Archive | August, 2013

School Writing Revisited – Version 2 delivers

23 Aug

School Writing App iconLast year I reviewed School Writing by Demografix, an app that I bought to help my children with their handwriting and one that I’ve come to consider my favourite educational app.  That is a big call, I know, as I have  a lot of favourites, but this app really delivers.  The great thing is that, since I’ve bought School Writing, several updates have been released and each one has added even more supportive features.  With the recent release of Version 2, I thought it was about time I updated my original review.   I could have simply made a list of the new features, but for readers who haven’t read my original review, I thought it might be better to use most of the original review, and to highlight new features throughout.

School Writing is a handwriting app that includes fonts for Australia, New Zealand, the USA and the UK, and now South Africa and home schooling.  You might be mistaken for thinking it is only a handwriting App, when it is really a versatile App that can be used across the curriculum and is suitable for all ages. School Writing is for iPad only, but iPhone and iPod Touch users should still keep reading as there Demografix has an iPhone App, School Fonts, that is very similar, lacking only one of the major activities.

Features

3 Handwriting Activities for Numbers, lower case and upper case

  • Trace over each letter or number with pencils of varying thickness.
  • Tracings are recorded and can be replayed or sent to the teacher.
  • Three tracing modes are available for beginner scripts – Outline, a dotted letter or a solid letter.  The outline also features a start point and arrows indicating the order and direction of each stroke.
  • A Learn button shows an animation of the letter or number being drawn for beginner scripts.  This feature is not available for the Cursive scripts, however teachers and parents can add their own recordings of letter tracings using the Customise section.
  • Illustrations – Tap on the camera icon to bring up pictures relating to the number (e.g. 6 flutes for the number six) or letter (initial letter sound, such as A is for Apple)

NEW FEATURES

  • Tracing accuracy – After students trace letters or numbers, they can receive a star or half star for tracing accuracy.  If they are not very accurate with the tracing, they will receive a prompt to try again.  They can have three attempts before progressing to the next letter or number.  There are three levels of difficulty for tracing:  Easy, Medium and Hard.  You might start beginners on the easy level, but then increase it as their accuracy improved.  Tracing accuracy can also be turned off.
  • Dotted thirds guidelines for Victorian schools
  • New Fonts – plain and cursive fonts for South Africa, and some fonts commonly used by Home Schoolers, (HWT Beginners, and Getty-Dubay in plain and cursive)

Words

In addition to the 37 lessons in this section, teachers can create and import their own.  There are examples of lessons from Prep to Year 7 levels including (but not limited to):

  • Upper and lowercase letters
  • Spelling
  • Sight words (using Dolch sight words)
  • Phonics
  • Simple word tracing
  • Writing names of family and friends
  • Identifying incorrect spelling
  • NEW – The Mioow Magic Word lists have been added.  My Prep-aged son has been bringing these sight word lists home so we are delighted.

It is really easy to add words or to edit the word list. I was able to create a custom “Lesson” with 10 words, all with audio and photographs, in under a minute. Some ways I could see this section being used include:

  • Weekly spelling and sight word lists – As it is easy to set up a class set of iPads using DropBox, it would be really easy to change lists weekly.
  • Personal information for students with special needs –  including writing their phone numbers, names addresses and other personal information.
  • Practice writing names – A class list with the child’s names plus his family and/or friends’ names as well would be a perfect prep activity.
School Writing screen shot featuring "Sarah's iPad" in beginner script

Whiteboard activities

The iPad is used as a whiteboard where students complete activities. (This is the activity not available in School Fonts) There are more than 20 activities that install with the App, covering pre-writing, shapes, math problems, and vocabulary exercises, and even Chinese Characters. It is easy to create your own activity by importing images or drawing freehand on the Whiteboard. This is the section that most lends itself to cross-curricula activities.   It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the possibilities, particularly with such an extensive list of examples pre-installed with the App, but here are a couple of ideas that I would love to have been able to do with my past students:

  • Cloze activities – close activities are where students fill in the missing words in a piece of text.  Word lists may or may not be provided.  The text for these activities can come from just about any subject.
  • Mathematics Activities – Some of the strategies I discussed in an earlier post, Using Painting and Drawing Apps for more than just pictures, would apply here.  Children could count objects and write the number, write sums, group tens, show groups for multiplication or complete patterns. The list is by no means exhaustive.
  • Following directions – present the child with a picture and the instructions to draw items in particular places, for example Put a cat on the mat, or  Put a ball under the table.
  • Mapping skills – Trace routes or locate specific places on maps. You could trace the fire escape plan for your classroom, show different routes to get from A to B, or simply identify places in your neighbourhood.
  • LOTE (Language Other Than English) – Writing Chinese or Japanese Characters, matching items to words.

