Bottom Line: Highly usable app to work on sentence structure that has sadly been overshadowed by some of the developer's recent releases. The teen module is essential for special needs users over age 10.
If you would like to buy SentenceBuilder ($5.99 iPhone/iPad) or SentenceBuilder Teen ($5.99 iPad), please use one or more of the following links and verify it's for your device of choice:
When SentenceBuilder™ for iPad was first released two years ago, it was hailed as a game changer for special needs. Data reporting, multiple user accounts, varying levels of difficulty and built in reinforcements were novel features that really set it apart from the handful of other apps geared towards autism and speech language difficulties.
A lot has changed since then. Mobile Education Store's app portfolio numbers 12 including a standalone SentenceBuilder Teen™ as well as an option to add it to the original through an in app purchase. App creation and marketing is now a full time gig for developer Kyle Tomson. So, the question becomes, "Is Sentence Builder still the leader of the pack for special needs apps and as deserving today of the many accolades it received in 2010?"
I first downloaded Sentence Builder in October 2011 before I even had an iPad. Nine hundred fifty apps later (seven of them from MES) and it still maintains place of pride on Dean's app page. Even better is my realization in revisiting the app for this review that Dean, my child with autism, can now build the correct sentences with some degree of consistency.
Sentence Builder is for school aged children as it requires at least a modest degree of reading ability. A series of cartoon like drawings appear on screen and students are asked to make a sentence which describes the picture. A sliding cherry picker wheel has the possible combinations from which to choose. Some of the words are fixed, but the others have to be rolled into place to make a grammatically proper sentence. Correct responses get a silly animation and verbal praise. Incorrect responses are met with encouragement like, "I know you're really trying."
The focus of this app is primarily on connective words and carrier phrases. Easy play has a verb and modifier chosen from a field of three to add to the sentence. The hardest level has three sliding wheels with five words from which to choose. The sentences themselves do not get appreciably more complex. Most follow a standard noun verb object order with limited descriptors. For beginners this formula is fine and builds consistency, but advanced levels should really cover more parts of a sentence and introduce noun phrases, gerunds and other syntax. The teen module especially needs more mature language and sentence structure to go with the grown up pictures.
The teen add-on was new to me and I actually prefer it to the original for my 10 year old son with autism. It uses real photos with lots of sports and outdoor scenes. The cartoon pictures are fun and may amuse typical children working on grammar and literacy; however, many of them are not well-suited to literal minded kids with autism. The correct sentence for one silly picture was "The grill can cook." That's like telling a youngster with autism "it's raining cats and dogs." He will expect Lassie and Puss in Boots to fall out of the sky.
The control panel for which Mobile Education apps are known offers various options to manage play. Reinforcements, animations and audio instructions can be turned on or off. An unlimited number of player profiles can be created and stored. Users may choose from the original pack of 100 pictures or the teen module, if purchased, from here. Stats which include number of responses correct on one, two or three or more attempts are also accessible from the dashboard. Everything works easily with little or no set up required.
I like Sentence Builder and more importantly my son does. He uses it on our family iPad; it's loaded on his school provided dedicated AAC device; and his ASD classroom's iPad now has it too. It definitely has a place in educating those with autism and other developmental disabilities, but it no longer stands head and shoulders above the rest. In order to regain top pick must have status one or more of the following enhancements needs to be added:
Accessibility. Although Sentence Builder was created for a child with high functioning autism, it has relevancy for a much broader pool of special needs individuals. Few apps other than those for AAC are switch accessible, but that needs to change. The picker wheel is challenging for those with motor issues and visual discrimination of the words is difficult. My son has adequate fine motor control, but even he accidentally moved a wheel from its correct position when he went to set the second wheel.
Data. The stats collected by Sentence Builder are not particularly useful. The number of correct responses logged is cumulative so there is no way to track improvement over time. The app does not break down whether the user is missing more verbs or more modifiers. Individual sessions can't be separated out for IEP data collection, nor can they be excluded for those days when the child is clearly skimming rather than purposefully answering. Mobile Education should consider implementing data collection similar to what SpeechTree uses. That level of detail would be an immense help to teachers and therapists and is more in line with what a five star special needs app should offer. Cloud syncing data between devices would also be helpful since children may use the app on different devices.
- Customization. I don't advocate giving users the ability to add their own photos and sentences. Rather, I would like the ability to customize my child's trials using what the app provides. Spatial concepts have been a perennial IEP goal so selecting sentences which target only that particular skill would be very helpful. Making the app "smart" so that it tracks mistakes and adjusts accordingly would serve the same function.
- Quality control. An app the sole purpose of which is to make grammatically correct sentences needs to have flawless spelling and grammar in its text. Four errors on the info page is four too many for an app of this caliber and a developer of such renown. I also noted an instance of the recorded sentence not matching the written sentence. For $11 ($5.99 + $4.99 for teen add-on) those problems need to be fixed ASAP.