Teaching Thomas: Using iPhone Apps

I’ve read articles online about educators using iPad apps for educational purposes and I’ve always been quite skeptical of that idea. For one, the teacher/classroom/school/students have to have enough money/funding to have iPads and purchase the good apps. This automatically excludes a majority of students out there, especially for students from low-income families and schools that lack proper resources.

With that said, I recently stumbled upon two apps for my iPod touch: one for phonics and one for reading stories. Both of these were geared towards to children and I so thought this could be an excellent chance to try out using these apps to teach Thomas.

We did our regular phonics lesson, this time an introduction on the differences between short and long vowels. I never realized how difficult such a concept could be for children, the fact that the same letter they’ve been learning and associating one sound with (a – apple) actually has another totally difference sound (a – lake, nail, say). Yet, it was just an introduction so my goal with the lesson was to just have him understand that vowels can have different sounds.

I phrased the iPod app as a reward for getting a rather difficult lesson done. Usually, we only concentrate on one letter (g) and learn the different patterns “g” can be used (gate, wag, ring, etc). But with introducing short and long vowels, I’m restructuring what Thomas already knew about vowels (the short sound) and adding on the long sounds to it. The reward for getting through the lesson was being able to play with my iPod Touch. I told him that I brought a game for him to play.

Thomas recognized the iPod touch right away, though mistaking it for a iPhone. I’m guessing his parents have one. First, I tried out the phonics game. It was very basic, just virtual flashcards of words of the same word family, such as “back, black, rack, tack…” Some of the words ended up being to difficult and obscure for a first grader, such as “slack”. This made me question how much the creator of the app actually knew about teaching phonics to young children. Usually, the phonics workbooks are pretty reliable in terms of giving words appropriate to a child’s educational level. I also got the free version, which didn’t let me control which kind of word families I could let Thomas play with (I wanted him to practice “ai” instead of “ack”). Moreover, the game was so simple that Thomas quickly lost interest and ended up wanting to play the other games I had on my iPod.

I switched to the story-reading app and let him pick a story to read. What ended up happening was that the app did all the read and Thomas just sat there, completely focused on the images appearing on the screen. This app was actually much smarter than the former. Every time the narrator finished reading the story, a blue circle would flash on a certain area of the screen (let’s say, right over the protagonist) and Thomas would have to tap on the blue circle to move on. This kept the story interactive, even though all he was doing was tapping the screen.

The words in the story were much too hard for him to read on his own. Yet, I found this app to be a great way for him to spend time having a story be read to him. The other day, his mom expressed that she was concerned for his English because she couldn’t read to him every night like a native English speaking parents could. The best she could do to give him English exposure at home was have him watch TV shows, which may not be the best source of learning for a first grader. I think a story-reader app like this could solve his mom’s concern and give Thomas more reading exposure from an educationally-sound source.

And even if Thomas didn’t live in a non-English speaking environment, just having the story on an iPod makes it all the more fascinating for yougn children. I was completely amazed at how quickly it captured Thomas’ attention and turned him instantly from energetic and active to quiet and still. Not even incentives like candy, stickers, or toys could produce such a result.



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