Literacy Apps for Students and Teachers

Kathryn Lake MacKay

Abstract

This article shares six specific literacy-related apps that meet the evaluation criteria outlined by the Association for Psychological Sciences (2015) and Parrott (2011). Two of the apps are designed to develop literacy skills in children, two are children’s e-book apps, and two are intended for teachers to use in their literacy instruction.

Over 80,000 educational apps are listed in the Apple iStore (Apple, 2014). These include apps to help children develop traditional and digital literacies, as well as apps to help educators effectively teach and evaluate literacy skills. In addition, there are book apps of previously published trade books and book apps developed solely for the iPad.

With so many choices, it may be difficult for classroom teachers to find the apps that meet their needs as well as those that effectively support the literacy development of their students. There are three types of literacy-related apps: (a) apps that assist students with the development of important literacy skills (e.g., phonological awareness, narrative writing), (b) e-book apps, and (c) apps that assist teachers as they engage in literacy instruction in their classrooms. This article suggests some criteria for evaluating literacy skills and e-book apps, providing examples of apps that meet these criteria. Also included are examples of apps that teachers can use as they teach literacy.

Literacy Skills Apps

Nordrum (2015) cautioned teachers and parents about assuming that an app is educational based on its marketing label. She based her concern on the research of Hirsh-Pasek et al. (2015), who found that not all apps are designed to "promote active, engaged, meaningful, and social interactive learning .... within the context of a supported learning goal" (p. 3). The Association for Psychological Science (APS, 2015) suggested using the following guidelines to evaluate educational apps: 

  1. Avoid apps that keep children’s attention through passive activities like repetitive swiping; Instead, look for apps that require real mental effort and depend on the child’s active participation.
  2. Avoid apps that feature a lot of distracting bells and whistles. Instead, look for apps that support sustained engagement with the task at hand.
  3. Avoid apps that present children with knowledge in a vacuum. Instead, look for apps that help children make meaningful connections between new information and what they already know.
  4. Avoid apps that don't involve our most powerful resource for learning -- other humans. Instead, look for apps that encourage social interaction via discussion, competition, or conversation.
  5. Avoid apps that tell the child what to know. Instead, look for apps that use guided exploration to help children discover new information on their own terms.

The following two literacy apps, which appear on the several "best app" lists (Common Sense Media, 2016; Connell, 2012; Dunn, 2013), meet the evaluation criteria listed above.

Popplet (Notion, 2013) is a comprehension tool that provides a way for teachers and students to digitally create graphic webs to map their ideas. The user interface is simple: A tap on the screen brings up a box known as a popplet, in which the user writes a key idea to give the graphic web a beginning. The user adds more components to the web, known as popples, to organize and represent the complexities of his or her understanding. The webs can be simple (see Figure 1) or more complex (see Figure 2). Color, photographs, and text can be added to create the maps. In addition, the user can move the popplets and popples until the map clearly represents his or her thinking.

This app can be used by teachers to present their ideas and by students to organize their thinking. It is also an excellent app to use with a classroom SMART board. Popplet is available to use on the web (poplet.com) and at the iPad (Apple App Store) for $4.99.

Book Creator (Red Jump, 2016) is an app designed to help children create their own e-books using a variety of formats, including graphic novel layouts. Budding writers type the text of their book using one or more of the 50 available fonts. They can finger-write their text if they prefer. Students illustrate their books using the pictures from iPad photo library, pictures from elsewhere on the web, or photos they have taken with the iPad camera. In addition, they can draw their own colorful illustrations using the built-in pen. Once their books are complete, they can add a musical track as well as record their voices as they read the story. The Book Creator app provides methods for children to collaborate on a single book using multiple iPads. Some teachers have helped their students collaborate with children in different classrooms, schools, cities, states, and countries.

Once a book is completed, it can be shared online using Dropbox or Google Drive. In addition, students can save their books in iBookstore where other children can access and download the texts. Book Creator ($4.99) is available for the iPad and Android devices, as well as for Windows.

