Bottom Line: A comprehensive McGuffey-based app for those interested, but the McGuffey system isn't commonly used today and the app needs quite a few significant revisions.
Phonics and Reading is an app from LiteracySoft designed to be a comprehensive beginning reading app, to take a child from learning letter sounds and letter names all the way to decoding text, with spelling and sight words practice as well. This app is based on the McGuffey Primer textbook, a method that was used extensively to teach reading starting in the mid-1800s, along with the popular McGuffey Readers.
Teachers and parents of children in standard public and private schools should note that this method is not identical to how phonics is taught today. There are added diacritic marks to some letters, such as a line through “c” to indicate a “hard c” sound, like in cat. Vowels and other consonants with two sounds are similarly marked. Kids will not see these marks in today’s phonics system.
It is not a very engaging or interactive app. My daughter looked at it with me for a few minutes, but lost interest quickly, even though she is beginning to read with a phonics base. The pictures appear to be free clipart with minimal animation.
For those who do want to use the McGuffey system, the app does provide an alternate presentation of the old primer textbook, and all 52 lessons are included. Each lesson has nine parts (broken into 13 different presentations), progressing from learning new sounds, building words, reading words, reading short passages, practicing spelling, and sight word practice. There are 44 letter sounds taught, over 400 vocabulary words, and over 9,000 nonsense words for phonics practice.
Phonics and Reading does not make good use of all of the iPad’s features. Instead, it puts the features of the primer into an app, with very minimal interaction. For example, on the first section of each lesson, new letters are presented. These letters are tapped to hear the new sound, and associate it with a word, shown with a picture that is animated, but not interactive.
In the next level, the user is instructed to say the sound of each letter that is grouped into small words. However, there is not a record option on this level, which would be very useful for the child to compare to self-check production.
I did like the fourth level, where letters are dragged to a sound mat. Words can be made from any combinations, however the child desires. This is a good interactive way to work on blending sounds together, but it still could be a little more visually interesting. The games are the same in each level, which, after 52 levels, will probably not continue to be motivating for children.
In the first game, the child drags the letters down to a semi-truck to spell the requested word. In the second game, the child has to listen to a sight word read aloud, and tap it out of a choice of three. As the child taps correctly, a train moves forward. The faster the child taps the word, the faster the train moves in this timed game. Both of these games come at the end of each level.
Even for those who love the McGuffey readers, this app has a few problems, including some of the picture choices. In the first part of lesson 1, tapping the /r/ brings the user to a screen with a rat, which is appropriate. However, the rat is dancing next to spilled beer cans, obviously partying it up while shaking his beer belly. In a curriculum that is often used by Christian homeschooling families or Christian schools because of the focus on morals within the reading, this seems to be a very odd choice.
For the “oo” sound spelled with one letter (marked with two dots under an “o”), the word choice associated with it is “The Who”, with a picture of one band member singing. For “ir”, a sound heard at the end of “her”, the word choice is “irradiate”. Neither of these are likely to be the word choices associated with the original McGuffey Primer, nor are they likely to be very useful as a learning tool for 5-6 year old children.
The controls are easily accessible on the left side of the screen, but it took me a long time to figure out which arrows control the lessons (red), and which control the parts within the lessons (blue). There is also a purple back button, to go back to the home screen, and a speaker button which repeats the directions. Based on what I've seen in other apps for the target age group, the navigation system really needs to be redone and has to include some better instructions and visual prompts.
Customization is limited. From the home screen, the user can choose only three things: hide the red lesson arrows to move between lessons, skip “verbose phonics rules,” and not sound out words in the phonics blending level. Also, once a letter is tapped in the first part of a lesson, it is not possible to move from the picture/word screen back to the letter screen. Some of the animations are very long, or inappropriate (the rat), but once the letter is tapped, there is not a good way to end it.
From an educational standpoint, I found many of the picture/word choices corresponding to letters to also be odd. They weren’t words that could be decoded by the child (“lamb” is used for /l/ in the fourth level, well before any silent letters are addressed), and many of them were abstract concepts, such as a picture of a rock for /th/ to represent “thud”, Italy to represent the “short i”, and a television screen with static on it to represent “noise.” Some of these choices may correspond directly to McGuffey’s choices in the Primer, but they aren’t intuitive choices for kids today.
The text is also dated and awkward for the modern reader. One sentence reads, “May we not go and see the mill at work, Tom?” Another, “Is not this a dear baby in the crib?” Homeschool families should take note that going to school is a big moral in this book. “Ned is not a good boy”, the reader finds out in lesson 40, followed by “I do not think he likes to go to school or to church.” It’s also consistent with 1800s gender roles, such as calling some “men” to help put out a fire.
If you want to use the McGuffey system to teach your child to read, or if your child’s school is using the system, download the lite version to see if this is an app that would work for your family. It’s not fun, engaging, or interactive, but as a tool for a teacher or parent, it’s definitely comprehensive.
If you aren’t going to use a McGuffey system, it’s almost certainly not going to be an app you want. There are so many more good phonics apps already out, with interactive, engaging features.
If you would like to download Phonics and Reading please use the links provided. The cost is the same, but Smart Apps receives a small percentage. Thanks for your support!
Heather Hetler has three kids and is a graduate speech-language pathologist at a K-4 school where no students know The Who, and some girls want to be firefighters. smartappsforkids.com was paid a priority-review fee to complete this review in an expedited manner.