iOS App Recommendations for Literacy

Many fun party conversations have started by whipping out a smartphone and sharing the latest and coolest apps.  However, in educational settings we continually need to refocus the discussion around choosing apps to meet our instructional objectives rather than the other way around.

About a year ago, I published a list of all the apps I installed on our school’s iPads.  I still like that list, however, there are a number of drill-and-kill type apps that see occasional use in  my classroom as well as those that require higher-level thinking and student creation which I use more often.  I wanted to give our teachers options so I gave them tons of apps.  However, my personal toolkit is much smaller.  Here are my recommendations based around instructional needs in the area of literacy.  The specific apps I recommend don’t matter so much as how we they are used in the classroom:


Any voice recorder from the free and simple, Audio Memos to the pricier and more advanced, Garageband, can be used to have students record themselves reading.  Data from Escondido Unified which used iPods and Voice Recorders with English Language Learners (back before iPhones and iPads existed) consistently shows that students showed growth.  The key is having students record and then listen to themselves reading so that they hear the mistakes they don’t hear when they’re focused on decoding.

I’ve used Reader’s Theater in my own classroom (find free printable reader’s theater here or see our class reader’s theater movie, The City Mouse and the Country Mouse).  However, you can also use any passages that might target certain spelling patterns or sounds students are working on.


I like simple.  StoryKit is a free iPhone app that works on the iPad and allows students to write, record their voice, add a photo, or draw on a page resembling kindergarten writing paper.  If you want to publish a whole book from the iPad, the $5 Book Creator is a great option.  Apple’s free desktop app, iBooks Author is even better but it requires both an iPad and an updated Mac desktop or laptop.  With iBooks Author you create the book on your computer and preview it on the iPad.  You can easily import Keynote and Pages files into your final product.   When you’re ready for multimedia, iMovie is a great way to engage even the most unmotivated writers in writing something that will include audio, visuals and an audience.

Apps like Toontastic and PuppetPals are also fun.  However, be careful, Toontastic teaches story crafting via a beginning, middle, and end structure.  If you’re a fan of Lucy Caulkins writer’s workshop and the notion of expanding a single moment with details to make it something bigger rather than structuring a bare bones story sequentially, you will might not be happy with an app that would set you back to an outdated way of teaching writing even if it’s more fun.

Learning Letter Sounds

Apps like the above mentioned Storykit can be used to have students make a book of letter sounds by taking pictures of things that begin with the sound /p/ for example.  Student Tommy would end up with a page with photos of pencils, pictures, paint, and paintbrushes and then record his voice making the sound /p/ on the page.   I know that you can find apps that give students the letter sounds while students passively listen but I’m much more in favor of having students create their own books with the sound in it.  I suspect the learning is more internalized.

What other areas of student early literacy need do you notice?




First Day of School Activities

excerpted from Classroom Management for

First Day of School Activities

Lots of First Day Activities from Cape Brenton Victoria School Board

First Day of School Activities by Katie Hallum

First Days of School Script for Teachers by Katie Hallum

Back to School Preparation Checklist and Month by Month Schedule for First Grade by Terry Analore

Everybody Needs A Rock Activity by Jan Tappan

Activities for First Day by Scholastic

Interest Inventory for getting to know your students

Nine Questions to Ask Students on First Day of School by Elona Hartes

101 Things to Do on the First Day of School

Math Activities for the Beginning of the Year

Article: Reviewing the Steps to Take Before Starting the Year

Ice Breakers

Kathy Schrock’s First Day Activities/Ice Breakers

Teachnology Ice Breakers

Ice Breaker List

Ice Breakers and Warm Ups

Welcome Letters

These can be adapted for any grade level and were created using Printshop:

First Grade

Second Grade (Spanish/English)

More sample Letters from Scholastic

First Day of School Read Alouds

First Day of School Books

Also Worth Reading

Things to do before starting year of Open Court Reading

Back to School, It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Classroom Management Articles

Have a great year if you haven’t started already!

