Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

Top 5 Preschool Apps for 2013

on January 3, 2013

Editor's note: This guest post is written by Amanda Backof, an American Speech-Language-Hearing Association certified Speech Language Pathologist for Baltimore City Public Schools. She currently works with children in Head Start programs, elementary and middle schools, and a classroom of children with Autism Spectrum disorders. Backof also founded Speech Language Neighborhood to share her experiences using the iPad in therapy and provide a place for colleagues to find helpful information.

After sifting through the most popular preschool apps available on iTunes, only a few get my speech and language students’ stamp of approval. To receive a Speech Language Neighborhood Stamp of Approval, an app must meet these requirements:

  • be educational (or easily adapted to meet speech and language therapy objectives);
  • interactive;
  • engaging;
  • technically flawless; and
  • moderately priced without in-app purchases or pop up ads.

Below are the top 5 apps — not in any particular order — that my students ask for in every session. (Note: They're designed for Apple mobile devices).

1. Speech with Milo: Nouns, by Doonan Speech Therapy

Award for originality, versatility, noun development in preschool children, fun factor
Cost: $2.99
It’s rare in the world of apps to find something that is 100 percent original. Speech with Milo: Nouns may be the first. Developer Poorani Doonan, a certified Speech Language Pathologist, has taken advantage of the iPad’s front facing camera to immerse students’ images in the learning of nouns. It’s difficult to explain how amazing this app really is. Just by looking at students' faces, you are able to see they are mesmerized by their own image on the iPad screen in real time. One of my students said, “Is that me and Milo?” It was an amazing experience because she used the word “is” for the first time!

From a speech pathologist’s perspective, what has wowed me the most is the extensive variety of nouns separated into basic categories (toys, art, transportation, food: general, food: fruits and vegetables, animals: farm, animals: pets, to name just a few). By providing nouns in categories, Poorani Doonan enables speech pathologists to teach categorization skills in addition to new words.

Speech with Milo: Nouns also facilitates teaching pronouns, verbs and expanded sentences. Amazingly, during speech sessions, I am able to work on pronouns that are typically difficult for students to conceptualize, such as “I’m," "we," and "my.” We use them in sentences including "I’m looking at Milo,” “I’m under the cloud,” “we’re at the park,” and “my face is in the middle of the sun.” We are also able to record our sentences and then watch them immediately in fits of laughter.  It’s obvious that this app was developed by a seasoned speech pathologist who understands that an app should be much more than just the title.

2. First Phrases, by Hamaguchi Apps   

Award for interactivity, clinical appropriateness, development of sentences in preschool children, fun factor
Cost: $0.99
First Phrases is brilliant in its simplicity. Out of curiosity, I purchased this app without a specific student in mind. I found it cute, simple to use and very practical. Then I received a new student on my Head Start caseload: a little three year old (A) who was only communicating in single words.

Here’s why I love First Phrases. (A) sat, listened and interacted with 10 trials of sentences, imitating each one as she pointed to the pictures. She was so excited when, after pointing to the three pictures, the characters actually performed the action. Here’s an example: “Drive the bus” –little grey mouse with a pearl necklace drives the bus. Ever since that first day, and only a few short weeks after starting with the app, (A) runs up and says, “I play iPad.” We have recently started recording her verbalizations of the sentences via the record, listen and watch feature. She loves hearing her own voice telling the character what to do. In addition to short phrases, I also work on using pronouns, verb+ing (driving) and past tense (he washed the car).

The app is extremely customizable. I have recently upgraded to include more characters so I can also target pronouns. You can view a video demonstration of how to use this app to expand a child’s sentence length on YouTube.

3. Toca House, by Toca Boca

Award for fun factor, interactivity, development of describing skills.
Cost: $1.99
Toca Boca has again exceeded my expectations in the “Toca House.” Not only are the characters multi-dimensional with different personalities, but each room in the house has endless possibilities for language instruction. There are 19 cleaning activities to choose from that show up randomly during play (washing dishes, mopping the floor, doing laundry, hanging pictures, putting away food after returning home from shopping). 

