Thursday, December 23, 2010

Literacy & the iPad: A review of some popular apps

In a recent post (here) that was motivated by 'Alice for the iPad' I concluded:
It remains to be seen if developers can create interactive picture books that are more than just novelties. If they do, I'm sure that they will help to get some children more excited about reading and literature. 
Since that post I've begun looking for good new apps for the iPad and iPhone and I've been testing them myself and with some children aged 3-8 years. The iPad offers the potential to bring new forms of interactivity to the experience of reading. But while many new applications are great fun, many parents will want the iPad to be a tool for learning, not just a very expensive toy.  While I'm keen to embrace new electronic forms of literacy, I maintain a level of scepticism and want to see if they have usefulness for actually developing children's literacy.

In this post I review some interesting attempts to produce new forms of the picture book for various e-readers and phones. I review 5 apps that many people are buying. I will write a series of posts on the topic over the next few months that will cover other language and literacy apps as well as e-picture books.  For each app I will give ratings from 1 (Poor) to 5 (Excellent) in terms of a) Fun & interactivity, b) Useability, c) Benefit for learning, d) Benefit for language and literacy, e) Value for money. I will also calculate the total score for each. I should stress once again that my assessments are about more than just whether children find them fun to use.
5 popular apps that I've reviewed

1. Alice for the iPad

a) Fun & Interactivity (4) - Kids love this but to be honest the app doesn't have sound so there's no option to hear the story and the interactive elements, while excellent, are not on every page. In the short 52-page version this means that about 45% of the pages have some interactive element (most require you to jiggle the iPad). The 249-page version has the same interactive elements so do the maths, that's a lot of pages that are simply read.

b) Useability (3) - it's easy enough but I can't see an option to go back to the start without using the arrow and clicking back through each page, this is annoying.

c) Literacy benefits (2) - I've rated this as 'poor' because frankly it's just reading on an iPad with some fun elements that add nothing to the story. The children I've observed don't even read the text; they just play with the interactive elements. Get your children the book if you want them to focus on the text.

d) Benefits for Learning (3) - I can't see any benefits beyond that which a book can offer other than learning how to use an iPad, which is something that most kids will master in 10 minutes.

e) Value (3) - at $11.99 US it's not cheap and frankly there are better apps around in terms of the potential for language and literacy learning.

Total Score = 15/25 (The higher the better)

2. Mika's Adventure

a) Fun & Interactivity (4) -This interesting app is once again a picture book for iPad and iPhone. It has sound and a read along option as well as the ability to increase the size of the text (it's too small to read otherwise). It also allows the reader to discover lots of hidden interactivity and some images that illuminate when touched; this actually adds something to the story. It also has a memory game and jigsaw puzzle based on the images associated with the story.

b) Useability (4) - it's very easy to use, but like the above it doesn't seem to have a way to return to the first page without clicking back through all the pages.

c) Literacy benefits (4) - This is actually a reasonable story (unlike some written for iPad) with wonderful illustrations. It is engaging mystery for children aged 7-10 years. It uses sound and image to complement the story.

d) Benefits for Learning (4) - I think this app offers features that most books can't. While there are better stories in book form, 'Mika' might just encourage some children to read the story who might not pick up the book. The related memory game and puzzle obviously have their own benefits for memory and visualisation, but while useful, they have little relationship to the story and could be seen as a distraction. I'd encourage developers to avoid these types of trivial and contrived add-ons to a story.

e) Value (3) - at $9.99 US it's not cheap.

Total Score = 19/25

3. 'Violet' series written by Allison Keeme

There are a number of e-books in this series; I have reviewed 'Violet and the Mysterious Black Dog' which I think is one of the best stories. The books use sound, image, words and a variety of interactive elements to gain the reader's participation in the story.

Screen shot from Violet & the Mysterious Black Dog
a) Fun & Interactivity (5) - I've given this app the highest rating because it uses every sense except smell to engage the reader. One of the best features of the book is that it invites the reader to help 'Violet' (alias 'Phantom Girl') to help find clues and solve the mystery. While the dotted lines around the various pieces of interactive illustrations are a bit intrusive, they work well. My only gripe is that I found the background music a bit boring.

b) Useability (4) -This is a very useable app.  Instructions are clear, there is a 'home' button to take you back to the beginning and no instructions are needed to use it. 

c) Literacy benefits (5) - The story is simple but engaging. While it isn't a great literature it is a good early reader. I can see young readers (6-8 years) loving these books. It will be useful for developing comprehension.

d) Benefits for Learning (3) -There isn't a lot of challenge with the Violet books so there won't be a lot of new vocabulary or new knowledge gained.

e) Value (5) - at $3.99 US this is great value.

Total Score = 22/25

4. Miss Spider's Tea Party, by David Kirk

This is based on the picture book of the same name. It is a delightful story of a spider in rhyming verse. It offers a variety of ways to experience the book, including reading it, hearing it, painting some of the pages, playing match games and puzzles based on the illustrations.

Screen shot from 'Miss Spider's Tea Party'
a) Fun & Interactivity (4) - Young children love the story and the illustrations, and have fun exploring the illustrations by touching them to see what they do and to hear special effects. 

b) Useablity (5) - This is a very easy app to use.

c) Literacy benefits (3) - There isn't a great deal of benefit beyond that which a reader would gain from a book. But once again, some children might read the iPad version before the book. 

d) Benefits for Learning (3) - The book has rich language so there will be benefit in expanded vocabulary. The painting, matching game and puzzles also have value for learning, but they don't add anything to the reading experience of the story itself.

e) Value (4) - at $7.99 US I think this is app is good value.

Total Score = 19/25

5. The Wheels on the Bus

This is an iPad version of the well-known song.  It was winner of the "Best Children's App” KAPi Award at the 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show.

A screen shot from 'The Wheels on the Bus'
a) Fun & Interactivity (5) - Young children just love this app. Even two year-olds will enjoy turning the page, listening to the words, singing along and moving the various illustration features. They can open and shut the doors, move the bus, operate the wipers etc.

b) Useability (5) - This is a very easy app to use. 

c) Literacy benefits (4) - For the preschool child there is benefit in reading this type of repetitive book to develop concepts of print and an understanding of 'books'.  

d) Benefits for Learning (4) - The book doesn't offer much more than a book except that for the very young it is an easy introduction to digital reading. There is the added benefit that all senses except smell are used. Great for hand-eye coordination, memory, language learning etc.

e) Value (5) - at $1.19 US there is no better value in a children's app.

Total Score = 23/25

Some final general points

There are some exciting attempts to create electronic picture books that are more than simply read along versions for the iPad. However, overall many of the attempts so far need further work. I would encourage developers to keep the following in mind:
  • The books need to be more than just fun play with the iPad; they must enhance the reading experience.
  • They should avoid trivialising the text with add-ons that have little to add to the story.
  • We need quality language, stories and illustrations.
  • The books must be easy to use and have many of the same qualities of real book (e.g. the ability to flip forward and backwards easily).
  • They need to use as many of the senses as possible.  
Some other resources and links

TechRadar's '7 Best iPad Apps for Kids' (HERE)

5 Amazing iPad e-books for kids (HERE)

My post on 'Alice', the iPad and new ways to read picture books (HERE)


Jeff Keeme said...

Thank you for the kind words. We are working diligently on our 4th book in the Violet series, "Violet and the Mystery Next Door".

Trevor Cairney said...

I'm glad you liked the review, I certainly liked the app. I will look forward to reading 'Violet and the Mystery Next Door'.

Unknown said...

Thankyou for these reviews - it is great to hear how new technologies can be used to foster learning and literacy.