An invitation to evaluate iPad apps for their support of reading comprehension

In response to a great question from Dr. Douglas Kaufman a couple of weeks ago, the Literacy Research Association listserv has been abuzz with back-and-forth sharing of “indispensable” or “favorite” apps for all sorts of instructional, professional and reading-related activities/goals.

LRA colleagues recommended a brillian list of apps which have been curated and archived here and here by Dr. T.D. Wolsey and Dr. G. McVerry. Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this conversation and to DeVere and Greg for collecting up these conversations so that everyone might benefit from them.

To supplement this ever-growing list, we were thinking that it might be helpful to teachers and teacher educators to have some sense of how the apps on this list stack up as reading comprehension supports.

Over time, we will work to provide commentary on these apps and archive them on our “Examples” page. We also invite teachers and literacy scholars who see value in the Reading App Map framework to contribute to this project too. We would absolutely love to crowd source this work so that the evaluations archived here represent the views of many. Given the complexities of reading comprehension and the many ways that we anticipate these apps can be used to support (or not support) reading comprehension for children at different stages of development , and who live, learn and go to school in a range of contexts globally, we see such tremendous value in collaboration. Please, please consider joining our team! Contact us via the Comments feature below or by email to schiraha at msu dot edu if you would like to contribute.

Here is a quick glance (in no particular order) of the list of apps generated by the LRA community over the past couple of weeks. We’ll be examining these to see which of them have particular applications for reading comprehension development. Which ones would you pick first?

BlackBoard App for Ipad
Record of Reading
Word Mover (similar to magnetic poetry kits)
Trading Cards
Explain Everything
Google Earth
Scratchwork (free)
Google Forms
Today’s Meet
Google: Gmail, Google Drive, Chrome, Google+ – Perfection with Google Apps
Hootsuite – Twitter & Facebook
SightWords Full, IntroToLetters, AlphaLetters, Endless ABC
DragonBox, Intro to Math
MyScript Calculator

Motivation: Extrinsic reward

Top-level category  Motivation: Extrinsic reward
App Name  Super Why!
App Maker Bean Creative, PBS, and Out of the Blue Enterprises LLC
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General Description The Super Why! app contains four different interactive activities. Each activity is associated with a different cartoon character. In “Alpha Pig’s Lickety Letter Hunt” the user identifies the correct letter from among several choices to complete words and help Alpha Pig find his way home; in Princess Presto’s Wands-Up Writing activity the user makes an object appear by tracing the shape of letters on the iPad screen; in Wonder Red’s Rhyming Time the user chooses a rhyming word from among several words; and in Super Why’s Story Saver the user selects a word from among several to complete a sentence from a story context. The user may make several attempts to find the correct answer; when the correct answer is chosen, the user receives a digital “sticker” that is briefly displayed on the screen.
Screenshot context This screenshot shows the character Super Why presenting the user with a digital “sticker” as a reward for choosing a correct answer. The sticker shows the character Rapunzel with long brown hair–a character from the story on the previous screen.
Explanation and/or commentary The digital “stickers” children earn in the Super Why! app are an example of an extrinsic reward. Unlike extrinsic rewards in other apps–which can sometimes be loud, long, and distracting, involving such things as an animated dancing monkey (e.g., the Reading Comprehension Level 1 app by Angela Reed)–this extrinsic reward is relatively lightweight and unobtrusive. The image on the sticker also has a connection to the sentence that was just read on the previous screen. In the example, the sticker shows Rapunzel–arguably providing an opportunity for a child or teacher to reinforce learning by saying something like, “Look, there’s Rapunzel on the sticker you just earned–with her long hair.” Still, many studies (see Lepper & Henderlong, 2000) exploring children’s motivation to learn have suggested that intrinsic motivation (i.e., motivation stemming from enjoyment of an activity and connected to an authentic, personally felt purpose for doing it) is in many ways preferable to extrinsic motivation (i.e., motivation linked to “goods” located outside the learner, such as praise from adults, or material rewards unrelated to the activity, such as a food reward earned for reading a book). Further, extrinsic rewards have been shown to often undermine intrinsic motivation (for a review, see Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999). In sum, there are reasons to dislike the “sticker” rewards in this app and, when using the app with children, at the very least to downplay their importance.

