Basic Literacy

The following applications focus primarily on the most basic of literacy skills, such as recognizing letter names, recognizing letter sounds, and identifying starting sounds.

Most Highly Recommended

Gappy Learns Reading: Children drag letters to form three-letter words. In the easiest level, the app tells children what letter is missing. In the second level, children have to find a single missing letter. In the third level, two letters are missing. And in the last level, all three letters have to be put in place. There are four letter choices for each word. More than 200 words are included, and they have been split into three groups. Each group of words can be turned on or off in the settings. This is a very well-designed app. Children love the little Gappy character and its silly noises. The word choices are excellent for supporting early phonics skills. And after a word is formed, the app says the individual sounds in a clearly discernible way, which helps children develop sound blending skills. (I have also included this app in the “Phonics” section of this website, because the later levels are more challenging.)

AlphaTots Alphabet: This app offers a good introduction to letter names and letter sounds. Children choose a letter (or go through them sequentially). Each letter is seen and heard, without distraction. Next, the letter sound is heard. The letter sounds are easy to hear and pronounced well—for example, letter ‘L’ is heard as “LLLLL,” not “Luh.” Then children get to play a simple game that has to do with the letter. Many of the letter games are some type of puzzle.

Reading Raven: This app has a variety of different games that focus on letter recognition, sound recognition, and phonics skills. Children go through five lessons, each of which focuses on different letters or letter groups. The lessons get more difficult in the higher levels, and you can customize which types of activities to include. These are ten different types of activities. (1) Drag and match letters. (2) Trace letters. (3) Find letters in groups. (4) Match words that are the same. (5) Find words with starting sounds. (6) Build words by putting letters in order. (7) Find a word in a group of words. (8) Read aloud as the app records your voice. (9) Trace whole words. (10) Put words into groups based on their beginnings or endings (i.e., whether they rhyme). This is a very good app for children who are still learning letters and letter sounds. It is well designed and it provides very good practice with letter recognition, letter sounds, and sound blending. I recommend turning off the higher level activities at first. The options menu has suggestions for which activities to include at different age levels, but adjustments should probably be made to suit specific children.

ABC Alphabet Phonics: Children see a screen with letters on it and are told to touch a letter. The number of items on each screen is adjustable, up to 10. A hint can be turned on or off that shows the letter to be found at the top of the screen. You can also turn upper and lower-case letters on or off. (Update 3/31/2013: You can turn on phonics, so that the voice says the letter sounds instead of just the letter names, a valuable improvement.) This is a very good, simple app. It’s not the most exciting one out there, but it provides some very good practice with letter recognition and letter sound recognition.

Duck Duck Moose Reading: This app shuffles between games that focus on letter recognition and starting sounds in words. In most of the games, children find words or pictures that begin with a certain letter or letter sound and feed them to an animal. Some games ask children to form three-letter words. In one, they have to drag a letter into a word that is missing a letter. In another, they have to put three letters in the correct order to spell a word. This is a very good app for teaching letters and letter sounds. The games are fun and fast-moving, and the animations are entertaining for children. My main criticism of this app is that it lacks customizability. The game keeps track of which letters it has worked on with your child. But of course, an app cannot have the rich understanding of a child’s skills that parents and teachers have. If, for example, you’ve observed that a student needs more work on the letter ‘i’ sound, then there is no way to go back and have the app include more ‘i’ words. There is also no way to pause the game or to slow its pace. It moves too quickly for some children. For example, if it asks a child to find the words that start with ‘p’ but the child does not know what ‘p’ looks like, then I would like to be able to pause the game and show the child what a ‘p’ looks like before continuing.

Gappy Learns Writing: There are three section in this app. (1) A letter tracing section lets children choose letters to trace. A star shows children where to start and which direction to move in. (2) A drawing board gives children a chance to draw a picture, which can then be saved to the device’s photos. Also, children can color in pictures that they have earned. (3) A secret letter section has the Gappy character thinks of a letter. Children follow the star on a blank screen, thereby forming that letter. Next, they are asked to select the letter from eight choices. Then they trace the letter once more, this time with the letter in the background as a guide. This is a very good app for children who are still learning letter names and letter sounds. It is engaging, fun, and attractive. The interface is very easy for children to use. The drawing and coloring section is well designed and can be used for broader creative purposes. The use of drawing pages as a reward is another plus. Whereas many apps offer tokens and prizes, children can interact with drawing pages to a larger degree, which perhaps fosters better engagement and consequently faster learning. (I have also included this app in the “Tracing” section of this website)

Little Writer: Children see letters, numbers, shapes, or words on the screen for them to trace. Inside of each, there is a little tractor, whale, crab, or giraffe, which shows where to start and moves with your finger. Objects (apples, haystacks, pineapples, or fish) appear inside of the letters/numbers/shapes, showing where to move your finger to next. With the letter ‘t’, for example, you first see objects all the way down for the vertical. Then after you complete the vertical line, objects appear demonstrating how to draw the horizontal line. After letters and number are completed, the app says, “You wrote the letter ___!” This is a great app for teaching children how to form letters, and also for teaching them to recognize letters. I recommend it highly. But I do have a couple of constructive criticisms. First, the lower case ‘y’ is formed in a strange way. It has children make a ‘v’ first and then add the line at the bottom. Most teachers teach children to form a ‘y’ in two motions instead. Second, I wish there was a way to include phonics, so that children could learn letter sounds in addition to learning letter names.

