching language to use with students in order to help them internalize reading strategies and become independent problem solvers.  So although conducting this lesson digitally might enhance the intervention, it is ultimately the teacher's interaction, decision making skills, and ability to coach the student that will make the lesson successful. 

I attempted to digitize my own ERE lesson today by downloading several apps that would substitute for the lesson's traditional materials. (I will follow this post with a review of those apps). For the first 10 minutes of the lesson, I  read a leveled books with my student.  These texts had been previously downloaded and read by the student so I was able to use the texts again for fluency practice and the running record.  For the next 10 minutes, I used the Whiteboard HD app to conduct the writing portion of the lesson (although I used my own paper sentence strip for the cut up sentence) and a magnetic letter app for the word work. For the last 10 minutes, I used another digital text that I downloaded. 

Overall, the lesson went well (although not all of the apps were to my liking). My student was engaged and enjoyed using the iPad (although, anecdotally, I find most first graders in a one on one intervention to be engaged even without an iPad). Logistically, I appreciated the ease of this lesson as all of the materials I needed were literally right at my fingertips.  Eventually, it would be great to have an app that can complete the running record.   That way the teacher could keep all records digitally and track data accordingly.  Ideally, for the lesson to be incredibly smooth, both student and teacher would have an iPad so the teacher could monitor, take notes, and record data.  The student could then take his or her own iPad home for practice on today's book (and even read other books selected by the child).  I think it won't be long before the apps are fine tuned (and hopefully affordable) and Reading Recovery teachers can feasibly go digital.  If you have any suggestions for strong apps that would fit well into this lesson, please leave a comment.

If you would like to learn more about Reading Recovery, click here

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Dearth (noun) - an inadequate supply; scarcity; lack

4th Grade Vocabulary Prep by 965 Studios
Designed for iPhone and iPad
(Also available for 3rd grade, 5th grade, and 6th grade)

In the past decade, vocabulary instruction has taken a more prominent role in the field of literacy. This is not surprising as vocabulary knowledge is directly correlated to reading comprehension. Although vocabulary knowledge is critical for literacy acquisition, it is a complex construct that is not easily measured or taught.
This app is designed for fourth grade students (the designers also make similar vocabulary apps for 3rd, 5th, and 6th grade). Containing a simple interface, the user begins by selecting the practice mode. Here, he or she reads a word, its part of speech and subsequent definition. Optionally, users can select classical music to play in the background. Definitions of words are defined in typical dictionary style. For example, the word "confuse" is defined as "to put into disorder, to bewilder".
After the user has practiced words, he or she then can choose the quiz section, either the definition quiz or word quiz. There are dozens of words on this app. Therefore the user may practice words but end up not being assessed on them during the testing mode. The words are completely randomized.
The Good: The vocabulary words that are used in this program generally adhere to what we educators refer to as "tier two" words. Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002) proposed the idea of delineating vocabulary words into three tiers. The first tier of words is considered the most basic to our language. For example, everyday words such as door, sun, walk and so on. Given their simplicity, students do no not need instruction in these words. The second tier of words contains words that are frequent to mature users of the language and critical to developing a comprehensive lexicon. These words require direct instructional strategies. Tier three words include words that are infrequently used and are often domain specific. For example, scientific terms such as photosynthesis, meiosis, and endocrine should be instructed when necessary to the content subject at hand. This app does a decent job of utilizing tier two words in its word list.
The Bad: Unfortunately, the app does not employ a strong instructional foundation for facilitating vocabulary acquisition. Did you know that the least effective method for learning new words is to look them up in a dictionary and memorize them? Unfortunately, that is the instructional framework of this app. However, that's just the genesis of its demise. Let's look at some MUSTS of vocabulary instruction that are absent in this app:
  • Children should be given both contextual and definitional information when learning a new word
  • Students need to be active in developing their vocabulary; that is they need to develop strategies to independently identify important words.
  • Students should personalize word learning for example by sketching it or rewriting their own definition, This increases the word being committed to memory.
  • Students should be immersed in words; that is students should be actively engaged in a variety of language and literacy activities that celebrate words. These include read alouds and interactive book talks that highlight interesting or relevant vocabulary words.
  • Multiple sources of information to learn words through repeated exposure are necessary. It is estimated it takes 10-12 exposures of word in multiple contexts before a word is truly learned.
  • Students should be instructed in morphology and develop morphological awareness (the understanding that words can divided into units of meaning: prefixes, suffixes, roots). This facilitates not only vocabulary learning but aids in chunking words to decode them.
  • Dictionary definitions are unfriendly to children and meanings are not easily understood or retained. Case in point, take this apps definition of "confuse - to put into disorder, to bewilder". What if the child doesn't know what disorder is, or bewilder? Perhaps, the designers should have a video of a fourth grader trying to decipher this confusing definition and possibly that would enhance the app! 
I could continue to elaborate further about the dearth of instructional strategies in this program, but hopefully the few bits of information suffice in understanding why...
I give this app Thumbs Down

