What makes a good app? Part 2, finally!

Ugh!  Where does the time go?  Since I have given up GUILT as a word, we shall proceed…..

In a previous blog, I was writing about the features I look for in an app (perhaps you should refresh your memory since it has been a while).  After my initial downloading frenzy when I first started using the iPad, I came up for air only to find that I many apps were not as useful or captivating as I had hoped.  Since then, I have developed better criteria when considering purchasing an app. Here are some additional features I look for in an app.

Data Collection.  As an SLP, I am a data collecting maniac.  Data tells me if the task is too easy or too tough for my client and whether or not the client is making progress.  Even if you are not a clinician or an educator, the ability to analyze your child’s performance is very important.  If an app is too difficult for your child, they will quickly become frustrated; too easy and they will lose interest.  Here are some loose guidelines for data interpretation, keeping in mind that each child is different!  The trick is to find an app or level that is challenging but not frustrating!

  • 40% accuracy (calculated by number correct divided by the number of opportunities presented) or lower means the task is either too difficult or needs significant teaching and support by the adult.  You can provide support by working along side the child and modeling and providing examples for each trial.  (Watch your data over time.  If your child’s performance is not improving or remains below 40% accuracy over 3 consecutive uses of the app, this app/task is too difficult and should be set aside for later).
  • Initial scores of 85% or higher would suggest that this is an emerging skill for your child and they will likely master this app very quickly.  If there is an opportunity to work at a higher level of difficulty, your child is probably ready for the next level.
  • Mastery of a skill usually occurs when a child is able to perform at 85% accuracy or higher over 3 or more consecutive uses of the app.  Congratulations!  This means your work with the app is really paying off and your child has gained a new skill that they are likely to carryover to other learning opportunities!
Of course you can take data informally (I highly recommend this if there is not a data

Data collection screen for Pocket SLP articulation

collection option on the app), but I sure do love apps that have this feature!  Even better are apps that allow me to collect and store data for multiple kids.  I love the Pocket SLP  Articulation app for all its data collecting goodness!  (If you are an SLP or a parent of a child with multiple articulation errors, this app is a great buy!)

Ample Stimulus Set.  This may sound technical, but basically, I am looking for apps that provide plenty of opportunities for my clients to practice a target set of skills.  Practice, practice and more practice leads to learning!  You also need a decent set of trials to derive adequate data.  (My college students used to ask me why my exams were so long.  I told them, “if I only gave you 10 questions and you missed one, the best you could get would be a 90.”  This was enough to induce grade related tremors from students who never complained about lengthy exams again!).  Early on, I bought an app to work on simple wh-questions.  The first time I used the app was with a client (Big mistake! I always “play” with the app myself before using it in therapy!) There were only 12 questions!  At the end of the app, my client looked at me and

Screen shot of "Receptive Combined" app. Requires children to identify objects by function, feature or class.

asked, “is that it?”  Yup. Into the “eh” folder for that app!  The apps from Kindergarten.com  provide robust stimulus sets and have apps that target many great language concepts such as receptive/expressive nouns, verbs, associations, and emotions.

Facilitates Motivation and Reinforces Behavior! Simply using the iPad with your child is a motivating activity!  As parents and clinicians, I often feel we are sales people – constantly pitching ideas to our kids.  “You LOVE broccoli!  It is like eating tiny trees!”  Make sure to promote iPad time as a reward, “I love your good listening!  Now we can play on the iPad together!”  “Once we are done in the grocery store, we can play with your favorite app.”  If you routinely hand your iPhone, iPad or other handheld device over to your child to simply entertain him/her or occupy your child when you are busy, the device will lose it’s magic. Anything can be a reward or reinforcer – the secret is to keep it special!  (If you were sent flowers everyday, the thrill of receiving them would dwindle over time.)

I “sell” each app that I use with my kids.  “Oh goodie!  Now we get to make a movie with Milo!” (Speech with Milo – Sequencing) or “If you are a good listener, next we get to play the spelling game!” (FirstWords: Deluxe).  My clients routinely ask to “play” with particular learning apps that have become favorites.  I also have apps that I use strictly for reinforcement.  Some of the apps I use for reinforcement are simply games, like Angry Birds and Racing Penguin.  I have one client, who will “work” for a solid 55 minutes in therapy so that she can play Angry Birds for the last 5 minutes of our session while I talk to her mother.  In fact, she greets me with, “3:55, Angry Birds!”  (She also lets me know when there is a new update!).  I would argue that most games have some therapeutic advantage: fine motor development, eye-hand coordination, attention, planning and following directions.

My favorite reinforcer apps to use are those that are highly motivating, very quick to play AND sneak in a little learning!  I incorporate just a few minutes of use of these apps throughout the session; sandwiching therapeutic apps and just straight up therapy with a little play time.  Two of my favorites are Go Go Mongo and Monkey Preschool Lunchbox. Go Go Mongo is a ridiculously simply game in which you have to tilt the device to position Mongo to catch the specified food (ex: apples, bananas, oranges) that falls from the sky. Be careful, occasionally other foods like cookies and cake fall that will make Mongo sick! My kids always crack up when I shout, “ACK!! Not the cake!!!!”  One round of Go Go Mongo takes less than 1 minute and it is just long enough to get the child motivated and ready for more “work.”  While playing, the kids are working on attention, following directions and developing visual-spatial skills!

My current favorite super fast, highly motivating AND educational app to use for reinforcement is Bugs and Buttons.  I have yet to find a kid who doesn’t love it (I have to confess, I enjoy playing it too!).  Great for kids 4 and up. Once you press start, a random

Just two of the eighteen games in Bugs and Buttons!

sequence of games begins.  Each game is played for approximately 1-3 minutes.  Each game incorporates a learning component in the task which gradually increases in difficulty (matching, sequencing, sorting, fine motor, visual-motor, following directions).  One of my favorites is a game that requires you to use a  superior pincer grasp to pick up bugs and put them in jar or cardboard and cans for recycling bins.  The graphics, music and creativity are fantastic!  Once we have finished one game, I wait a second to see what game is coming up next, “Oh, ROACH RACE!!!!”, then I hit the pause button.  “Let’s work on our sentences and THEN we can come back and play Roach Race!”.  The anticipation of the reward to come makes even the most wiggly and non-compliant of my kids eager to work diligently on the next task!


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3 thoughts on “What makes a good app? Part 2, finally!

  1. As a parent, special educator, and tutor, I find your analysis of the ipad applications thorough, genuine, and clear to both techie and layperson. The idea of using technology as reinforcement as opposed to appeasing the child is key. Reinforcements loose their value when given too often. Most importantly is the measurable data from the app and how applicable it may be for “your” child. Definitely on point Growing Kids! It is blogs like this that make me proud to be on your team.

  2. Breaking NEWS! Go Go Mongo has just released a new app…. Go Go Mongo Alphabet Soup! Same concept as the original game, but this time Mongo has to catch the alphabet letters from his soup. Be careful! If you catch the wrong letter, Mongo will get sick! Excellent for letter recognition and attention. I will definitely be using this one as a reinforcer app – sneak in a little learning while my clients get to take a “break” and “play’! GO GO GET IT NOW!

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