Effectiveness: Self-regulation

Top-level category Effectiveness: Self-regulation
App Name RwR (Reflection while Reading)
App Maker Margit Gade of Denmark
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General Description This reading comprehension app provides a 5-step metacognitive heuristic for supporting/prompting student reflection while comprehending text. The 5-step heuristic begins with a declarative step (“Read a small passage”), followed by 4 questions that prompt the student to reflect in various ways on what they have just read:
1. Read a small passage
2. What did I learn?
3. Are there new words to be caught?
4. Are there any links … to what I read before? … to what I know?
5. Does anything need clarification? or Can I move on?
The purpose of the app is to provide a framework for readers to use when making sense of a passage they are learning from.
Screenshot context This screenshot shows the 2nd step in the metacognitive heuristic, which is “What did I learn?” This question prompts the reader to recapitulate what they have just learned after reading a small passage … by summarizing, synthesizing, outlining, or some other process of recollection. The page is static (i.e., no part of the image moves) and soundless (i.e., there is no audio track). The reader moves from this screen to the 3rd step in the heuristic (“ Are there new words to be caught?”) after s/he decides that they have responded sufficiently to the question.
Explanation and/or commentary This app presents a high-level heuristic for learning from/comprehending a text: the user is encouraged to ask four questions that are intended to deepen thoughtful understanding at several levels (summarization, vocabulary development, connections to prior knowledge of world and texts, clarification and comprehension monitoring). The reader can view the 5-step heuristic on one screen, or move through the steps in sequence, one at a time. No animation or audio is integral to the app. In several respects, the heuristic provides a scaffold that loosely echoes that of Reciprocal Teaching (Palincsar & Brown, 1984).

Effectiveness: Memory processes, multiple sensory channels

Title  Effectiveness: memory processes, multiple sensory channels
App Name Grimm’s Rapunzel
App Maker Story Toys Inc.
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General Description Grimm’s Rapunzel is an interactive pop-up story book. It is designed for children of all ages and is meant to entertain and engage readers. The interactive pop-up features, which appear at regular intervals through the e-book, may reinforce children’s understanding of the story because they permit readers to act out selected events.
Screenshot context This particular pop up feature appears after children have read this text: “The man’s wife was taken with the beautiful flowers growing in the garden. She wished for them so much that one day, her husband ventured into the garden to fetch some for her. He would have to be careful though, because the garden belonged to an evil witch. Who knows what might happen if the witch discovered him there!” In this pop-up feature, the reader assumes the role of the husband. Readers pick flowers and apples for the wife by touching and then dragging them into the basket.
Explanation and/or commentary For young readers, the multi-modal and kinesthetic interactivity that these pop-up features afford may allow them to develop an embodied (Glenberg, 1997; Glenberg, Brown & Levin, 2007) understanding of the narrative. By touching the flowers and dragging them to the basket, children engage their bodies in the act of picking which may activate and expand their schemas of understanding for “picking flowers” or “gardens”. Conversely, pop-up features may divert students’ attention from other key ideas in the narrative. With a focus on the act of picking flowers, students might forget that the garden is owned by a witch or that something bad could happen to the husband for having stolen the flowers (both rather important ideas in this story). Teachers who choose this app, should therefore know that pop-up activities could undermine students’ overall understanding of the Rapunzel story because they draw attention to some elements of the story over others.

Curricular considerations: Limited type/aspect of comprehension

Title Curricular considerations: Limited type/aspect of comprehension
App Name Reading Comprehension Level 1 Passages
App Maker Angela Reed
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General Description Readers choose from a “bookshelf” of short narrative and informational texts. They click to open the book and must read the text independently. There is no text-to-speech feature in this app. After reading the text, students answer 4 multiple choice questions about the text. The app is designed for early reader in Kindergarten or Grade 1.
Screenshot context This screenshot shows a MC question that requires students to identify a main idea in the text. When readers tap an option, a red circle or a green circle appears, depending on whether the choice is correct. Though it’s not shown in this image, an encouraging phrase such as “Good Job!” or “Well Done!” also appears when the answer is correct. If the answer is incorrect, “Sorry!” appears to prompt the reader to try again.
Explanation and/or commentary The name of this app suggests a specific focus on reading comprehension. However, the app includes very few features that would teach comprehension strategies or skills (Pressley & Afflerbach, 1995; Afflerbach, Pearson & Paris, 2008). Vocabulary words are not hyperlinked to a dictionary; students cannot hear difficult words read aloud. Texts are static. Questions are usually very literal and worded closely to the initial text. Students learn to identify and match key words in the story and in the questions but they are not required to make inferences about story meaning, or word meaning based on context. There is an image to support comprehension with each text, but there are no MC questions related to the images or how they connect to the story. This app does measure students’ ability to answer MC questions. Questions do focus on the main ideas in the text. Teachers can check students’ scores for each text but scores should be interpreted as a very limited measure of students’ emergent comprehension skills and strategies.