Vocabulary App

4th Grade Vocabulary Prep

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Kingdom of Possibilities

Play Time Theater by Make Believe Worlds, LLC
Designed for iPad
Price $4.99

"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." attributed to Albert Einstein

This is an app that even Einstein would adore! It contains the power of  imagination while providing children an ability to create and collaborate, two desirable traits not easily found in this massive frenzy of mobile applications. However, Make Believe Worlds, has bucked that trend and created in their words,"a digital play set and puppet-show theatre".  Highly interactive,  this customizable program allows the user to create a digital fairy tale like play using an interface that contains six characters, a plethora of sound options, and stage configurations.  The setting of the play set is mindful of a Renaissance Fair with a mote, dragon, unicorn, princess (or wicked queen), prince, knight, evil sorcerer all of whom are customizable like a digital Polly Pocket.  Users create their set and characters, have a dress rehearsal, and then record their story using thier own theatrical voice while simultaneously inputting sound effects and music.  For a demo, watch this video:

The Good:  The minute I tried this app, I began generating tons of ideas for use in the classroom.  I'll begin with just a couple: First, students in writing workshop, who are completing the Fairy Tale Unit of Study (or student choice project), could use this app for drafting ideas and publishing a final product.  Teachers could also use this either as a scaffold to facilitate understanding of the genre or as a tool to enrich the final publication. This app could also be extremely useful in a reading intervention setting. To test my hypothesis, I am trying it out with some of my struggling readers. I have two reading groups that need continued support with reading comprehension. Therefore, we are immersing ourselves in the genre of fairytales, completing interactive read alouds that focus on comprehension building.  Since so many of my students love plays, we are going to spend part of our time creating a PlayTime Theatre play using the elements of the fairy tale genre that we learned through our immersion.  Since several of my students also struggle with fluency, the creation of a play will serve as a Reader's Theatre like activity - students will be practicing repeated readings without even realizing it (which are great for developing automaticity)! Furthermore, this app also allows student to practice expressive reading - which again, is a critical function of reading comprehension.

I began trying this app with kids yesterday and the response was more than positive. I had engagement, healthy discussions, and motivation to both read and write.  This is what reading teachers live for!

The Bad:  Well, if you are going to use this in a classroom, I would suggest two students (three at most) per iPad.  Otherwise, there is too much competition for screen time.   This app is learning by doing, it does contain some directions, but you really need to spend time experimenting prior to using it with kids.  This isn't a bad thing, necessarily, but unlike other apps it isn't completely intuitive (which is part of the reason it's so fantastic).

I give this app a big Thumbs Up.

Blogger's Note:  When I first tried this app I was having trouble with the sound (my sound button was muted, duh!) and I emailed the developers for help.  They responded right away with suggestions and were very helpful and kind.  So thank you Seth and David!  Also, I noticed that they have more "stages" coming out including pirate world, dino world, and space world.  I can't wait for Act Two! 
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