Each play session begins as the sun rises over Toca House. Children are given 10 random activities before the sunsets and night-time falls. I originally thought that a lack of control over activities would hinder progress on teaching language targets. However, during my first day of using the app with my students, I quickly realized that randomness was a good thing. Randomness equals increased student attention.

I start off my lessons with the simple statement, “Someone made a mess in the Toca house. They need you to help them clean it up.” Challenge accepted! Halfway through the game, they encounter a dirty Bo (big yellow bear-like character) sitting in the bathtub and exclaim, “He made the mess.” I have some pretty smart students! I typically stay with an activity for 10 minutes, then move to other apps and language activities, but with Toca House, my students want to continue until the session ends. 

4. The Monster at the End of This Book: Starring Grover by Sesame Street and Callaway Digital Arts

Award for funniest book app, character animations, interactivity, fun factor. 
Cost: $4.99  

Loveable, furry Grover is the star of this perfect book app. I have to say that I’m a little biased when it comes to Sesame Street and Grover as I grew up with all of them. Grover, of course, was my favorite! I have many warm and fuzzy memories of learning concepts through songs and stories. Thank you Sesame Street!

This book app is amazing in the way they take the standard, “The Monster at the end of this Book,” and turn it into an animated, interactive experience. My students love the way Grover talks to them (with the real authentic Grover voice) and how it is animated. I’ve had students apologize to him for turning the page! I love how Grover asks students to turn the page (focusing on following directions). His commentaries are hysterical – my students literally laugh out loud at Grover’s dramatics: “I’m soooooo scared of monsters!!” They wait to turn the pages so they can hear what he has to say.
It’s fantastic how the words appear as Grover narrates the book, encouraging sight word reading.

Language skills targeted during sessions include: comprehension of story ideas, answering questions, following directions, using the present progressive verb "ing," negation (don’t, shouldn’t, can’t, not), adjectives (heavy, sturdy, brick wall), humor (why is it funny?), summarizing events and sequencing events, and vocabulary. You will laugh out loud at this book every time you read it, even if you’ve heard it 10 times. He is hysterically funny and sarcastic!

5. Alien Buddies, by Artgig Studio

Award for interactive preschool concepts (letters, numbers, colors), adaptability for speech and language sessions.
Cost: $1.99
My Head Start students love this app. I also use it with my older students who have autism to increase attention and matching skills as well as basic iPad touch practice. It is not an app that was developed by speech pathologists to specifically target speech and language skills, but I discovered a fun, inconspicuous way to target describing skills and expressive language via the sticker game. Interestingly, my students think that it’s just a fun game, but in reality it’s a great way to work on pre-academic skills.

The adorable aliens offer four different games (matching, puzzles, dot-to-dot and stickers). During the matching activity, students match little aliens to their corresponding spaceships (alien with a purple circle to a space ship with purple circle). Matching includes colors, shapes, letters and numbers. You have the option of choosing a visual prompt for color or auditory prompt (“listen”). Within letters, you can choose capitals, lowercase or mixed matching, and within numbers you can choose frrm 1-10, 1-20 or 1-50. My students loved the puzzle games.

I loved the fact that the characters are brightly colored, and I could select four, six or eight pieces. During the sticker game, I managed to work on receptive and expressive language practice without my students realizing it. LOL. “Put the red and white spaceship on the top of the mountain,” “let’s make the earth bigger,” “find the alien that is furry and purple.”

The possibilities are endless for using the sticker game to increase receptive and expressive language. I have worked on grammar, basic concepts (top/bottom, next to, behind, over, etc) and expanding sentence length. The more games you play, the more stickers you earn. I played several games on my own before therapy to make sure we had a variety of stickers to play with. My students and I were very impressed with this app and they requested it all week.


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