Learning to read on the iPad versus the old fashioned way

As many people can attest, iPads make wondeful computing devices for young children.  Whereas a computer’s mouse or trackpad is difficult for a toddler to maneuver, the iPad’s intuitive touch interface is easy for them.  Not surprisingly, there are thousands of games and educational apps targeted at the under six crowd.

One type of app I thought would be a good fit for my daughter is the “learn to read” category.  Ayelet had learned to recognized all of the letters of the alphabet before age two, and we had spent several months working on letter sounds.  However, she hadn’t made much progress beyond that.  I haven’t been worried, since she is well ahead of where I would have expected her to be, but a game that would help her work on her sounds seemed like a good idea.  Besides, it would be a much better activity than her preferred application – YouTube.

One app that I found that I really like is abc Pocket Phonics: Letter Sounds & Writing.  It shows a bunch of letters, and a voice makes a letter sound.  The player needs to tap the letter that makes the right sound.  After a couple of letters, a word is formed, and the voice helpfully sounds it out.

This is just the right level for Ayelet – she basically knows the sounds, but she needs reinforcement, and she needs to learn about putting them together.  And while she enjoys it, I quickly noticed that unless I monitor her, she runs into a problem:

It’s so easy to press the letters, she just starts pressing letters for the fun of it.  Eventually she will hit the right one, and the game will continue.  Even if it’s a letter she knows well, she gets tempted to press away.  In the example above, you can see that even when she finds the “N” in the firstword, she makes no effort to apply that to the next word.

I suspected that she could do better, so I tried to do it the old fashioned way.  I grabbed a bunch of letter blocks, dumped them on the table, and played the same game.  I would make a sound, and she would pick the letter:

Without the instant gratification of letters vanishing as she touches them, Ayelet is forced to actually think about each letter, and she really shows off what she knows.  It also provides some teachable moments – when I ask her which letter makes the “Aaaa” sound, she claims there are two letters that make the sound, holding up the “E”.  To her, the distinction between the two sounds is very subtle, and it provides an opportunity to emphasize the difference.

Of course, there are the downsides.  Ayelet’s three-year-old mind easily wanders (in the video, she starts talking about her favorite color), and without the instant feedback, it requires some effort to keep her on task.  Clearly it’s not easy to be the teacher.

The iPad clearly has some advantages; it has rich media, it can keep the child engaged, and it will have patience to work with her endlessly, versus the half hour I might spend after work.  It’s great for reinforcing lessons that the child already knows but needs to practice.

But when it comes to real learning, it won’t replace the patience and attention of a real teacher.


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