Little Matchups ABC: Children see a screen with as many as eight unmatched pairs (depending on the settings). They make matches by dragging the tiles in the middle to the tiles on the edges. There are different types of items that can be turned on and off. One set has upper and lower-case letters that say their names when touched. Another has upper and lower-case letters that say their sounds. A third set has little buttons (without letters) that say letter sounds when touched. This is a good, simple app for practicing letter recognition and letter sounds.

LetterSchool: Children trace numbers and letters by forming lines connecting shapes. Different animations appear for each letter. For example, a lawn mower might follow your finger while you trace on a grass-covered number. This is an entertaining app. Children enjoy playing it, the animations are fun, and it provides good practice with letter recognition, number recognition, and how to form letters and numbers. However, I do have one criticism. Some animations lag behind your finger as you trace. It is an unnatural feeling that is much different from forming letters on paper. Otherwise, I think this is a very good tracing app.

Kids ABC Phonics: There are four sections in this app. (1) The “Learn Letter Sounds” section lets children move between letter blocks organized alphabetically. They can turn each block to reveal pictures that start with the letter, and each picture or letter is spoken when shown. (2) A “Build Letter Blocks” activity takes the same letter cubes from the aforementioned section and has children put the appropriate pictures on each block. They must choose the pictures, from four choices, that start with the letter for each block. (3) The “Pop Letter Bubbles” section gives children a letter sound to find (e.g., “Tap ‘g’ as in ‘goat’”). (4) The last section, titled “Make Words,” gives children three letters on puzzle pieces. When the puzzle pieces are put in place at the bottom of the screen, the letter sounds are heard. The whole word is heard when all three letters are in place. This is a nice simple app for teaching letter sounds to young children. It’s easy to use, it’s fun, and there are some thoughtful aspects to the design. For example, when children get an answer right in the “Pop Letter Bubbles” section, the encouragement they hear usually starts with whatever letter they just found, and that beginning sound is strongly emphasized in most cases. My only criticism is that some of the letter sounds are a little bit off. For example, the ‘e’ sound almost sounds more like a short ‘i’ sound, and the ‘w’ sound sounds more like ‘weh.’

ABC Alphabet by Little Sorter: Children drag the colorful letters in the middle of the screen and match them to the grey letters at the top and bottom. When they touch a letter, it says its name. This is a very simple, well-designed app that helps children learn the letter names. However, I wish there was an option for making the letters say their letters sounds instead of their names.

Alphabet Tracing: Children trace upper-case letters, lower-case letters, and numbers 1-9. Little trains and caterpillars move along the first example of each letter or numbers, demonstrating they are formed. This is a good simple app that helps support letter recognition and teaches children how to form letters, although doing so on a tablet is much different than with paper and writing utensils.


Somewhat Recommended

Touch and Learn- ABC Alphabet and 123 Numbers: Children see a screen with four letters and/or numbers and are told to touch one. They sometimes have to find both the upper- and lower-case letter (e.g., “Touch the ‘D’s”), and they sometimes are asked to find only an upper-case or lower-case letter. Which types of characters to include (upper-case letters, lower-case letters, or numbers) can be adjusted in the settings. This is a very simple app. It usually does not hold a child’s attention for long, but it provides some good practice with letter and number recognition. (Because his app includes numbers, it has also been included in the Combined Math and Reading section of this website, although it focuses primarily on letter recognition.)

Letter Muncher: Children see a letter on the screen which says its name and sound when touched. They have to feed the monster all of the pictures that start with that letter. The other items they drag to the recycling bin. Labels for the different pictures can be turned on or off, and you can select which letters and letter teams (e.g., ch, sh) to include. You can also choose to have the letters presented in alphabetical order or randomly. This is a good simple app for practicing letters, letter sounds, and starting sounds. However, I have a couple of criticisms. First, some of the letter sounds have unnecessary vowel sounds attached to them. For example, the sound for ‘C’ is ‘Cuh’. Second, in order to hear the names of the pictures, you have to touch them quickly. If you move them at all, then it doesn’t say their sounds. That sometimes frustrates children, especially with pictures that may refer to a couple of different things (e.g., a teacup vs. a cup).