E-Book Apps

Though e-books can and should be evaluated using the same criteria as other literacy-related apps, they are a distinct form of app because they are similar to and different from the traditional books children experience in the classroom. Parrott (2011) shared the following five questions to ask when selecting e-books for children:

  1. Does it expand and enhance the traditional reading experience?
  2. Does it allow a linear reading experience?
  3. Does it engage multiple literacies and learning styles?
  4. Is it intelligently designed? Is it intuitive, flexible, and customizable?
  5. Does it have legs (i.e. longevity)?

The following section includes two e-book apps that meet most of the criteria established by APS (2015) and Parrott (2011). One app is for very young children; the other is for older readers.

Moo, Baa, La La La! (Boynton, 2013) is an e-book version of a traditional print book by the same title (Boynton, 1982). Though its text and illustrations mirror the traditional book, the e-book extends and enhances the reading experience through the use of interactive pictures, sound effects, and music. For example, one page shows two dogs leaping toward two cats, with the words "Some other dogs go BOW WOW WOW! And cats and kittens say MEOW" (pp. 8-9). In the e-book version when children push on the dogs, the words "BOW WOW WOW" fly out of the dogs’ mouths. When the children pull the dogs backwards, they race towards the cats, leaving their collars behind. Most of interactive elements are intuitive, but when they are not, a "tip box" appears telling the reader how to interact with the icons. The app offers two reading options, "read to me" and "read myself." Each word in the text is interactive to provide reading support. When the reader pushes on the word, it is highlighted and the read-to-me voice audibly supplies it. Moo, Baa, La La La! is found in Apple’s App Store for $3.99. It is also available for Android devices.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (Moonbots, 2015) began with the wordless Academy Award winning animated short film of the same name (Enochs, Kantrow, & Farnsworth-Smith, 2011). Following the success of the movie, this story was published as a traditional picture book (Joyce, 2012) with a written text and later as an interactive e-book. The visually stunning e-book app is a cross between an e-book and an animated film, as it contains several clips from the film along with illustrations and text from the traditional picture book.

Additional interactive elements of the app include the option for the user to push on certain illustrations to make them come alive and to write on the page of a book with a finger. The audio elements include an optional musical track as well as delightful sound effects activated through the touch screen.

One drawback of this app is that it doesn’t provide any type of reading support. The words are not highlighted nor are they interactive. The app is available in several languages including Spanish; it can be purchased for $4.99 in the App Store. Included with the purchase is access to the animated short film.

Apps for the Literacy Teacher

In addition to literacy apps targeted for children to use, there are also apps to help teachers as they plan and access literacy curriculum. Though the criteria are different from the considerations given for the student apps, standards of effectiveness are equally important for educators for finding apps that effectively improve their literacy teaching practices. The following two apps fulfill this purpose.

Kid’s Book Finder (BYU Creative Works, 2015) is an app that helps teachers find quality children’s books to use in their classroom instruction and libraries. The user is able to search a large children’s literature database by grade level, topic, genre, awards, or any combination of the four. For instance, if a teacher is interested in finding award-winning historical fiction to include in his 5th grade study of the Civil War, he could use the following filters to create a book list:

Grade Level: 5th-6th
Topic: Civil War
Genre: Historical Fiction
Award: Any

Once the list is created, a teacher can click on any book on the list to see a detailed description, including the title, author, illustrator, publisher, year of publication, and a short summary. There is also a link to Amazon where the book is available for purchase. Teachers have the option to browse the data bank by book title, author, illustrator, or key word. When a teacher decides on the books she or he wants to use, the app has the capacity to store booklists. For the example above, a teacher can create a Civil War booklist and then access it and add to it for years to come. This app is available for free in Apple’s App Store.

Running Record Calculator (Von Bruno, 2012) is a tool to help teachers make running records of their students. It supports a type of formative assessment developed by Marie Clay (2000) which allows teachers to capture what a student says and does while reading a continuous text. The teacher uses this information for instructional decision making. The app contains a stopwatch to time the reader, an error key to count reader miscues, a self-correction key to track student self-corrections, and an automatic calculation of words-per-minute, accuracy, and self-correct ratio. One of the best features of this app is its ability to record the reader so the teacher can go back and listen again to the student reading, fast forwarding to the flagged errors for quicker and more effective analysis. Though the running record results cannot be saved within the app, the teacher can self-email them for record keeping. This app is available in the Apple Store for $4.99.

