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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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What is reading readiness? The dictionary defines it as the point when a child transforms from being a non-reader to being a reader. But this definition leaves out the concept that reading readiness may actually begin in the womb. Watch Annie Murphy Paul's TED Talk to learn more about what is called fetal origins.

In another vein, as Maryanne Wolf writes in Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, "We were never born to read." Getting ready to read takes years of informal exposure to language and print in a myriad of ways. This stage is called early literacy. Talking and interacting with children about daily literacy-based activities that interest them in their everyday lives best accomplishes acquiring these skills. Storytelling, print and book awareness, and playing with words (rhyming, clapping, stomping out syllables, rolling and bouncing a ball) are all great ways to get started at an early age. But even when the stage has been set with all the right components, the special-education child usually grapples with reading and writing.

How can we use tech to support the special-needs population? Technology has been touted as a game changer for many reasons: personalization, pacing, and embedded assessment tools are just a part of the success. Savvy app developers are making great products to foster reading readiness, many inspired by their own children or students who struggle with learning. The best of these products are created by passionate individuals with an understanding of what "special" means and how to address these needs. Through the use of touchscreen technology, many parents and teachers are watching their children soar socially, emotionally, and academically.

Here are just a few apps to foster reading readiness.

1. The Very Hungry Caterpillar

The Very Hungry Caterpillar - Shapes & Colors by StoryToys is the perfect activity app to help equip any child with the necessary skills for reading readiness. Identifying, matching, and sorting shapes helps children recognize patterns and is the foundation of decoding. This app also has a quiet elegance that allows children to remain calm and process the material. Basic shapes are presented, as well as color and shade, scale, patterns, and combining shapes into tangrams -- much like we combine letters into words.

2. Rainbow Sentences

Rainbow Sentences by Mobile Education Store is an incredible learning tool that has a slew of different levels of play and can be adapted for differing students' needs. There are three levels of play with 55 sentences each and six levels of sentence complexity. This may sound complicated, but it's not! Rainbow Sentences offers teachers a lot of control, as the interface makes it simple to set up the levels of play. The app developer worked diligently perfecting every feature and every conceivable setting. This product offers a unique environment for improving a student's ability to create grammatically correct sentences.

3. Reader Bee

Reader Bee and the Story Tree by Learning Circle Kids LLC takes a wonderful, revolutionary, new approach for beginning readers -- you don't want to miss this one! While this app has captured all the charm, whimsy, and nostalgia of first-grade primers, it's been thoroughly researched and executed to maximize a child's first experiences with learning to read.

4. Elastic Alphabets

Elastic Alphabets for Kids by Pratik Machchar simply mesmerizes young children with the uncomplicated, easily relatable concept of line drawings. Noun after noun of child-friendly words are illustrated and accompanied by surprising animations. An apple transforms into an arrow and ultimately leads to the letter B, a balloon pops and out comes the letter C, and so the app unfolds!

5. ABC Animals

Zooper ABC Animals by Zooper Dooper Edutainment Inc. is an outstanding app -- every detail has been thoroughly developed, play-tested, refined, and perfected. This ABC adventure never ceases to surprise the user, and everyone benefits from a traditional ABC book transformed into a "touch experience." Rhyming is one of the foundational skills that plays a lead role in reading readiness, and this app has delightfully sophisticated rhymes.

6. The Reading Train

The Reading Train by The Learning Station is an app aimed at setting students up for success in beginning reading. And it delivers. Here you'll find books that kids can and will read, ideal for readers just off the training wheels.

7. The Sounding Out Machine

The Sounding Out Machine - Assistive Reading Device by FizzBrain is a brilliant new app. It helps children focus on words that are hard to sound out when reading, and then models how to say those difficult words. The Sounding Out Machine is an ideal tool for those students who don't grasp the concepts right away and continue to struggle with decoding, or for anyone puzzled by those oh-so-common words that are called outlaws, trick words, or rule breakers.

Cautionary Note

In order for children to read, write, and spell, they must be developmentally ready. Some are ready at age four or five, while others may not be ready until years later. This readiness includes complex neurological pathways and the ability to coordinate multiple sensory systems. These experiences happen naturally as children grow and play, particularly in what is referred to as crossing the midline (using both sides of the body together). But as a special education teacher, I'm familiar with the trend away from giving children ample "playtime." After all, we need to know not only what works, but also what doesn't work so well -- and that is experienced through play. As great as digital tech can be, let us not forget that children need to move around physically and have plenty of pretend time to stimulate their imaginations. This message is not clear to many who work with children. Reading requires a myriad of prerequisite skills, many that begin in the sandbox.

