I can hardly believe it’s only been six years since the first iPad came out. My kids have basically grown up with iPads. Or my iPad, to be specific. I justified buying my first iPad based on a long list of productivity certainties, picturing a future mostly inspired by Epcot. Managing my work and family lives from a sleek glowing panel. Naturally, this plan fell apart almost immediately.


But the tablet still has an important place in our home— The iPad is basically perfect for kids. Smart phones can be dangerous in the hands of a toddler, but a tablet (wearing an appropriately padded case) is the ultimate toy. And kids are ready— A recent study has shown that kids have the motor skills to start using at one year old. By two, they’re experts.

The real question was how to put the tablet to work. My kids are more than happy to watch Netflix or play games all day, so how can educational apps compete? Plus, there are at least a million options on the app store. I didn’t count, but it certainly looked like a million when I was looking for something that actually worked.

Which is another major downside—I’ve been spending way too much time searching for apps, getting the kids to use them, and figuring out if the app is actually showing results. Isn’t technology supposed to save time?? The whole point of getting the kids to use an education app is so I don’t have to micromanage, but over the past few months I’ve been basically micromanaging the iPad.

And that’s what started this quest, to find and share a few apps that actually make a difference. I kept my research to math, reading, and language-learning, and have spent far too much time looking for acceptable apps in each category. It’s a tricky balance, and I came up with a few basic points to guide my search. A good educational app needs to be:

  • Fun without trying to compete with games

  • Truly educational, and relevant to what my kids are learning in school

  • Motivating, so my kids can build study habits that aren’t based on my nagging

  • Consistent, an app that my kids can pick up every day, that will only reward them for real productivity, not just staring at a screen waiting for a countdown to signal the end of homework, ie Netflix Time.


So without further ado, here are a few apps that make a real difference:


Reading

One of the biggest problems with finding a reading app, is that tablets are not really the best for reading. The technology has come so far, but dozens of studies have shown that good old-fashioned paper and ink is better for focus and comprehension. A 2013 study looked at story-time, finding that even when when parents are reading to their children from an e-book, the children have worse reading comprehension than kids whose parents read from actual books.

On the surface it may not make sense— Kids certainly don’t have any problems engaging with tablets. But when a child is reading from a tablet, they’re more likely to be distracted by the tablet itself. And science can back me up on this one. Tablets are engaging— addicting, really, but there’s a difference between focusing on a story or an assignment, and focusing on all the fun different buttons to press in an app.

For younger kids, tablets are less likely to start the sort of back-and-forth discussions that books start. And those sort of discussions are essential to a child’s growing language skills.

As a big reader myself, it’s important to me that my kids read, and that they want to read for fun. It’s a big responsibility for an app. I was looking for something that emphasizes the actual reading, without a lot of distracting animations. Just assignments, well presented, and maybe some sort of quiz at the end to make sure it’s working.


Luckily, we found a clear winner with RazKids. To start, it’s a seriously impressive app. It includes over 400 books, categorized into over 29 reading levels to continuously push your child’s learning. But at its core the app is simple. Kids read and take short quizzes, which check comprehension and vocabulary. Based on the quizzes a child will either stay at the same level, or advance. The app is pretty simple, nice and bright without being too distracting. And tracking progress is a breeze.


I was also looking at Amazon’s Freetime Unlimited. It sounded perfect— All-You-Can-Read, a book buffet, but the book selection let me down. It seemed more focused on promoting books than actually suggesting books appropriate to my son’s reading level.


RazKids





Math

We’ve all seen the studies. America has trouble with math. While I struggle to help my 9th grader with algebra, kids in Hong Kong are doing high level calculus. And that can be a problem— My struggling, not Hong Kong. A recent study showed that children do better in math if their parents are comfortable with math. Not experts, just comfortable. ‘Math anxiety’ in parents spills over to the next generation.

The study had good things to say about apps. Basically, an app becomes a good, safe platform for both the parent and the child. If I, as a parent, can look at what my son is doing and understand it, it’s a lot easier for me to be supportive.

There are a ton of math apps and it took a lot of work to figure out what we were actually looking for. The most visual app was neat and my son actually used it for a day or two. But the novelty wore off, and he got bored of dragging things around instead of just writing an answer.


I finally struck gold with the Learn & Earn App for math. Learn & Earn is a one-stop-shop. The coolest part of the app is the focus on the child's motivation, which lets me set clear goals for my kids that I can tie to real rewards from say amazon.com or the iTunes store. Real goals, like nerf guns and toy drones. Anything they want, actually. I just specify what I expect— 15 minutes of math a day, for example. And if they do 15 minutes of math a day for a week, they earn $10 towards their reward.

And they can choose literally anything. The app includes a nice reward section, that features a selection of toys chosen for the gender and age of the user. But kids can choose anything they want as a reward, thanks to an easy feature that lets them set any product on Amazon or iTunes as a goal.

It actually works. Instead of hounding me to buy them whatever toy is popular at school any given week, my kids are choosing their own rewards and working towards them. They’re actually being industrious, and it scares me. I was not an industrious 9 year old, myself.

It’s been a few weeks and my kids are still taking turns after school everyday, doing Learn & Earn before they start homework. It’s definitely working. Plus, the curriculum is massive. The app is fully up to common core grade standards for math, grades 1-4 and has hundreds of thousands of questions built-in.

I really wish they had a similar app for reading. Or science. But for the time being the Learn & Earn app has taken a lot off my mind. I understand math when the app breaks it down into squares or piles of fruit. I can comfortably jump in and help them, like someone who hadn’t completely forgotten all non-basic math the moment I graduated high school. Top marks for Learn & Earn!

Learn & Earn for Math





Language

We’ve all heard how great it is for kids to learn a second language while they’re young. It’s much easier, for a start, and there are a bunch of studies showing that second languages are extremely beneficial.

I watched a great TED talk about languages recently. It takes a lot to learn a language, but the right environment is crucial. Learning a language is all about building connections in the brain. Conversation and ‘immersion’ help develop those sort of connections, helping the mind switch at will between languages.

Unfortunately for apps, the best way to learn languages seems to be in that immersive environment, constantly forcing the brain to associate everything with different words and structure. No app can really cover this method of learning, so I wound up just looking for a good practice app, something that could at least cover speech and reading.

The best option for us was Duolingo. It’s slightly game-like, and has a variety of speaking, listening, vocabulary and grammar exercises. Still, I don’t think Duolingo can replace a good classroom experience. It’s great for practice and maybe building vocabulary, but learning to speak a language requires, well, speaking it.

Duolingo

LinkComments
RazKidsA great app with tons of books and 29 levels of difficulty. Impressive! Each module is $109/year but it's really worth it for the sheer amount of books available.
DuolingoThe best digital accessory for building solid language skills. Not a classroom replacement, but they offer 10 languages and it's free!
Learn & EarnThe one-stop-shop for math practice. Massive curriculum, great reward structure—This app gets results. The app is free to try and cheap to use, give it a shot!

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