Archive | February, 2013

Seven Super Stories by Susan Syddall

28 Feb

I couldn’t resist using some alliteration in the heading for today’s post. Susan Syddall is an Australian author and illustrator who also has a website, Stories and Children, which is full of great educational ideas and resources and more information about her apps. Today I am reviewing the seven story apps Susan has published to date. Most have been supplied by Susan, but I acquired one of them while it was on sale recently.

A page from Hog and Frog

A page from Hog and Frog by Susan Syddall


The following features are common to the apps.

  • Beautiful illustrations
  • Two reading modesRead to Me or I’ll Read.
  • The narration is expressive with an Australian accent. Most of the story apps I own have either an American or British accent, so it is a delight to hear a story in my accent, particularly one so well narrated. I don’t believe the accent would present difficulties for other countries, particularly now we have such global exposure to such a variety of accents.
  • How to section – explains the different features of the app.
  • Text presented in different ways – in addition to the standard text, you’ll see speech and thought bubbles, environmental text (labels, signs, books etc), and words presented in different graphic formats.
  • Subtle interactive elements – there are no animations, but some pages have interactive areas that will produce sounds. These pages are marked with an asterisk.
  • Extension activities – these differ for each book but include activities such as mazes, word finds, comprehension activities, spot the difference, counting, vocabulary and more. There are at least 5 extra activities for each book and these can be printed and/or completed in app.
  • Guide Notes – These printable activities include suggested focus questions for discussions, Language activities and extension ideas, and integrated curriculum ideas.
  • An introduction to each story – this is a feature you don’t often find in story apps, and it helps cue the child into the language and concepts explored in the story. In some cases,these introductions give background knowledge the child may not already have (see Lyrebird Park for a good example.)

More support materials can be found on the Stories and Children website. A free membership is required to access the materials.

Those are features common to each story app. Below are my notes on each book in the series. I’ve included some first impressions on some of the learning opportunities for each book, but if you dive into the supportive materials included with each app, you will find many more ideas.

The Stories

All of the stories are Universal, are published by Susan Syddall, and are priced at $2.99 each.

hogandfrogHog and Frog Hog and Frog - Susan Syddall– Hog tries to turn into a frog by changing his appearance and behaviour, until he hits the final hurdle. I’m not going to give away the plot, but this story had my 5 and 7 y.o. sons in stitches. There is much use of the “og” sound (and the short “o” sound), opportunities for children to guess how the hog will solve each problem, and of course you can explore the characteristics of frogs.

mathildaThere's Something in the Bush, Matilda - Susan SyddallThere’s Something in the Bush, Mathilda – Mathilda explores the Australian bush and finds different animals hiding in their different homes. There is a great rhythm to the story, and the pattern lends itself to word prediction activities. Each animal has its own action, providing a great opportunity to look at verbs and perhaps act them out. Other concepts in the story include counting to ten and different animal habitats.

groverbillGrover Bill and the Geckos - Susan SyddallGrover Bill and the Geckos – Poor Grover Bill has a very bland, gray life until some cheeky geckos go to town in his house with coloured paint. The big concern in this house was how Grover Bill would react when he woke up and saw what the geckos had done (memories of Changing Rooms). Again, there is a great rhyme and rhythm to the story, making it great to read aloud and very helpful for beginner readers. I love the way verbs are highlighted on each page. Master 5 decided to act out some of the verbs, but unfortunately I didn’t get it on video!

scaredycatScaredy Cat Scaredy Cat by Susan Syddall - Susan Syddall– This is a funny tale of a mouse waging psychological warfare on a cat, who is very hungry. There. You have to get it now! There is rhyme, repetition, and lots of highlighted adjectives enriching the text. My 8 y.o. is being encouraged to write “juicy” sentences for his homework, and I’ve used these highlighted words to show him how he can do that with adjectives and adverbs. Incidentally, there are clocks featured in illustrations throughout the story to emphasise the time the cat is going without food. The clocks are not specifically mentioned in the story, but there are opportunities to look at the time in hours, and count the hours that pass. As you tap on the clocks, you can count the chimes then hear the time spoken aloud.