Open Court in the Special Education Classroom

This question comes frequently from special education classrooms who are teaching the Open Court Reading Program…

I have a classroom of fifth graders reading at a first grade level.  Can’t I just teach my fifth graders the first grade curriculum?

While fifth grade students may not be able to read, they can certainly comprehend, are curious, and need access to the content contained in the fifth grade curriculum as much as they need to know how to read.  Maybe they can’t read but they’re not babies.

If you’re teaching fifth graders the first grade curriculum (which includes things like we take a boat to travel somewhere on the water) your students are falling behind not only in reading but also in content knowledge.  You are putting your students at a severe disadvantage in school as well as life.

That said, it’s difficult teaching a program that’s rigorous to students who are far behind.  However, program components like the workbook, the reading anthology, and word knowledge are all done whole group.  You are providing exposure to concepts that students won’t master yet but they will need.   I would hope that in special education your pacing can be modified to allow a longer period of time to work on the same units.  Nevertheless, just like in the regular ed classroom, your differentiation comes from your independent work time/workshop period.  That is when you meet with small groups, pre-teach, reteach, and support students in ways that are specific to them.  During that time, if you want to bring in a first grade decoable book to reteach the /i/ sound then feel free…although you might do better to bring in some authentic literature in that time to not only reteach skills but also support students’ appreciation of literature.

For more on Special Education, read Special 2 Me, written by a special education teacher who teaches Open Court, or Teachers At Risk, written by an always inspiring Canadian educator.

NPR Article: Children’s Play Co-opted

NPR reports on the commercialization of children’s play which has shifted in the second half of the twentieth century from an emphasis on activities towards and emphasis on specific toys and rules.

“(in the first half of the century) [Children] improvised their own play; they regulated their play; they made up their own rules…but in the second half of the 20th century…play changed radically.  instead of spending their time in autonomous shifting make-believe, children were supplied with ever more specific toys for play and predetermined scripts…a trend whih begins to shrink the size of children’s imaginative space.”

The damage is that researches have seen a decrease in children’s self regulation, an ability to “control their emotions, and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.”

“Today’s 5-year-olds [are] acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today’s 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago.”

I’ve written previously about allowing children to play whenever possible, even integrating that into your Independent Work Time and existing curriculum.  For teachers of the Open Court Reading Program, I beg you to please implement independent work time and to allow that to be a time when students make some of their own choices and begin to self-regulate their own behavior.  It’s a little more chaotic at first but by investing time in training you reap dividends later.  By moving students from center to center based on a rotation, you further take away from students opportunities to make decisions about their own learning.

We all want students to be responsible but do we give them chances to learn responsibilty?  Do we give them changes to exhibit creativity and problem-solving in our classrooms?

Books About Protest for Children

Tomorrow, members of the Los Angeles teachers’ union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) will be starting work an hour late to protest proposed state budget cuts to education. With education funding tied largely to property values in California, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. On the table, if not today then in the near future, is the firing of probationary teachers, increases in class sizes, and cuts to teacher salaries.

For elementary teachers participating in the job action and wondering how to explain what they are doing to their students, I recommend the book, Click, Clack, Moo, Cows That Type in which the cows go on strike to protest poor working conditions from the farmer. I’ve used this as an introduction to Ceser Chavez and Martin Luther King and to explain previous job actions by teachers.

Whether teachers are right or wrong, the lesson for students can be that sometimes it’s important to peacefully stand up for what you believe in.

The Making Of Tales from the Yard or How to Make Heads Roll

I frequently receive questions from teachers on how to get started integrating video in the classroom.

This begins a multi-part series in which I share the films we’ve made in my class and how we made them.

If you have seen the films, find out how they were made.

If you haven’t seen the films, check them out.

Having completed the City Mouse and the Country Mouse the year before, students entered my class already having increased knowledge of what was involved in the film making process. Students participated in the process of finding material. After much searching, students settled on two scary folktales we had read. It wasn’t quite as warm and fuzzy as The City Mouse but I liked that.

