Bottom Line: For children facing challenges with expressive language and auditory comprehension, this app has the potential to be a must-have, but it needs some upgrades before it gets there.
Part of the suite of language apps from Mobile Education Store, Language Builder is designed to assist with a child's development in three main areas:
- For children who have a reasonably good vocabulary of nouns and verbs, this will help them practice putting these words together in grammatically correct sentences.
- Expanding the child's expressive and receptive vocabulary.
- Auditory processing.
The app seeks to accomplish these goals by showing the child images and asking them to describe what they see. Once an adult has set up the child as a user they then need to determine the settings to use:
- Hints can be turned on or off. If kept on, there are three levels of hints to choose from. In Level 1, a potential sentence is displayed on the screen from which a couple of words have been removed. The child is expected to fill in the missing words. The Level 2 prompt is the same, but in this case only the first couple of words of the potential sentence are shown. Level 3 is an audio prompt only - no words are displayed on the screen. The prompt encourages the child to build a sentence, suggesting one or two key words to include.
- Audio instructions can be left on or off. If on, the only audio that is affected is the phrase "Make a sentence about the picture" which the child will hear each time they see a new image. We left this option off as I wanted to use different ways of prompting Oliver to talk about each picture.
- Selecting a theme. The basic app ($7.99 for iPhone and $9.99 for iPad) contains one pack of pictures. Additional packs can be purchased for $4.99 each. Alternatively, the Deluxe version of the app, containing 11 additional theme packs, can be purchased for $14.99.
Once the settings have been selected then the child can start looking at photographs by touching the Play option at the bottom of the screen. The child or adult can skip an image if they choose, otherwise the child records a sentence that describes the picture shown. Here is an example of Oliver in action:
Once the recording is stopped, the child or adult has to play the sentence that was just recorded before continuing. Once played, the user has the option of either saving or re-recording; the child can then move onto the next image. Touching the archive option at the bottom of the screen enables access to all the saved sentences together with a thumbnail of the associated image. At this point the sentence can be replayed, deleted or shared via email.
Owen cannot currently use this app but I like that it supports multiple users. The quality of the photographs used is very high - they look crisp, clear and it's generally very easy to tell what is going on. I liked the settings very much, although I will discuss this in more detail below as I believe they could be far more robust. The biggest plus about this app is the ability to record and manage audio clips - Oliver really enjoyed hearing his own voice and he was definitely engaged with the app more than he otherwise would have been. I loved that the clips can be archived, enabling parents to track their child's progress and to share files with teachers or therapists (or vice versa if the app is being used in an educational or therapeutic setting).
There is a lot to like about this app but with this price tag I would have expected it to be much more flexible. I had a number of thoughts regarding possible improvements to be considered by the developer, Mobile Education Store, as part of future upgrades. Some are minor, others not so much:
- The app can only be used with the iPad in portrait mode. Not a huge deal, but Oliver is uncomfortable using his iPad in anything other than landscape, so he found this off-putting. Other special needs children, who thrive on routine, may have the same issue.
- The buttons linking to the MES Facebook page and a video tutorial for the app are on the home screen - I would prefer if they were moved to the Info tab, out of the reach of children, or removed from the app altogether.
- For an app that was designed with children on the autism spectrum in mind, I found the actual process of going through the images quite cumbersome. Given that Oliver doesn't like waiting and that he loves pushing buttons, this made the experience of using the app a lot more frustrating for him than I had anticipated. Two things in particular stood out:
- Once the 'hint' button has been selected, there is no way to skip the image. The child has to record something in order to move on - a source of unnecessary pressure.
- The recording has to be played at least once before you can continue. This was hugely frustrating for Oliver. He didn't want to listen to himself each time; he wanted to see what the next picture was. An auto-save feature would be most welcome.
- As previously stated, all that is affected by the audio instruction setting is the phrase "Make a sentence about the picture." Oliver cannot read, therefore in order for the Level 1 and 2 hints to be of any use, I had to read them out to him. I was surprised that there wasn't the option to have audio prompts for all hints, which the adult could choose to have on or off.
- Unless the adult wants to have images chosen randomly from all theme packs, only one theme at a time can be chosen. I would prefer to be able to select more than one theme at a time to work on, without having to go back to the settings page.
- The images used are excellent but, I would prefer the people in the pictures to be more heterogeneous. In addition, surprisingly for an app designed for use in the special needs population, I saw no individuals with visible disabilities portrayed.
- I understand that enabling the user to import their own images would be a challenge, however I think it is something that should seriously be considered. For an app in this price range, customization is something I always look for. I know what engages my children and I would like to be able to use images that reflect their interests. In addition, Oliver's only option was to say 'the boy/girl is' or 'he/she is' - I would love to be able to have him talk about 'Mummy is..' or 'I am..' - especially the latter because he often refers to himself in the third person. The difficulty for the developer here would be with respect to the hints. I can see two options for dealing with this:
- Disable the use of hints for user-imported images; or
- Enable the user to type and record their own hints for the pictures they import.
Oliver is highly echolalic, so an app like Language Builder is perfectly suited to meet his needs with respect to language development, but many of the issues described above hindered the work we could do with the app. For a teacher or therapist working with children on expanding their expressive vocabulary, receptive language skills and improving sentence ideation, this app is definitely worth a look. For parents, if you feel this would meet a need for your child, then try the iPhone version first to make sure.
If you would like to purchase LanguageBuilder (iPad/$7.99 with in-app purchases) please support Smart Apps for Kids by using this link button:
LanguageBuilder Deluxe (iPad/$14.99)
LanguageBuilder (iPhone/$5.99 with in-app purchases)
This review was written by Deanne Shoyer who is a huge fan of language but only speaks one (unless you count British and American as separate languages).