Motivation and Engagement: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Reward Related to Reading Activity

Title Motivation and engagement: Intrinsic and extrinsic reward related to reading activity
App Name Professor Garfield Fact or Opinion
App Maker Paws Incorporated, Virginia Department of Education
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General Description  This app is designed to help upper elementary and middle-school students to identify the difference between facts and opinions, particularly as they read on the Internet.
Screenshot context The instructions, although complex, present students with all of the benefits that will come from engagement with this app – helping Nermal, identifying fact vs. opinion, finishing a report, getting points and a higher grade.
Explanation and/or commentary The rewards outlined in this screenshot are consistent with self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Students can access both intrinsic rewards (i.e., increased competency, helping others) and extrinsic reward (i.e., getting an A.) By helping Nermal to complete his project, students gain competence and confidence in their own abilities. Given the authentic premise of this activity, students may feel a heightened sense of autonomy which has been shown to support learning and engagement (Assor, Kaplan & Roth, 2002; Guthrie, McRae & Klauda, 2007).

Effectiveness: App design imposing additional cognitive load

Title Effectiveness–App design imposing additional cognitive load
App Name Barron’s Painless Reading Comprehension Challenge
App Maker Barron’s Educational Series Inc., Mobile

Darolyn Jones for Barron’s Educational Series,

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General Description of the App’s Intended Purpose and Audience This didactic app provides three lessons and four sets of quiz questions regarding particular aspects of reading comprehension (e.g., inferring an unfamiliar word’s meaning from context, with particular attention to appositives). The quizzes complement the 2nd edition of Darolyn Jones’s book, Painless Reading Comprehension. Jones’s nine-chapter book covers topics such as “reading for information versus reading for fun,” “reading context clues,” and “mastering multiple-choice questions.” The quizzes in the app are traditional MC format. They provide opportunities to practice a reading strategy or skill that has just been explained in a didactic expository passage.
Screenshot context This page provides an example of a MC question. The user can click on the button labeled “click to read material” to access a screen explaining what “flag words” are and providing an illustrative paragraph that uses several “flag words” or phrases such as “it should be noted that….”
Explanation and/or commentary The design of this app imposes a relatively high level of extraneous cognitive load on the user’s limited working memory (Sweller, 1994). To answer the question about the phrase “it should be noted,” for example, the user has to devote scarce working memory space to remembering the passage on the preceding screen where the phrase was used as well as the meaning of “flag words” (which he/she has presumably just learned). The user can of course jump back and forth between screens as many times as he/she wants in order to re-read text on either page. Still, a considerable body of research from the perspective of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and Multimedia Learning Theory (MLT) (Moreno & Mayer, 1999) suggests that this kind of back-and-forth movement does little to improve comprehension or retention of new concepts and/or information. A better design would have been to juxtapose the MC question and the illustrative paragraph on the same screen. CLT and MLT studies have shown that increasing spatial contiguity of related information improves learning (for a summary, see Mayer, 2008).

Differentiation: Built-in scaffolding that can be turned on or off by/for the user

Top-level Category Differentiation: Built-in scaffolding that can be turned on or off by/for the user
App Name Sid the Science Kid
App Maker Jim Henson and PBS Kids
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Description “Sid the Science Kid Read & Play” contains stories and fun activities aimed at stimulating young children’s interest in science and basic science knowledge and skills (e.g., basic facts about germs, careful observation of visual evidence). It features two story books, jokes, games, sing along music videos, and coloring pages.
Screenshot context On this app page that appears at the start of the story “The Trouble with Germs,” the user can choose from among three levels of scaffolding. The “Autoplay” option reads the text aloud, highlights words as they are read, and turns pages automatically. The “Read to Me” option waits for the user to turn the page. The “Read it Myself” option turns off the audio and highlighting.
Explanation and commentary By allowing the child-user or a teacher to choose among three levels of scaffolding, the “Sid the Science Kid” app makes possible a certain amount of differentiation of instruction and support. On a given day, some students may benefit from the audio and highlighting–supports that may allow them to read independently while attending to the story’s plot and information as much as to the decoding of words. Other students–more advanced readers–may choose to read without these supports, though with the knowledge that they can access them if they need to. Over time, all students can challenge themselves to gradually diminish the amount of scaffolding and support they use (Fisher & Frey, 2008). By making levels of support visible, accessible, and easily customizable, the app may help promote an active, independent, and problem-solving mindset in young readers (Johnston & Winograd, 1985).