Conclusion

Though this article reviews only six literacy-related apps, there are many more that meet the qualifications outlined by APS (2015) and Parrott (2011). Because apps for mobile devices are a fairly new medium for literacy instruction, evaluation criteria are constantly changing. For example, when apps are viewed through the lens of digital literacies the criteria may be different from criteria created by those interested in more traditional literacies. Teachers can keep abreast of the digital app world by accessing online sites such as www.commonsensemedia.org and www.bestappsforkids.com, which publish "best educational app" lists at least yearly.

Teachers should evaluate these apps thinking about their individual instructional purposes. In doing so they need to keep in mind that technology is not meant to replace traditional instruction, but rather to amplify and transform it (Kimmons, 2016). 

Kathryn Lake MacKay is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Brigham Young University, where she teaches courses in early childhood education, which include selecting and appropriately using technology with young children in all areas of the curriculum. Before becoming a professor, Kathryn was a kindergarten teacher in both Provo and Alpine School Districts.

References

Apple (2014). iPad in Education. Retrieved from http://www.apple.com/education/apps-books-and-more/

Association for Psychological Science (APS). (2015, May 6). Educational app or digital candy? Helping parents choose quality apps for kids. EurekAlert!: The Global Source for Science News. Retrieved from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-05/afps-eao050615.php

Boynton, S. (1982) Moo, Baa, La La La! New York, NY: Little Simon.

Boynton, S. (2013). Moo, Baa, La La La! (Version 1.4) [Mobile application software]. Retrieved from
https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/moo-baa-la-la-la!-sandra-boynton/id431302275?mt=8

BYU Creative Works. (2015). Kid’s Book Finder (Version 1.54.0) [Mobile application software]. Retrieved from https://itunes.apple.com/us/ app/kids-book-finder/id574518117?mt=8

Clay, M. (2000). Running Records for Classroom Teachers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Common Sense Media. (2016). Best for Learning: Our recommendations for families. Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/best-for-learning-lists

Connell, G. (2012, Dec. 20). My 35 favorite free apps for teaching. Scholastic. Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/top-teaching/2012/12/my-35-favorite-free-apps-teaching

Dunn, J. (2013, Sept. 4). The 70 best apps for teachers and students. Edudemic: Connecting Education & Technology. Retrieved from http://www.edudemic.com/70-best-apps-teachers-students/

Enochs, L., Kantrow, A., & Farnsworth-Smith, T. (Producers), & Joyce, W., & Oldenburg, B. (Directors). (2011). The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. Shreeveport, LA: Moonbot Studios.

Joyce, W. (2012). The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, J. M., Golinkoff, R. M., Gray, J. H., Robb, M. B., & Kaufman, J. (2015). Putting education in "educational" apps: Lesson from the science of learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 16(1) 3-34.

Kimmons, R. (2016). Effective technology integration. In R. Kimmons (Ed.), K-12 technology integration. Pressbooks. Retrieved from http://k12techintegration.pressbooks.com/chapter/effective-technology-integration/#pic-rat

Nordrum, A. (2015, May 7). Little evidence to support claims that 80,000 educational apps in apple store actually improve learning. International Business Times. Retrieved from http://www.ibtimes.com/little-evidence-support-claims-80000-educational-apps-apple-store-actually-improve-1913252

Moonbots. (2015). The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (Version 1.4.5) [Mobile application software] Retrieved from https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/fantastic-flying-books-mr./id438052647?mt=8

Notion. (2013). Popplet (Version 2.1) [Mobile application software] Retrieved from https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/popplet/id374151636?mt=8

Parrott, K. (2011, July 18). 5 questions to ask when evaluating apps and ebooks. ALSC Blog: The Official Blog of the Association for Library Service to Children. Retrieved from http://www.alsc.ala.org/blog/2011/07/5-questions-to-ask-when-evaluating-apps-and-ebooks/

Red Jump. (2016). Book Creator (Version 4.2.3) [Mobile application software] Retrieved from https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/book-creator-for-ipad-create/id442378070?mt=8

Von Bruno, N. (2012). Running Record Calculator (Version 3.3) [Mobile application software] Retrieved from: https://itunes.apple.com/us/ app/running-record-calculator/id507919711?mt=8