What makes a good app? (Part 1)

Parents often ask me, which apps do you like?  My answer is always a bit hedgy, “well, that depends…”  It depends on what you want it to do, your child’s language skills, your child’s cognitive and developmental levels, interests and personality!  It also depends on how you are going to use it (together, independently, for entertainment, for learning?) I know that does not seem very helpful!  BUT, if I have some information about the child, their needs and what you are trying to accomplish, I can give you a definitive answer! Since I don’t know what YOU are searching for, I can tell you the features I look for when I am purchasing new apps!

I am constantly looking at, evaluating and buying apps. I do shop for apps developed for speech and language purposes and have most of those.  However, the majority of apps I use to address speech, language and communication skills were not developed for that purpose.  Most are apps that fall under the category of “education” and were created for children.   (I also use lots of apps like You Tube, dictionaries, thesauruses, Wikapedia, organizers, and weather apps…but that is a topic for another blog!) Some of my purchases become instant favorites and I can use them with a variety of kiddos with differing needs. Some are a complete bust – they don’t interest my kids, are cumbersome to use, or lack sound theoretical and developmentally appropriate content. These apps go into a folder I have labeled, “eh”, on my iPad.  I can’t bring myself to delete them but I hardly ever use them.  When I am considering an app purchase, I am wearing my speech-language pathologist hat – looking for apps that will help stimulate language development, communication and encourage functional skills.  So, what are the features that decrease the likelihood of an app going into the “eh” folder?

Strong visual appeal.  I like apps that are visually engaging.  This means clear, uncluttered, consistent, colorful graphics.  Some programs are bright and colorful but have WAY too much going on!  My kids (and I) get overwhelmed – it is too hard to focus on the important details.  The items in apps should clearly depict the subject. Yesterday, I was using a spelling app with a child.  The objective was to spell the pictured item – in this case a yam (really???  This is not a high frequency word for any early elementary student…see developmentally appropriate below) and we could not figure out what the rusty colored, oval-ish picture was supposed to be (my client’s father thought it was a rock)!  Some apps are visually inconsistent – they use a variety of visual stimuli from line drawings, illustrations and photographs -for some children this leads to confusion. When apps use a consistent look and feel, kids

"Itsy Bitsy Spider" from Duck Duck Moose

begin to recognize characters, features and patterns.  This predictability is great for language development and I find the kids begin to develop a comfort, attachment and “relationship”with the characters and app.  Take a look at the sample items in the app description to see if the app you are considering meets this criteria.  The apps from Duck Duck Moose are great exemplars of strong visual appeal!

Theoretically and Developmentally Appropriate.  When I purchase an app designed for a specific population (e.g., preschoolers, elementary, high school) or for a specific task (early nouns, verbs, wh-questions) my expectation is that the language and stimuli will clearly address the targets as specified in the app description.  My expectations are particularly high when the app is targeting language development.  I have encountered some disappointment in this arena – poor choice of vocabulary, confusing stimuli, and ambiguous pictures.  Very rarely does this apply to the entire app (but there are a few in the “eh” folder) – usually it is just a few items.  I can generally adjust for this if the app has built in some user controls that allow me to select the stimuli to use (keep reading for more details!).  To avoid this issue, I look for apps that were developed by or with consultation

"Verbs with Milo" from Doonan Speech Therapy

from a speech-language pathologist, educator or developmental specialist.  The “Speech with Milo” apps from Doonan Speech Therapy are excellent theoretically and developmental appropriate apps!  (They also pass my criteria for strong visual interest!)

Flexibility.  I tend to look for apps that allow for some degree of customization.  Some children are sensitive to or distracted by sounds (background music, reinforcers) – can I turn on and off the audio? Can I control the stimuli?  For instance, if I am using an app to work on verbs, can I select the set of verbs that I want to work on?  This is can be a important feature!  Children generally do best with repeated exposure to a set of stimuli so that they can practice with that material until they achieve a degree of accuracy (85% or better accuracy generally means that the child is mastering the information and will begin to carry over and generalize that information to other environments).  If different material is presented randomly every time you use the app you can end up in a “spray and pray” situation (randomly bombard the child with information and hope that something sticks!).  Can I delete or hide items that are above/below the child’s language level or are confusing/non-functional items (like the ambiguous yam)? Is there a receptive (comprehension) and expressive (production) mode?  This is a feature in some apps produced for language, spelling and reading development.  If so, be sure to work on the receptive skills first, then expressive (we can’t talk well about things we don’t understand!).  In some apps this feature is designated as “learn” (receptive) and “practice” (expressive)modes.  Can I turn on and off text?  I often like words that accompany pictures because it is a nice boost to literacy skills, but for some children this can be distracting, limits how I can work with the app (for example, I might be working on past tense, but the

Customizable features for "My First Words" by Alligator Apps

text only labels the picture in present tense). In some cases, the child’s reading skills are better than language skills.  I was recently working with a child who was whipping through the items that I knew should be a bit more challenging.  I finally realized he was reading the words!  (I hate when I am outsmarted by a 5 year old!). When I covered the text with a piece of paper, the items were much more challenging and we were able to focus on really learning the material!  I also love it when I can create my own items to insure that the stimulus is meaningful and just the right fit for my client!  Read through the developer’s descriptions of the app to determine if the app has the flexibility you need. The Alligator Apps flashcards are great for early vocabulary development and provide a lot of flexibility!

Stay tuned for more information to help you become an app savvy shopper in our next blog!

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