I was happy with the choice because it was easier than The City Mouse to make because all costumes were plain clothes costumes and it wasn’t as labor intensive for me because I didn’t need to shrink the kids to the size of mice. Yet there were still a few special effects shots and those are what engage the kids to watch the movie.

If you haven’t seen the movie, you may want to see it now:

(Spoiler alert): Here’s how I accomplished the most famous special effect.Original Photo:


Using a mask, take out original head:


Using stamp tool, clone background and fill in missing bits:

Place head, taken from another shot on floor:

Related posts:

Design and Storytelling in Film

Digital Storytelling Blog Carnival

The Making of the City Mouse and the Country Mouse

Lucy Caulkins and KidPix

I’m a big fan of the way Lucy Caulkins teaches writing, asking students to focus on elaborating on smaller moments rather than the traditional beginning, middle, and end stories.

For example, instead of:

I went to Raging Waters. We parked the car. I rode the slide. We went home. I watched TV.

Encourage students to write:

I climbed the stairs to The Deadly Slidewinder. I could smell the sunscreen on the large woman in a bathing suit in front of me. I heard the screams of other kids sliding down the slide and wanted to turn around. I didn’t. I climbed that scary slide. It felt smooth as I sat down. I didn’t think I would have the courage to slide but I did. And it was awesome.

If you have students, particularly first and second graders to write a beginning, middle, and end story you get a first grade version of War and Peace that’s too long to be manageable when it comes time to revise. Length gets mistaken for detailed quality. When you focus on smaller moments it’s easier to revise to add details and makes for more interesting writing. While structure will be come more important later, the structure of these short detailed narratives tends to flow organically from the material.

This from first grade teacher, Jenn Auld, who uses KidPix to integrate technology with her teaching of this method of writing small moments.

Find Lucy Caulkins at Amazon.

Bill Pinkney’s Back


The Incredible Voyage of Bill Pinkney is now available on DVD.


This is a fantastic film which brings the story to life. It’s long.  I would not play it in its entirety in one sitting but would play a piece every day as you read the story.

Some teachers find it objectionable that Bill Pinkney drinks alcohol in celebration on his journey and says the d word at a point in the story when his life is in danger. Use your best judgement and do preview the film ahead of time. Although I played only 5-10 minutes at a time, I did not edit any of it out in my classroom. Instead, we used the mild bad language as a an opportunity to talk about the dangers Bill Pinkney was facing (and the importance of not swearing).

I encourage you to acquire this movie as well as a DVD player if you do not yet have one in your classroom. They’re cheaper than you think these days.

It’s Not Easy Timing Green

This e-mail was received about how long to spend on each section:

Our literacy coach has been told that 1st grade should spend ONLY 30 minutes on the GREEN section of OCR and 45 minutes on the RED section. That is obviously wrong. However, I cannot find my notes from the summer trainings regarding the OCR schedule for 1st grade. I’ve searched the web but cannot find the info. Do you know where this can be obtained?
Thank you,
First Grade Teacher, California

My response:

I don’t think your literacy coach is wrong as that’s about how long it took me when I was teaching first grade (though I think I spent less on the red depending on if there were workbook pages associated with it or not). However, I’ve never taught by counting minutes for each activity. I would start by blocking out a time for IWT/Workshop and for writing and then making sure that I got to those two things. If you’re not getting to them then you need to speed up the rest of it.

For example, I’m guessing from your question that you want to spend longer than 30 minutes on the green section. I don’t think you really need to. The green section is whole group directed instruction. The blending, for example, is a review for some and new information for others. You blend quickly with everyone and then you differentiate that instruction during IWT/Workshop later. The decodable provides practice with the day’s target sounds…you read it a couple of times together and then have students partner read it, look for target sounds, list target sounds, as a follow-up IWT activity. My point being you can spend time on phonics as follow-up independent or small group activities but I don’t think you want to prolong your direct instruction of the phonics piece as I think the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Most of your students will grasp the concepts in whole group instruction but the rest need slower paced, smaller group activity before they’re going to master it. -Mathew