In the comments section below, please share your experiences with reading readiness and students with special needs.

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chelseatneville's picture

Viewing this article has given me the insight that is needed when working with students with special needs. Giving students the opportunity to be exposed to reading readiness, regardless of their abilities, is something that is very important to me. It seems that those with special needs tend to be pushed to the side in terms of their reading readiness. It is nice to see that they are being acknowledged and apps are being made to help them become more prepared for the reading that will need to take place in order for them to succeed in life. I also love that you talk about students being developmentally ready for reading. This tends to make a huge difference with students with special needs.

Joan Brennan's picture
Joan Brennan
Gifted & Special Ed teacher who creates unique tools for challenged readers

Just saw your article here this AM when it arrived in my inbox, Jayne! Excellent apps listed here for helping new readers! Thank you for ALL you do daily to help new and challenged readers of all ages experience more reading SUCCESS!

Happy Reading, Jayne and all!

Marie Cullen's picture
Marie Cullen
Experienced teacher K-8. Work with children after school hours.

There's a program of apps called LessonBuzz for K-6. It can be used for Special Needs and all abilities.

Christina Middleton's picture

While I love a great list of Apps for regular readers, I wanted to highlight an area of concern. Dyslexia - the struggle to read, write and spell requires a systematic, cumulative structured literacy approach to learn to read. As a parent I get frustrated with schools who think a "fun" app is all that it would take to get him reading. We were recommended several over the years. I caution you to say these apps meet children with special needs in reading. There is no quick fix to dyslexia. It doesn't go away. It's a neutological problem. Saying these apps helps kids with special needs in reading like dyslexia does not help parents at all looking for a solution. And teachers and special educators not knowledgeable about Dyslexia and the necessary structured literacy interventions to help these kids just makes it harder for these struggling kids to have their needs met. 1 in 5 students are dyslexic. 85% of kids in reading support are dyslexic, yet there are only 12 colleges in the US teaching teachers about Dyslexia. It's a never ending circle of frustration for students, parents and teachers - until the child is remediate properly.

vlevans3's picture

We have been reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar in the classroom I'm in to the Kindergarten students. They love it every time we read, and can't get enough of it. It is so cool to find out there is an app that goes with it. They will be even more thrilled to interact with with the app using technology! This was an awesome find on this blog today! Thank you so much for sharing.

kalyansrinivas's picture

This article given more information about easy to learn by mobile apps we running ngo organization by the help of this apps giving more information to my students. thanks for writing article.

akjacks2's picture

I have not heard of most of these apps so this article is very useful. I will look into using these with my students. These apps seem to be good for mobile devices which my students have access to daily. My students are highly engaged by technology so any apps and websites that I can add to their list of approved websites is great!

alextobin's picture

@takeyrad14 I thought the same thing about the title of the post! I also teach an inclusion classroom and am constantly looking for ways to engage my student's who have disabilities through apps and the use of the iPad. One thing I have learned this year is to match "text" to almost every concept you're teaching. While visual supports are great, students need to be exposed to the text as well. Students must be able to generalize the vocabulary they are being taught to other areas in order to really gain comprehension! I applaud you for finding different ways of instruction and engagement for your students!

Adria Jackson's picture

I basically agree with the article, but a bit conflicted about some of the conclusions. If every aspect of child's life is under so much scrutiny and control, and pressure to optimize performance, I fear it's his uniqueness might suffer. And it is a part of a bigger discussion about non-neurotypical children and do we need to fix them or let them be themselves: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sideways-view/201505/the-anti-psych...
Some activities are pretty universal, and will be suitable for most (not all) children. Something simple, like collecting, construction games like LEGO, coloring page like http://colorkid.net/coloring-pages-young-children are going to be quite effective, in my opinion.

James Trott's picture

You shared the rich insight of early stage learnings. These reading apps for special needs students will be extremely helpful for their growth. Special needs school in NYC are also using technological advancement and integrating their learning practices with different apps such as the ones you mentioned. Thanks for sharing this informative article.

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