lyrebirdparkLyrebird ParkLyrebird Park - Susan Syddall – Most Australians will be familiar with the lyrebird that graces our 10 cent coin, but others may not know about this fabulous mimic. The introduction to this book is slightly more detailed than the others so that children receive some background knowledge about this amazing Australian bird. (Non-believers should try searching the Internet for some recordings of the lyrebird, which are amazing and hilarious at the same time.) The story is quite funny, with the lyrebird playing tricks on a family to make them leave his park. Again, there are some fabulous adjectives and adverbs highlighted in the text. In addition to the story told in the text, a second story takes place in the illustrations, with the baby wise to the tricks that the adults are falling for. You might want to try retelling the story from the baby’s point of view, and you can also explore birds that can talk (the sulphur-crested cockatoo is introduced at the end of the book) and animal sounds.

farmer blakeFarmer Blake and Sneaky SnakeFarmer Blake and Sneaky Snake - Susan Syddall – The chickens team up to help stop sneaky snake from stealing Farmer Blake’s eggs in this amusing story. I love how the direct speech is highlighted in the text, and there is some great use of alliteration ( e.g. Snake slid silently in). My children came up with a couple of other ideas the Farmer could have tried.

baddaytobeflyIt’s a bad day to be a Fly! It's a BAD day to be a FLY! - Susan Syddall– There is a subtle reference to that great Aussie character, Louie the Fly, in the latest book in the series. (For my non-Aussie readers, Louie is a character who has starred in fly spray advertisements since the 1950s. I can still sing the jingle created by the late, legendary Bryce Courtney when he worked in advertising in the 60s.) Louie is a trainee fly and is learning how to harass Mr Sty. There are concepts of rhyme and direct speech, and the text is presented in lots of visually interesting ways to support the story, for example on one page it swirls around as Louie buzzes around the house. My children didn’t understand the picture of Louie wearing a gas mask, but were able to understand after a small discussion. (They also now understand why I don’t like to use chemical sprays.)

Wish List

There is a lot right with these apps already, but there are always a couple of things I’d like to see in story apps that are not yet present in these apps.

  • Highlighting words – it would be great if words could be highlighted as they are narrated to give that extra support for children attempting to read along.
  • Repeat text – an option to repeat text would be useful for children who miss part of the narration for reasons such as interruptions, environmental noise, or comprehension.
  • Individually spoken words – being able to hear words spoken as they are tapped, in either reading mode, would be supportive of students who are starting to read independently but who struggle with the odd word. It also allows you to “play” with the text on the page, for example highlighting words from your sight list, or those with a particular phonic element.


Some stories are meant for reading pleasure, and others are meant for learning to read. Susan Syddall’s stories fall into both categories for me. They are entertaining and engaging, but also have lots of supportive elements that will make them a welcome addition to both home and school libraries, being particularly suited to emergent readers in Prep – Year 2. They are also age-appropriate for older children with special needs, and I can see these stories being popular with home schoolers too. Finally, it is nice to see some Australian content in story apps. I hope more are in the pipeline, as I’m keen to buy some more for the early readers in this house.

Homework Apps – Spelling

25 Feb
spelling test

spelling test (Photo credit: elginwx)

My children started their school year a month or so ago and the homework is coming home. Our teachers are flexible, so along with the traditional paper and pencil activities, they also allow students the option of online activities or computer or tablet Apps. In this post I’m going to highlight a couple of my favourite spelling and sight words apps, and how you can be sneaky and get your children to do more than they think they are doing.

Dedicated Spelling Apps

I have a lot of spelling apps, but the ones that I use for homework are ones that allow me to use the same spelling lists my children bring home. Most of these work the same way:

  1. Enter a name for your list – I usually use the child’s name, term and week, e.g. Penelope T3Wk2)
  2. Type in the word – try not to add spaces. (If you add a space at the end of a word, the apps recognise the space as a character.  If the space is not typed, the child will be marked as incorrect, even if they were correct.  Confused?  Just don’t add spaces and you’ll be fine.)
  3. Record the word – I like to record the word followed by a short phrase or sentence that shows the meaning of the word, e.g. Bed – I sleep in my bed.
  4. Save the list, then use it to complete the spelling activities.

There are a couple of ways you can get  your children to do a little extra work. The apps are really easy to use, so most children will have no problems entering their own lists, which gives them a little more spelling practice. If you get children to record the word and the sentence/phrase, it also gives them an exercise in comprehension and grammar. I find that getting the child to record the list, making up their own sentences orally, helps when it comes to writing sentences in their homework books. Tip: do the recording in a quiet room. Actually, these apps are best used in a quiet space for all the activities as children need to be able to hear the words.  You could also use headphones.

