How to choose the right learning app

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‘What I Wish Parents Knew’ is a series on issues parents should know, from a private tutor’s perspective.

I’m just starting with a new student. Martin is about to start grade 3 but his parents feel he is behind in his reading. As I start to work with him I realise he is way behind – missing phonics, almost no knowledge of sight words. I start by trying to get to know him. I ask about sports (soccer), hobbies (taekwondo), and screen time (RPG-style computer games). Later, I ask his mum if Martin uses any educational apps and she says, “No, we try to limit his screen time.”

Martin seems like a normal kid from a normal family. He’s healthy, active and, other than being behind in his reading, seems fairly bright and animated. Could his parents have done something different that might have helped him to keep up with his peers in terms of reading skills? I think so.

I think guided screen time using quality apps can help children with early reading and number sense acquisition. Many of these apps are very engaging for young children as they do the repetition and drilling in a fun, interactive way that can really cement the learning objectives.

In fact, this is how phonics, sight words and maths facts are learned – through repeated exposure and use. Practise, practise and more practise. While I hate to admit it, I’m pretty sure Martin would much rather engage with an exciting game or video than with me, his boring reading tutor.

And the simple fact is, not only am I not as entertaining, I simply can’t help Martin achieve the number of repetitions that a computer is capable of.

Get tech right
The important thing is to do your research. Anybody can slap an ‘educational’ label on an app – but not all apps are educational. I have downloaded many that just weren’t very good and some that were downright useless. Need proof? A study has found that most fall into this category. “Many apps marketed as educational are basically the equivalent of sugary foods,” co-author Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University told CBS News.

What you need to do is to take the time to find suitable material that works to meet your child’s specific needs. Download the app and give it a whirl before you show it to your kid. Read reviews – Common Sense Media has a great review section for technology, including apps.

Here are some apps that have proved popular – and useful – for my students:

Reading Eggs/Reading Eggspress
This online reading program runs on any web browser and on both iOS and Android systems. With a placement test, and lots of fun extras, most kids simply can’t get enough. Older kids aged seven to 13 can try Reading Eggspress, which includes structured comprehension lessons, live games and an online library.

Endless Reader/Endless Numbers
The Endless series of apps enlists charming, colourful monsters to teach the basics. Add on extra words or numbers for a fee as you go.

Little Digits
This simple app provides a fantastic way to practise counting on one’s fingers. Kids also learn basic maths facts, and learn to add and subtract intuitively.

Edoki Academy
The Edoki series of apps don’t teach a specific subject, but they are great for introducing your child to the world of logic, as well as the concept of cause-and-effect. Younger kids will love Busy Shapes, while older ones might prefer Crazy Gears – both apps start out easy, and increase in difficulty as your child learns.

At the end of the day, if you take the time to find suitable material and are willing to help and engage with your child as he uses it, I think smart use of technology can have positive results. Just remember to put the iPad down once in a while and let your child run around!


Troy Therrien is a maths and science tutor who believes that maths can be, and should be, for everyone. Find out more about him and his tutoring business at

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