George Lucas Educational Foundation
Literacy

7 Reading Readiness Apps for Special Needs Students

Here are seven apps to help special needs students toward reading readiness, touchscreen games that engage children through play with colors, shapes, animation, alphabet sequencing, and sentence structure.
March 2, 2016
Young girl sitting at a table looking intently at something on a laptop
Photo credit: zeitfaenger.at via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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.

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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.