Spelling apps that I use include:

  • Spelling Star : Spelling Star - Top Class Apps, LLC(Universal, PUblisher:  Top class Apps, LLC, Price: 99 cents) – Simple controls, easy to create your own lists, and easy to share spelling lists, making it great for classrooms. Children are awarded a star for each word they spell correctly, and become a “Spelling Master” when each word in the list has three stars.
  • My Spell Test – (iPhone, Publisher Ipoxi LLC, Price: $2.99)My Spell Test - The Custom Spelling Test Creator - Ipoxi – This is the first spelling app I ever used with my children. It doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but is very easy to use. Children complete the test and then are shown the words they misspelled (with both their spelling and the correct spelling) and then are retested on their errors. It is simple, but very effective. Read my review here.
  • Sight Words & Spelling with Pixopop HD Sight Words & Spelling with Pixopop HD - Marcel Widarto– (iPad only, Publisher:  Marcel Widarto/Sogabee, Price: $2.99) – This is now the universal favourite in our house. As you enter words in the list, it automatically checks to see if it already has a recording or that word, which can save a lot of time. There are three activities you can do with the spelling list, and there is a reward token system that my children find very motivating. Read my review here.
Spelling activity screen

Draco helps with spelling. I think I got this one right. You can use an ABC keyboard too.

Painting and Drawing

Painting and drawing apps are great for giving children the opportunity to write using different tools, colours and effects.   I reviewed several last year in this post. There are download links for each of these apps in the post.   Essentially, any app with some basic drawing tools will work, although  tend to use Doodle Buddy, and Art Set as these have some great painting tools and effects.  Write the words using the different tools, effects and colours, and then save screen shots of each word to the photo library on your device. Try painting a word and then tracing over it with a different colour/tool each time as a great pre-test activity.


School Writing (iPad) or School Fonts (iPhone) are great apps for getting some sneaky extra work out of your child, get them to help you create an activity using their spelling lists, and then get them to practice their spelling at the same time they practice their handwriting. If you get them to create the activity, then typing the words into the list provides yet another practice opportunity.  Read my review of School Writing here, and my review of School Fonts here.  School Fonts now has a free version to let you evaluate the app.  I recommend downloading it if you are interested in either app. Among their many supportive features, these apps contain both beginner and cursive writing styles for all Australian States and Territories, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Word Processing

Another activity our teachers suggest is typing the words on a computer and then printing them. I prefer to do this on our desktop computer where we have some novelty fonts and it is faster to print. You can do the same activity iPad and take a screen shot or send the file to the computer to print. There are not a lot of novelty fonts available for the iPad word processing apps, but Marker Felt, Party LET, Zapfino and Chalkduster are a change from the usual more formal fonts. You can also have fun with colours. After you print the list, chop it up and have the child sort the words in alphabetical order.

I have two word processing apps on my iPad:

  • PagesPages - Apple (Universal, Publisher:  Apple Pty Ltd, Price $10.49) – This was my first app purchase. It has most of the formatting tools you need to create documents on the go, and I sync documents with my iMac via iCloud. It is also easy to send documents via email, DropBox or connecting through iTunes.
  • Textilus: Textilus Word Processor - knowtilus (iPad only, Publisher:  Kairoos Solutions S.L., Price $5.49) I found this app last year and I’m starting to use it more and more. Unlike Pages, most of the formatting tools are available from its keyboard.

If you don’t have either of these, any app that lets you input text can be used, including the NotePad app.

Any tips?

There will be other ways you can use your iOS devices to help your child with spelling, and I’d love to hear them.  If you have any tips and tricks, please leave a comment below.  You can also join in the conversation in my Facebook Group.

Playroom – Lessons with Max

7 Feb

Playroom - Lessons with Max app iconPlayroom – Lessons with Max is an App designed to help children of preschool and kindergarten age to learn early concepts.  There are five games in the app, each using the same characters, Max the Cat and a mouse (my children have named him Cheeky Mouse), and familiar toys.   I had a lot of help with this review from Master 5, as you will read.  Thanks to Svetlana from Igromatic for allowing me to be part of the Beta testing and for giving me the opportunity to review this great app.


