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It's hard to imagine how kids (and parents!) ever survived an hour-long wait at the pediatrician's office or traffic on the freeway without an app to instantly pacify your tot. If you've ever wondered whether you could help boost their reading skills at the same time, check out these learn-to-read apps reviewed by Common Sense Media.
1. Bob Books #1 - Reading Magic (Ages 4+; iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch; $2.99)
Bob Books #1 - Reading Magic is an excellent introduction to phonics for young children, or a nice companion to the printed Bob Books (a systematic method of teaching kids to read). Since you can either control the difficulty level or set it to Automatic, this app will grow with your learning child, and keep their interest as they read and re-read the sentences on each page. The artwork is simple, just as in the printed Bob Books, but the added elements of color and animation are well done and attractive.
What parents need to know: Bob Books #1 - Reading Magic is an educational experience that will gently teach your young children early phonics by teaching the sounds that letters make and how to combine them to make short words. Your children will drag the letters for the given word to the proper place below the picture, while the app sounds out the letters and reads the word aloud. Children's efforts will be rewarded when the black and white screen transforms to color and the drawings become animated. There are twelve pages and each one has four levels. You can customize the settings to suit your child's current phonics knowledge and reading level.
2. Bob Books #2 - Reading Magic HD (Ages 4+; iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch; $3.99)
Bob Books #2 - Reading Magic HD is an excellent literacy app that teaches early reading in a gentle, interactive way. Kids slowly become more comfortable with letter sounds, reading short words, and spelling as they go through the 12 pages on each of the four levels. The artwork and feel of the app is the same as for the printed Bob Books, with the addition of soothing colors, fun animation, interactive games, and a gentle voice.
What parents need to know: Bob Books #2 - Reading Magic HD is an interactive reading and spelling app for very beginning readers. It presents 12 pages of a book, which can be played on four different levels where kids spell most of the words in each sentence, one at a time. The pictures on each page starts out as black and white, and slowly fill with color as kids spell the words. The words, letters, and sentences are all read or sounded out for the child, with repetition and spelling tasks teaching step by step. The four levels gradually increase in difficulty, from dragging and dropping letters to match words, to selecting letters on one's own to spell the given words. On each level, tapping words or letters results in their being read or sounded out loud. Once some of the pages on a level are completed, the level selection screen shows how many pages out of 12 have been completed for each level.
3. Kids Learn to Read (Ages 4+; Android; $3.99)
For kids who have already tried the first two apps in this series of pre-reading apps (Kids ABC Letters and Kids ABC Phonics), this game will present further gentle learning challenges inching kids along to independent reading. Many kids will especially enjoy the colorful elements in the games that include walking a little turtle across a word bridge and giving skateboards and helmets with matching words to cute animal characters.
What parents need to know: Kids Learn to Read is the third in a series of pre-reading and reading apps created by Intellijoy. Cute character Tommy Turtle leads kids into blending letter sounds to form words. There's also a game that encourages kids to build words, and a game that teaches kids to recognize a completed word by sounding it out or by sight.
4. Martha Speaks Dog Party (Ages 4+; iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch; $2.99)
With Martha the talking dog as this party's affable host, kids will enjoy playing the four different mini-games that all help teach vocabulary lessons. Pop a party ballon to choose a game and play dress up with a selection of adorable canines. Take a picture of your creation and learn that your dog's outfit is very "fashionable," plus exactly what that means in kid-friendly terms. Or play "Chow Time" and choose the dog plate that matches Martha's instructions; for instance: "Which is the checkerboard plate?" Then feed the dog his party food by swiping a finger around the plate to move the doggie's slurpy tongue. The best thing about the app is how it integrates the learning into the game in a way that doesn't interfere with the fun while also offering lots of encouragement with "yay"s and "good job"s. Kids younger than 4 might have difficulty with some of the concepts (machine vs. nature) and vocabulary (nautical). One slight annoyance is that the volume controls seem buggy -- a player can control the volume of Martha's voice, but not some of the other sound effects, so they can be quite loud. Overall, this is a super fun party that's worth the RSVP.
What parents need to know: Martha Speaks Dog Party is an educational app tied into the popular PBS television show. The four mini-games in the app give kids different opportunities to learn new words like "amble" and "fabulous." Parents should also know that even though preschoolers might enjoy the TV show, the vocabulary games in this app are best for kids in the 4-7 range.
5. Smiley Sight Words (Ages 4+; iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch; $0.99)
If you're seeking a set of virtual flash cards with which to drill your child on reading common words, Smiley Sight Words might be the best you can get. It's got over 1,500 words, arranged into five decks, each with multiple levels of difficulty. Kids can interact with the words, tapping to hear them aloud and marking them with either a smiley or frowny face. They can also shuffle the deck with a shake of the device. Parents have a lot of control here, with the ability to track progress, remove already-mastered words, and even create a custom deck. Up to five kids can each have his or her own profile on the app.
What parents need to know: Smiley Sight Words can be used to drill children on over 1,500 common English words. Parents can check progress reports after each play session. Kids (or parents) can mark each word with a smiley or frowny face as they work through the flash cards (be aware that kids super sensitive to negative feedback might not like the frowny face as a motivating tool). There are several different decks of virtual flash cards here, arranged in up to 40 levels of difficulty. One of the decks features UK spellings, so be aware of that. Parents can also create custom decks.
6. Word Wagon - by Duck Duck Moose (Ages 4+; iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch; $1.99)
Word Wagon - by Duck Duck Moose has the same crisp, colorful, and whimsical animation as the other wonderful learning apps by this publisher. And the solid educational content here is conveyed in a way that is clear and easy to grasp, while still being fun for preschoolers. The sticker collecting feature and the bonus constellation game are both neat additions that kids should enjoy a lot (although they may complain that the constellations don't really look much like the animals they're supposed to be until after all the lines are filled in). The best part for parents, though, is the ability to customize the lessons. Choosing different levels doesn't just make the words more challenging, it can also mean removing audio or visual hints, or allowing kids to hear the word used in a sentence, and so on.
What parents need to know: Word Wagon - by Duck Duck Moose is a phonics and spelling app designed for beginning readers. As the little mouse and bird bop along, kids can tap any item they pass and try to spell it. Depending on the level you choose, you can either see the silhouettes of the letters in place, or try to spell it without any such hints. For each word they spell, kids will win an animated sticker for their virtual sticker book. And every three correct spellings earn them a chance to play a connect-the-stars constellation game.