Individual Student Profiles

You can add unlimited student profiles.   Records of how many lessons each student has completed are recorded.  Student names are used when sending reports to teachers and parents. The video below shows the main features of the App.

Demographix has more detailed videos available on YouTube and their website that show the various features in-depth.  See below for the link to the Demografix website.

Customizing

  • Handwriting Styles – Beginner and Cursive styles are available for all Australian States and Territories, New Zealand, U.K and U.S.  (both D’Nealian and Zaner-Bloser)
  • Guidelines – available as standard or dotted thirds, with an optional mid-line.  Guidelines can also be removed.
  • Sounds – three sounds are available for tracing, plus encouragement sounds.  These can b e turned off.
  • Emails – teachers can have letter and number exercises sent to a nominated email address for review.
  • Security – The App can be locked to prevent content and profiles being removed or edited.  An option exists for students to be able to add profiles while the App is locked, however this is easily turned off.
  • Import/Export lessons – by email, weblink, or DropBox.

New customizing features

  • Custom encouragement sounds – You can now record your own custom reward/encouragement sounds.  Applause at the end of activities is also available and can be turned on or off.  Encouragement sounds are set to off as a default.
  • Bluetooth sharing for  whiteboard lessons  and word lists.
  • Palm guard – can be turned on or off.  The lower section of the screen is “turned off” while children are writing.

Other Features

External links are available on the main page but can be turned off through settings, as Demografix obviously respects the need for internet security for students.

  • Share this App – through email, Twitter or Facebook
  • Help – links to Demografix website
  • Rate this App – linking to App Store.  (I hate apps that constantly beg for ratings so it is nice to see this one able to be turned off.)
  • About Demografix – contact page within the app with links to other apps, social networking, the Demografix website and newsletter.
  • New Feature – Customise the Logo on the homescreen.  You can now add your own graphic, such as a school banner or photo, to the app homescreen.

Suggestions

Importing and Exporting activities – If you buy this App, I’d seriously consider keeping an eye on the Demografix website for more activities that you will be able to add to your App.  I’d also consider submitting activities to the site. Use a Stylus – Tracing with a finger is one way to reinforce letter and number shapes, but I’d strongly recommend using a stylus to help develop good writing skills with a good pencil grip.  There are heaps available, but the one I would use for beginner writers is the Gecko Glow stylus with its non-slip rubber exterior and its tripod grip. Watch the Demografix YouTube videos as they cover every aspect of the App in detail.  Apart from the general video above, you can also see how to:

  • Create Word Activities
  • Create Whiteboard Lessons
  • Customise Handwriting Lessons
  • Import and Export Activities via Email
  • Using DropBox to set up a classroom of iPads

Posture – iPads are transportable, so sometimes they may not be used with classic good-handwriting posture.  Do your best to make sure children are seated well when practicing their hand writing.  I know it doesn’t sound important, but good lower-body stability is important so that children can use their upper body to concentrate on the writing task and not having to stabilise themselves with their arms too.

 

Wish list

In my original review I had a few  wishes, but they have mostly been addressed.  There are two features I wanted that haven’t been added, but they are no longer issues for me.

  • Resize, zoom and move images when creating and editing lessons.  When you add an image to an activity, you still can’t manipulate the image.  Now that I’m using an iPad 3, this isn’t so much of an issue for me as I can edit photos on the iPad before I enter them into the app.
  • More than 12 character text limit in Word activity – I wanted to be able to put words longer than 12 characters into the activity, for example my nephew’s surname would not fit.  While you still can’t do this, Demografix has another brilliant iPad app, Literacy, that allows you to do this and more.  I love both apps and consider them partner apps.

Verdict

School Writing is an open-ended App that will allow teachers and parents the flexibility to use it with their own content focusing on individual and class needs.   As indicated by the number of features added since my original review, the developer is very responsive to user feedback.  Please contact Demografix if you’d like to see any features added, or if you have any ideas on how the app could work better for you.   I stand by my original comments that School Writing “is one of the best-designed Apps I’ve seen and delivers great value for the price.”

School Writing – Learn to write the ABC, numbers, words and more. (Australia/New Zealand) - demografix pty ltd
Publisher: Demografix
Price: $5.49
iPad only

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