Playroom – Lessons with Max Peekaboo activity screen


Toys are hidden in the bedroom and you must help Max to find them.  Children are offered a glimpse of the four toys they will need to find before the mouse pulls down the blind and they are hidden behind or inside common bedroom/playroom items.  My children loved this activity, particularly as different toys were used in each game, and the toys were not always in the same place.  Children can take their time to look and find items without the pressure of time limits.  If they are having trouble, a prompt will appear on the screen to help them find the item.  Incorrect answers are acknowledged with a shake of Max’s head, but there are no penalties and they get to try again.

Colors and Numbers

In this activity, children are asked to drag toys of a certain colour to a wagon.  Toys are counted to a maximum of 5 as they are added to the wagon, which zooms away after the required toys have been added.  This activity is wonderful for developing one-to-one correspondence, a basic Mathematics skill.  My only issue is that “violet” is used to describe the colour my children and their friends would refer to as “purple.” I have used this as an opportunity to discuss how some colours have several names (e.g. Red, scarlet, ruby, rose etc).  It isn’t a big deal because it is very easy to record your own custom voiceovers with the vocabulary you choose. See below for more information.



Master 5 describes this as: “A picture of a toy comes on the iPad screen but a cheeky mouse messes it up so you have to help the cat put the puzzle back together.”   That basically sums it up, although I’ll add that there are some supportive features, including a light picture underneath the puzzle to guide children, and pieces placed incorrectly will pop out of the puzzle area.  My son likes the picture guide, but I’d like to be able to turn it off after he has played it a few times, just to increase the challenge.


This is a standard 8 card memory game where the child turns over pairs of cards to find matching pictures. Master 5 recommends children look carefully at the start of the game because “the cheeky mouse runs over the cards and they flip for a second so you might see where the matching pictures are.”



This is my favourite game in the app, possibly because I haven’t seen another activity quite like it in an app before.  Children are presented with a pair of shelves, each with identical toys placed in them.  Master 5 describes the activity well: “The mouse knocks the toys down and you have to put them back on the shelves in order.  You have to look at the other shelf to see where the toys go. The toys move when you tap on them. I like this game because it is fun.”  There are some good thinking and observation skills practiced in this app which will offer a fun challenge to the children.

The YouTube video below shows the app in action:

Other Features

You can access the App’s settings by tapping the discreet button in the top left of the home screen and then solving a simple addition problem.  This ensures no preschooler (unless they are extremely gifted with mathematics) can change the settings.

Custom Voiceover:  This is a star feature for me.  You can easily record your own voiceovers to replace those in the  app.  All of the phrases used in the app are listed, so you can choose all or some.  I have changed Hare  to Rabbit,  The violet toys to The purple toys,  and bear  to teddy.  I intend to record voiceovers for all of them using my childrens’ voices.  This feature will be great if you want to use voices with your own accent, or even if you wish to record instructions in a different language.

Things I love

  • Positive reinforcement:  Max responds to correct answers with an animation such as clapping, a nod or thumbs up and some happy purrs.
  • Help:  Several activities feature prompts that appear if the child is stuck, and help them to arrive at the correct answer.
  • No penalties:  There are no penalties for incorrect answers, although Max might shake his head to reinforce that this wasn’t the correct answer,  and there are no time limits.
  • Characters:  Both the mouse and cat characters are very appealing.   Here is a hint:  tap Max on the main screen to see him dance.
  • External links are hidden: There are links to social networking, YouTube, the website, the appstore and an email address, but these are all hidden in the settings section and are inaccessible to children.
  • Endless play:  the game is not over until the child decides to stop playing.
  • Custom Voiceover:  I know I mentioned it above, but I love this feature as it will make the app even more friendlier for your children by allowing them to hear voices they recognise and love with the vocabulary that they use.  It might even help children who are learning a second language.


There are a lot of early concepts apps on the appstore, but not many have been thought through as well as this one. Each of the five activities has been well planned, with supportive features to help guide children to the correct answer while still offering them challenges. The feedback is supportive and encouraging, and you can customise the activity in terms of voice/vocabulary. The characters are entertaining and engaging, and the activities are fun and really educational.  If you are looking for a great app for toddlers and preschoolers, then this is the one.

Publisher:  Igromatic
Price: $1.99

Playroom - Lessons with Max - Igromatic

%d bloggers like this: