Finding a reading app that is effective for younger kids doesn’t have to be as daunting and frustrating as it seems, you just need to know what to look for
If you’re interested in getting your kids reading early, or have a reluctant or struggling reader, chances are you’ve come across one of the many reading apps for kids out there.
Inexpensive, portable and filled with high tech capabilities and colorful animations, these apps promise parents a quick and convenient way of introducing reading in a way that they say can make reading fun.
And it’s easy to see why these promises are attractive to parents. After all, early literacy is highly correlated with future academic achievement and stronger language development.
As with all things, however, there is often a wide range in quality between reading apps, oftentimes with a significant gap between the promises they make to parents and their ability to fulfil them.
To help parents sort through the various reading and learning apps out and find an effective reading solution for their kids, we put together a list of some of the things we, as educators, parents and educational technology enthusiasts, look for in a kids reading app.
Method of instruction
There are a number of studies that demonstrate that early reading instruction in English should emphasize systematic phonics, that is explicitly teaching kids letter-sound connections.
This is as opposed to whole language instruction, which essentially focuses on recognizing words and their meanings in context.
A debate still somewhat rages on which system is the most effective, and while the exact outcome is still somewhat a hot button issue, increasingly there is growing evidence to support the idea that systematic phonics is more effective at developing literacy in young children than commonly used alternatives in schools.
Most reading apps will mention in their FAQ or on their website which type of reading method is at the heart of their learning system. In general, Whole language, analytic phonics and synthetic (aka systematic) phonics are the most widely-used methods of teaching kids to read.
The most effective apps out there tend to build their methods of teaching around synthetic phonics. This method teaches kids to decode words, identify letter-sounds and blend those sounds together in a step by step and systematic way.
Generally speaking, synthetic phonics programs teach kids to read more quickly, and make it easier for them to grasp irregular words, which makes it ideal for a self-paced, app format.
With all that said, phonics systems aren’t the be-all-end-all of reading.
Parents should make sure that the reading apps they are looking at also have some way of working on reading comprehension and reading fluency, as well.
Engagement with Kids
If a reading app fails to be engaging, it’s really not worth the files it’s coded on.
There’s little point in paying good money for an application that a child won’t use or, worse, will actively fight against having to use.
Kids today are bombarded with high quality content. From video games to colorful 3D cartoons, reading apps have to compete with high quality productions with fast paced and action packed stories.
Asking kids to switch gears to a slow, plodding instructor-led session with boring exercises can be too much to ask and can cause kids to resent the app, or worse, reading.
The best reading apps are fully multisensory, offering both video and audio instruction, as well as fully interactive lessons.
Many reading apps offer free trials and this can be an excellent, risk free way of assessing their quality.
Video – Look for apps that are as colorful and smoothly animated as possible, preferably with a familiar modern style (explore what’s popular on YouTube and Netflix to compare) rather than classic, old school animation. Kids appreciate styles that are familiar to them from other media they enjoy, and the learni
Audio – Look for an app with a lot of clear voice instruction. Be wary of apps that are overly text heavy or that rely on fast-talking or accented characters to convey important information or instructions, as they can confuse children.
This is obviously especially important for young pre-readers as they will have no other method of receiving instruction.
Kinesthetic learning – Let’s face it, kids get bored easily. To get around this, lessons should be as interactive as possible. They should integrate brief instruction with a diverse selection of highly directed activities that weave learning with games.
Beyond all these, however, to keep kids engaged perhaps it’s important to make sure the lessons K.I.S.S – Keep it Short and Sweet.
Young kids aren’t great at sitting still for long periods, even with exciting apps and games. Keeping lessons short and breaking complex topics up into smaller, more manageable chunks has long been a best practice in education.
Lessons should therefore be structured around many short lessons each centered a few activities so that kids get the feeling of moving along speedily and not being bogged down.
One downside about many of these apps is that their focus on engagement can lead kids to being distracted from their learning. In particular, various animations and funny sounds that sporadically occur can often cause kids to lose focus (especially when they’re tired) and may require parents to step in and help redirect their attention.
