Evaluating Apps: How to pick a good story app

16 Mar

When I look at reading apps for my children, I have a number of criteria in mind.  It is difficult to get an app that meets every requirement, but having these points in mind can help you separate the good from the mediocre.

Page Layout

  • Illustrations on a page should support the text.   By this I mean that the pictures need to match the words so that children can use them as a support when struggling with an unfamiliar word.  A good illustration can help cue children in to the kind of language that might be used.
  • Text should be easily distinguished from the background.  It can be difficult to read text that is placed over a “busy” background or one similar in colour.  Most picture books tend to use text boxes or areas on the screen that tackles the problem of placing text over illustrations by allowing the user to remove the text after it has been read.
  • Legibility – The font (or typeface) used should be legible.  Swirly writing might look gorgeous, but some children may have difficulty reading it.  The more text on a page, the smaller it will be, which may make it difficult for some. Mika’s Adventure (free and published by Zuuka for iPad only) has small text on each page, but you can enlarge it by tapping.  You can see the difference this makes in the second picture below.

Animations and Interactive elements

Animations and interactive elements (such as games, sound effects, labels, definitions) can either add to the story or distract from it.  When the aim is reading for meaning, we want the adding kind.  You could take all the points made about the illustrations and apply them to these elements.  Here are the kinds of things I look for in interactive elements:

Moo Media Barnyard content

  • Supportive of the text – This is the same point as with illustrations above, however with interactive eBooks you can take this support to the next level with actions and sounds.  Good examples can be found in Sandra Boynton’s Moo Media eBooks by Loud Crow.  When the animals dance in the story, children can get them to do the same steps.

Just Grandma and Me Illustration

  • Vocabulary buildingOceanhouse Media does a great job with Mercer Mayer‘s Little Critter series, including Just Grandma and Me.  Children can tap various items on the screen to see and hear the name of that item.  If you are using iBooks to read ePub books you can tap on words to link to the dictionary for a definition.
  • Too many interactive elements can get in the way of the story.  If your child is just tapping all over the screen to see what happens, they may not be able to follow the plot.  The interactive elements in The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Crocobee (free and suitable for both iPad and iPhone) have very little to do with the story.  On the odd occasion that they are relevant, they serve more as a distraction than a support to the reading process.  A good example is the scene where the ship is attacked by pirates.  Tapping the screen allows you to fire bullets at random at the ship, but you can do this ….forever!  Much more fun for many children, particularly as the App has little support for those with reading difficulties.

Audio Elements

Most storybook apps have narration options.  They tend to include one or more of the following options:

  • Read alone/silent reading
  • Read-to-me
  • Autoplay (progresses through the story automatically)
  • Repeat paragraph/page
  • Highlight word/sentence/paragraph as spoken
  • Tap words to hear them spoken.

Some apps might only have one or two options, but the better ones have more.  That last option of tapping each word is valuable when children are becoming independent readers but still need help with the occasional word.  It also means you can play I-Spy games with sight-words or phonic elements.  Books published by Loud Crow and Oceanhouse media tend to have the more options than most.

Preferences for narration are more subjective, but I like clear, well-paced voices.  As an Australian, I have a natural preference for Australian and British pronunciations (or possibly I’m just a snob).  Most of the eBooks naturally have Northern American accents as this is where the majority of them originate, but I haven’t found any I can’t live with, and there are some I truly love, such as those used in the Sandra Boynton Moo Media series by Loud Crow.

Sound effects and background music should be able to be adjusted.  Background music can be distracting not only for the student using the App, but for others around them.  It is always great to have an option to turn it off. Of course, you can turn the sound off on the device, however that would then mean that other sounds, such as spoken text and feedback, will not be played.

Text

  • Correct grammar and spelling.  I can make allowances for alternate spellings such as colour/color, but I have no tolerance for poor grammar and incorrect spelling.  Most ebooks seem to pass this requirement, but occasionally an eBook pops up that appears to have been churned through one of those Internet language translators.  WhoNoClothes by Yuanyang Min is an example of a foreign language book very poorly translated into English.  The grammar in the narration is correct but the text is just not right.
  • Punctuation – Call me picky, but punctuation has to be correct too.  What is so hard about the correct use of a full stop (period mark) or capital letters?  The Word Zoo by Those Damned Freaks (Free, iPad only, and yes, it is an unfortunate company name)  does not use capital letters at the start of each sentence, and my 6 y.o. picked up on this right away.

Other Elements

    • Book marks and Table of contents are useful for longer books.  iBooks has this built in.
    • Recording tools so children or their parents can record themselves reading the story.  This can help with oral language skills for children as they can hear their own voices and can check themselves for expression, volume, and all the other traits of a good speaker.  It can also be a lovely way for parents to share stories with their children when they are away from home.   Marc Browns Arthur series, including Arthur’s Teacher Troubles, by Oceanhouse Media features this kind of recording facility.  These eBooks are usually $2.99 and are universal so will work with both iPad and iPhone.
    • Games and puzzles are available in some books.    Sometimes you get spot-the-difference or memory type games, and sometimes picture puzzles such as The Arthur series mentioned above, which  features jigsaw puzzles with several levels of difficulty.  
  • Colouring activities are available in some stories.  Most of the time the children use simple tools to colour an illustration from the book.  Occasionally children can choose to use their colour-ins drawings as illustrations for the stories rather than the regular illustrations, such as in Lynley Dodd’s Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, published by Kiwa Media ($5.49 – iPad only).  (Unrelated to this, it is narrated by David Tennant, famed for his Dr Who stint, in his delightful Scottish accent.) A Lite version is available if you want to try it first.

How to Check before you Pay

Most of the time, you only find out about little “issues” with apps after you pay for them, so there are a few things you can do to help you make the right choice.
  • Have a good look at the screen shots in the App store.  Good screen shots will show you pictures of at least one story page plus any options that are available.
  • Check for a Free or Lite version.  If you type the name of the App or the publisher into the iTunes search box, a list of options should pop up including any free versions.
  • Google the name of the app along with terms such as iTunes, app, review.
  • Keep checking my blog.

What to Read

I have so many picture eBooks on my iPad it is impossible to list them all here, but over the next few weeks I plan to review several at a time, probably focusing on one publisher or author at a time.  Some of the things I have in the pipeline are several different takes on Beatrix Potter stories, the iReading series and some iBooks stories.  I am also working on some reading apps for older children, including those older children who have reading difficulties and require something a little more age-appropriate than the average picture book.  Not all the books I mention will be great, but I promise that some will be fantastic. Hopefully the ones I’ve mentioned in this post will give you a head start.  In the meantime, let me just say that when it comes to Picture ebooks, my favourites tend to be anything published by Kiwa Media, Oceanhouse Media or Loud Crow as they have consistently great quality and lots of supportive features.

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5 Responses to “Evaluating Apps: How to pick a good story app”

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