There are more than 750 000 apps in the iTunes AppStore, with many doing similar things, so it is very exciting to find an app that does something really different. WriteReader is one of those apps. The app is based on research that strongly links success in learning to read with learning to write. The app is aimed at children aged from 3 to 10 years, although I believe it would be suitable for older children who have special needs. I’d like to thank Sarah Muzzammil, a member of the WriteReader marketing team, for giving me the opportunity to look at this app.
Apart from the title page for each book you create, each page consists of a picture that you add from your camera roll, and two text entry points: one for children and one for adults. You can add an audio recording to each page, and you can easily add speech frames, thought bubbles and text boxes to the pictures. Children select a picture, then write a caption, concentrating on the sounds in the words they wish to use.This might be just a couple of letters for one-word caption, or it might be several words. Adults then type the correct “adult writing” in the second box. This is the way my children do their first writing at school. I’m sure many readers are familiar with being presented with lovely artwork captioned with (what appears to be) a mishmash of letters, and a teachers’ writing underneath translating it for us. What is actually happening is that children are trying out their letters and sounds, exploring the process of writing at its very first stages. By seeing their writing alongside the adult’s writing, children can see their successes. [UPDATE 14/7/2014: The adult writing can be disabled by tapping the large owl.]
WriteReader is more than just a writing app, as it has been designed to be used as part of a whole language approach to help children learn to write while they are also learning to read. There is a good deal of research behind it from its Danish development team and the Danish School of Education. The publishers write:
The app is based on scientific research showing the increased meaningfulness and efficiency that can be achieved when children start to write concurrently with the process of learning to read. With this app and a little help from an adult, children, from the age of 4, will be able to create books and thereby improve their skills in both writing and reading at the same time. WriteReader is tested and developed in cooperation with scientific researchers from The Danish School of Education.
You can read more about the research and theory behind the app, and about its creator, Janus Madsen, on the WriteReader website.
While reviewing this app, I came across a free publication that further supports the strong link between writing and learning to read: Writing to Read – Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading – A report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Authored by Steve Graham and Michael Herbert (http://carnegie.org/fileadmin/Media/Publications/WritingToRead_01.pdf)
- Clear instructions are available in video form from the main menu. There is also a quick video overview of the App in the startup screen.
- Simple controls – The controls are very simple to find and use, so children can concentrate on the task at hand and not be overwhelmed with options.
- Books can be shared via email in PDF format, or by Facebook
- Supportive keyboard – as children type, they hear the name of the letter spoken aloud. (This feature can be turned off) Vowels are highlighted on the keyboard.
- Advice for Parents – Some great tips and activities for helping your child to learn are included in the app, and you can find more on the WriteReader website.
The Tutorial film is available as a YouTube video. It only goes for about 2 minutes, but it gives you a very clear overview of the app.
I tried this app with my five y.o. son who is in Prep. He is at both the pre-writing and pre-reading stage, and still doesn’t know many of his initial letter sounds, let alone any words. When we made our first page, Mr Five was so worried about misspelling words that he made me write the sentence first and then copied. This is certainly one way that you can use the app, but I was keen for him to try writing by himself.
We then watched the introductory video where Little Owl is encouraged by Father Owl to use his “children’s writing,” and he realised that he didn’t have to perfect. (Funny that he wouldn’t accept this from his mother, but a cartoon owl was believable!) Perhaps I should have been a bit wiser and shown him this first, but silly me thought I could explain it well enough. The next attempt was much happier for us both. Later, when he had earned 15 minutes free play on the iPad (my children have to earn their iPad time), he chose to add some pages to his book rather than play his favourite (educational) game. At this stage he is not writing a story, but creating a photo journal where he is placing his favourite photos and writing captions for them. His biggest problem is that he doesn’t know many sounds yet, but as he learns more sounds, he will find it easier. His major hurdle is getting over his fear of making mistakes and just having a go, but I’m confident this will come with time, particularly as I am praising his successes and focusing in on the sounds he is getting correct. He does prefer to delete his own typing and copy my version, but I’m happy with this as he is still learning, and that he has had a try.
The introductory video is also available as a YouTube vide0.
My 7 y.o. son knows his sounds and can spell quite well already, but I think this app will still be very useful as he learns new vocabulary, sentence structure, and punctuation. He can write simple sentences and punctuate them correctly, but it is a useful tool for helping him get to that next level in his writing, and he is not as anxious as his younger brother when it comes to making mistakes. It will be particularly useful as he begins to learn about direct speech, and I intend to play with those speech bubbles quite a bit.
The talking keyboard was very useful. At one point, Mr 5 correctly identified the sound he needed as the letter “a” but tapped the “u” instead. The audio feedback alerted him to his mistake, and helped him to find the correct letter.
Both children are excited at the thought of being able to print and share their own stories. I’m a keen scrapbooker and my children have seen me writing stories in their photo albums. They see this as an electronic form of that kind of storytelling. Using photos allows them to write about experiences they have had, using their prior knowledge to help them come up with the words. We could also use pictures created with creativity apps such as Felt Board, Play School Art Maker, and Doodle Buddy to create fantasy stories. While my boys have been using WriteReader on our original iPad that has no camera (we sync photos via iPhoto on my iMac), I’ll make my iPad 3 available to them when on holidays so that we can create holiday photo journals as we go.
Since my original review, Write to Read has been updated several times. Some of the updated features include:
- Adult writing can be disabled by tapping on the large owl
- Social media links have been removed.
- Printing and sharing (by email) options are hidden behind a parental lock.
- Simple selection tools make it easy to add a coloured text box and text to illustrations.
- Language selections are available for US English, UK English, Dansk (Danish) and Svenska (Swedish) through the iPad app settings.
- A phonics option has been added to the keyboard. You can now select to hear letters spoken by name or by phonic sound as they are typed, and can toggle between these and the silent option using a key in the lower right corner of the keyboard.
- Simple drawing tools – I love using our own pictures, but the ability to add simple drawings, arrows etc would be handy.
- Option for alphabetical keyboard layout – I’m happy with the standard QWERTY keyboard, but for some children, locating letters might be easier on an alphabetical keyboard.
As mentioned above, it is such a wonderful surprise to find an app that offers something original and useful. The app has features that are very supportive of emerging readers and writers, and these will also be supportive of students with special needs. Possibly the feature I appreciate most is the one that is not actually programmed into the app: the interaction between adult and child. In this new world of super-accessible technology, we sometimes forget that while apps can help children learn, it is the adult and peer interactions that will help a child make the link between the content on their electronic devices and its application in the real world. Adults or older siblings can reinforce learning and direct their praise much better than any automated response, and they can help children make meaningful links between these activities and the real world.
- Write to Read – Cool Learning App (teacherlingo.com)