ABC Magic 3: There are two sections in this app. In one section, children match pictures (five on each side) that have the same starting sounds by drawing a line between them. When children touch the pictures, they hear the words for those pictures. In the other section, children match letters (there are five choices again) to the pictures which start with those letters. When children touch the letters, they hear the letter sounds (not the letter names). This is a good, simple app for practicing starting sounds. There aren’t any bells and whistles, though, so children tend to grow tired of it before long.

ABC Magic 4: Children see a screen with one, two, or three letters and empty squares next to the letter(s). The letters make their sounds when touched. Around the outside are pictures that say what they are when touched. Children find the three pictures that begin with each letter and drag those into the empty squares. This is a decent app for practicing starting sounds. It provides some good practice for children who are beginning to separate starting sounds from words. I have some criticisms, however. Some pictures are included that confuse children. For example, sometimes a picture of a Koala appears when there is a letter ‘C’ on the screen. In those cases, children correctly determine the correct starting sound, but they don’t get the correct answer. Also, all of the recordings are of children’s voices. Some of the words are pronounced awkwardly, and it’s a little hard to hear the sounds.

Phonics Fun 1: Children see a picture and hear its word. Then they figure out what the picture starts with and drag that letter to the picture. If they touch a letter, it says the letter sound. This app provides some good practice with starting sounds. But it has some design flaws. The sounds for the letters are not well thought out. The sound for ‘A’ sounds more like the short ‘O’ sound, and many consonants unnecessarily have vowels attached to their sounds. For example, the sound you hear when you touch ‘H’ is more like ‘Hah’ and the sound for ‘R’ is more like ‘Ruh’.

ABC Ninja: Letters fly onto the screen as children hear a letter name or letter sound. They have to touch or slice through the correct letters. This app is fun and simple. It offers some good practice with letter recognition and letter sound recognition. However, its benefits are somewhat limited. Children often cannot resist the temptation to slice all of the letters. Also, the letters sometimes spin sideways and upside down as they’re flying across the screen, which adds some unnecessary confusion.

Endless Alphabet: Children select a word. The colorful letters of the word are then scattered around the screen by a group of silly monsters. A gray guide showing which letter goes where remains in the middle of the screen. When the colorful letters are returned to their spots, an animation plays that goes with the word. For example, with the word ‘sticky’ a creature jumps on the word and then gets stuck. A bubble at the top of the screen labeled “word” gives a brief definition of the word when touched. There are many different word lists that the app developers regularly add to (hence the name “Endless Alphabet”). Children enjoy this app very much, and it possibly has substantial educational value for them. It teaches new vocabulary words, while giving practice with letter name and sound recognition. However, I do not believe this app does a whole lot for supporting early literacy skills. Children are asked to do too little by simply matching letters. Also, the app’s cuteness sometimes gets in the way of its educational value. When children touch letters, the letters say their letter sounds in silly ways. Many of those letter sounds are so goofy that it is hard to hear the sounds that the letters truly make. This is especially true of the vowels.


Not Recommended

Word Grab: Children are told to find a letter out of some options (the “ABC Words” section) or choose letters to complete rhyming words (the “Rhyme Time” section). When they pick the right letter, it is fed to the monster at the bottom of the screen. Then it spells a word that starts with that letter. It also forms a sentence with the word and reads it for the child. This app provides some good practice, but I do not recommend it highly. It is very entertaining, but that seems like the primary focus of its design. It is too much like a television show. The only thing children get to do is select the correct letter. Then they sit and watch the rest of it. It can take three or four minutes just to be introduced to a couple of letters. Also, the selection of words included leaves something to be desired. For example, the ‘a’ words start with long ‘a’ sounds, whereas the ‘o’ words start with short ‘o’ sounds.

Bugsy Kindergarten Reading: Children are asked various questions about letters and letter sounds and they tap on the correct answer. The activities get more challenging as children progress through the game. Toys can be earned as groups of activities are completed which can be played with on the home screen. The following types of activities are included. (1) Find the letter. (2) Which picture begins with the same sound as a word? (3) What is the first letter in the word? (4) Find the word. (5) What is the last letter in the word? (6) Match the letters to spell a word. (7) Find the missing letter in the middle of words. This app is fun and it provides some good practice. But for a few reasons, I do not think it is very effective at supporting early literacy. First, children are encouraged to guess rather than finding the correct answers. They are always rewarded to the same degree, even if even they select the correct solution last, after guessing all of the others. Second, the words chosen to be included in different activities are not the most practical for beginning readers. For example, one activity asks children to figure out the letter that’s missing in the middle of the word ‘eye’. Third, some of the recordings of letter sounds have unnecessary vowels attached to them. For example, the letter ‘s’ sound sounds like ‘suh’ instead of just ‘sss’.

PreWriting: Children trace various types of lines on the screen. Then they move on to letters. If they fall outside of the lines, the app makes a noise and they have to start over. This is a well-intentioned, but very poorly executed app. The level of precision required is unreasonable. Even adults have a very hard time completing some of the tracing tasks. The slightest movement outside of the path means failure. It is very frustrating.

Letter Quiz: There are four different types of activities in this game. (1) In one section, children scroll through cards with the letters on them. When touched, the letters are spoken and a picture that starts with each letter is revealed. (2) A letter quiz section has children find a letter out of six options. (3) Another section has children draw a line matching upper and lower-case letters. Each screen has only three letters to match. (4) The final section gives children a chance to trace letters. This is a simple app that might provide some good practice with letter recognition. However, it doesn’t have much content, it’s not the most engaging app, and the letter tracing activity can be very finicky. Sometimes, after moving outside of the lines or not quite connecting to a guide dot, it’s difficult to determine what the app wants you to do. And there’s no way erase and start over. Also, the fact that phonics lessons (e.g., letter sounds to go with the letter names) have been omitted is a missed opportunity.

Kids Academy ABC Phonics: There are two sections in this app. An alphabet section shows children a letter, says the letter name, and then shows brief animation involving something that begins with the letter. A tracing section shows children how to write upper and lower-case letters and then asks them to try. This is not a very useful app. Although it might help children learn letter names, it will not do much more to enhance early literacy skills. The tracing app is difficult to use. It is very easy to go outside of the lines, which is frustrating even for adults. Another issue: this app occasionally shows full-screen advertisements for the developer’s other apps, which children can easily click on, leading them to the app store.

English Alphabet Match: There are two types of games in this app. A memory-type game has children match letter cards. Some cards have the upper and lower-case letters to be matched. Some cards have a speaker on them; a letter is spoken when these cards are turned over. The other game on the app has children drag and match upper and lower-case letters. This is a simple app that might be used to help teach letter names. But it has a few characteristics that can hinder learning to the extent that I do not recommended it. First, the interface is not very attractive or engaging, and it moves slowly. I find myself touching things three or four times before realizing that the app is already processing what I selected. Second, in the memory game with upper and lower-case letters, the letters disappear from view as the letter is heard. Therefore, children don’t get to hear the letter and then see it, which is a big missed opportunity. Third, in the drag and match activity, children are presented with a single screen with four letters to match, then they are returned to the home screen. It gives the sense that a child is finished after having matched only four letters.

ABC Phonics Word Family Writing: Words are shown on the top of the screen with letter tiles. Children trace the dotted-line words below. Words are grouped according to their endings. I do not highly recommend this app. The space for tracing is about an inch from top to bottom. While that may be an appropriate size for writing on a piece of paper, it is too small for the iPad. My other major criticism of this app has to do with the fact that words are grouped according to their endings. That type of word-family grouping is conducive to phonics skills development, but there is no phonics component to the game (i.e., no letter sounds or combining of letter sounds).  If a whole-word approach is what this app is designed to support, then it would be much better to include common sight words for children to trace.

Alphabet Find: Children see a grid with letters on it. They have to find the letter shown at the top of the screen, which is also spoken aloud. There is a timer that either counts down or up as children find letters. The simple idea underlying this app is a good one, but its execution is poor. The letters are much too cute, to the extent that they are difficult for children to recognize. For example, letter ‘T’ is partially hidden by some pictures of trees, letter ‘D’ looks more like a bubbly letter ‘O’, and letter ‘g’ looks more like the number ‘9’.

Sound Beginnings: There are two different types of activities in this app. In the first, children are given a picture and have to choose which letter is at the beginning, middle, or end of the word (depending on the setting). In the other activity, children are given a letter and have to choose which picture contains that letter at the beginning, middle, or end (depending on the setting). This app provides some good practice, but it’s not the best at what it does. I think it is most helpful with beginning sounds. The way the game is structured makes it pretty challenging for children figure out the middle and ending sounds, or to even remember what sounds they’re supposed to be listening for. Also, children are particularly inclined to guess in this game. When they get a wrong answer, it makes a silly noise, which is rewarding. Third, all of the recordings are of children’s voices. With many words, it’s hard to hear the sounds, especially the ending sounds, because the children often trail off a little bit at the end of the recordings. And finally, if you push the question mark, it says, “Choose the image that has the ending sound of the letter shown.” Of course, children who would be using this app aren’t able to read. The directions should be given audibly.

First Words: A picture is shown. The letters needed to spell the word are scattered. Children have to drag the letter to match the letters in the word box. You can choose whether you want it to say the letter sounds or the letter names. You can also choose whether to have letter hints in the word box. I do not strongly recommend this app. It is attractive and well designed for child use, and it does provide some good practice with letter recognition, word recognition, and phonics skills. But the content is not very rich, and the words included are not the best choices for young children.