In one reading app we tested, for example, children were delighted by the cartoonish “wah-wah” sound it produced when they erred, causing them to deliberately make mistakes to amuse themselves.
While not a deal breaker by any means (these features effectively reduce stress and help kids enjoy using the app), this is something we feel parents should be aware of.
Supports Individualized Learning
Kids may come into these programs at different stages in their reading journey, not just in age, but in skill as well.
Each child has their own needs and their own goals to consider.
While it is far easier to code an app that takes a one size fits all approach, staring all kids off at lesson 0, it isn’t always the most ideal way of approaching literacy in kids.
Some kids may be absolute beginners, with no prior knowledge of letters. Some, on the other hand, may recognize the alphabet and have some basic understanding of reading, and still others may read to some degree but need help becoming more fluent readers.
Parents should look for apps that, either through tests, directed activities or through parental input, assess a child’s skill prior to starting their lessons, thereby providing the child with a more unique lesson plan tailored to their pre-existing strengths and weaknesses.
Revision and repetition can be boring but are often critical in moving knowledge from short to long term memory, firming up the knowledge and skills necessary to move forward in learning to read.
As reading programs are often systematic and sequential, meaning that lessons build on themselves and become more complex, small gaps in knowledge and skill mastery can become a problem later.
To avoid “drill and kill,” the better reading apps out there balance the need for repetition with the need to keep things interesting. They often use multiple activities and games to test the same skill set, changing up the way the information is repeated and thereby keep things fresh.
Meaningful Progress and Goals For Kids
To stay motivated, kids need to know how they can tell if they’re making progress at reading.
Apps that clearly lay out what the outcome of each lesson will be can often provide meaningful context and a sense of accomplishment when completed.
Similarly, showing kids their accomplishments (improvements in reading scores, test scores and such) can let kids feel good about themselves and prevent them from feeling frustrated and stuck.
With younger kids, however, these sort of high level ideas may go over their heads. In these instances, progress can take the form of things they are more familiar with, such as stars, stickers points, trophies, and other game-like awards.
Read to Me Libraries
Good reading apps come with their own digital library of books that can serve as both practice and a way to entertain and foster a love of reading in kids.
Look for apps with extensive diverse libraries of books that contain both classic, beloved texts as well as contemporary texts that will be of interest and meaningful to modern kids.
We also prefer when there is some kind of reading level information associated with these books, either lexile scores or another measure of text difficulty.
This can help parents assess the difficulty of books they might wish to assign their kids, after all you don’t want to frustrate or bore them.
We also like apps that integrate these books and their information into some kind of progress tracking analytics, so parents (and kids) can keep track of what they’re reading and derive insights on how a child is progressing in terms of actual reading skill.
Support for multiple devices
Many reading programs are accessible on mobile devices, while others are web-browser based.
We believe the best apps give parents the option of running them on as many devices as possible – i.e. tablets, phones and desktop/laptop computers.
This way kids can move from one device to another without any loss of progress, which is especially important in households where kids have to share devices with other family members.
A Final Word
Many reading apps are self-paced and claim to require little to no parental involvement.
While the idea of conveniently sitting your child down and having a program teach them to read is an attractive one, keep in mind that most reading app lesson formats involve:
- The brief introduction and explanation of a concept
- Introduction of an activity,
- Specific instructions to complete that activity
- The activity itself
While some kids may indeed be able to follow along and complete exercises on their own, many (and this is particularly true with younger ones) may find this to be overly demanding and may need some help to learn most effectively.
How much help depends on the child but, in our experience at least, it can range from going over the concepts and working alongside the child throughout the lesson to just making sure they don’t accidentally exit the program or spend their time playing games instead.
About the Author
Anne Miller is the editor of The Smarter Learning Guide and is a passionate advocate for education and educational technology. A mom of two, she majored in English Language and Literature and worked as a substitute teacher and tutor for several years. When not writing she continues to root for the Yankees and the Giants.