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Friday, March 23, 2018

Not fun: phonics game on an iPad

books are better than phonics games

Can an iPad game match the elegant simplicity of Crockett Johnson's 1955 Harold and the Purple Crayon?

Does it make any sense to hope your kid will learn phonics by playing games on an iPhone or iPad? A book seems simpler, less expensive and better. And kids like to be read to. In a book, the words are in context with the story and pictures.

I don’t own an iPad so I borrowed one from Jenny Gillespie, our graphic designer. Even she said she prefers books for teaching her kids to read and she’s 30, so I don’t feel like such a dinosaur because I prefer books.

Books have distinct advantages. Spill juice on a book? Drop it on a hard floor? No problem. Spill juice on Mom’s iPhone or iPad? Drop it on a tile floor? Mom’s going to be upset.

A company sent us a press release about a phonics game called Coop Phonics. The release says, “My game is the first REAL (emphasis theirs) social learning game ever created.” The game is social as in the parent points to the word on the screen, pronounces it and then presses an icon to initiate lots of sound effects and old-school-looking graphics. And it’s not really a game.

Coop Phonics is $1.99 and based on my experience with the “game” it is way overpriced. Even if it were free I don’t think it would be a good use of time.

Kids learn phonics so they can sound out words they don’t know. As they sound out words, they often discover the word they are trying to read is one they have heard and said before. There is a sound-symbol relationship kids have to learn in order to read.

All kids need some phonics instruction.  How much  instruction they need depends on the kid. Some kids internalize the phonics rules quickly, while others need more explicit instruction and practice. The more kids read and are read to, the more they add to their sight word vocabulary — they learn how their listening and speaking vocabularies look in print.

are book better than phonics games

A page from Gavin Bishop's The Three Little Pigs.

When you read to your kids, point to the word they don’t know and sound it out with them. With the youngest kids, just sound out the first letter. I know some preschools teach reading to 2- and 3-year-olds, but really, kids who learn their ABCs in preschool along with some letter sounds will do fine when they get to kindergarten and first grade, when reading instruction starts and kids are developmentally ready for it.

My kids are grown and learned to be excellent readers in kindergarten and first grade without an iPad. I’m not willing to wade through hundreds of games on iTunes looking for a good phonics app, so if you know of one, tell me so I can check it out and share it with our readers.

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Daniel Friedman

Daniel Friedman, is a staff writer and photographer for RAISING ARIZONA KIDS and the father of Ellis and Isaac. He spent more than a decade as a classroom teacher and private tutor.

4 Responses

  1. Nick Marks says:

    Hi. I am Nick Marks, the creator of Coop Phonics. I respect your opinion of my game, but I would like to point out a few observations I had in response to your article.

    One: Here is how you describe how I teach children to read in my game: “The game is social as in the parent points to the word on the screen, pronounces it.” You later describe a far superior way for a parent to teach a child, reading them a book. You said: “When you read to your kids, point to the word they don’t know and sound it out with them.” The method you describe is how my game works as well. There is no difference.

    Two: You named your article: “Not Fun: Phonics game on Ipad.” It’s a great title, but I would also like to point out that you are probably a man in his late 40’s or 50’s who played this game alone. The game is intended to engage a child of 3-7 years old and entertain the parent through the child’s experience with the game. I would encourage you to try the game with a small child. You might “get it” more.

    Three: You say: “A book seems simpler, less expensive and better.” My game is$ 1.99. I have a 5 year old and buy her many books. I can tell you from experience, most inexpensive books for her retail between $3.99 and $7.99. Books have gone up in price quite a bit.

    Four: You seem to dislike the idea of games as a teaching medium. Books are far superior in your opinion. I can agree, but books have had many thousands of years to evolve into what you see today. Video games have only had a few decades. You may be right for now, but the future of education is in interactive simulation… games. In the next hundred years they will take over every text book.

    My game is not intended to replace books or be the only tool a child will need to learn how to read. I did the entire game myself and it was my sincere attempt to evolve games as an educational medium. My game is meant to be a fun experience that gets parents and kids playing together and celebrating learning together. I tried to empower parents and portray them as heroes for being able to read. The game is meant to give kids a great admiration for learning to read. It is not perfect, but the majority of people who played my game in the intended way have enjoyed it. Many feel it is a step in the right direction for educational games; kids and parents playing together in the pursuit of learning. I hope your readers will check out the game with a little loved one and make up their own minds. Thank you for taking the time to play my game. I hope you continue learning about this new educational frontier that is happening all around you.

    • Dan Friedman Dan Friedman says:


      You’re right that I did not play the game with a child, but I remember what it was like to read to my kids and play games with them years ago before iPads or any computer games existed. It was fun and interactive much in the same way that a game or app is supposed to be. To be completely fair, I probably should have played the game with a child though I can imagine at least a little bit what it would be like to play it with a child.

      I’m 55 year-old and did not grow up playing computer games and I didn’t want my children staring at a screen, indoors, playing them for hours, so I admit a bias against technology oriented games. But if my kids sat inside reading a book all day it would not have bothered me since that is what I was used to. With a book though, the reader supplies the graphics and special effects by using their imaginations to make the story and ideas come alive in their minds. I guess this is the standard I want computer games to reach. As you said though, books have evolved and so will computer games.

      I was a teacher for ten years and I saw lots of new technology, hardware and software, that was designed for educational use. Since I’ve never been interested in new technology for the sake of new technology, much of what I saw didn’t impress me. If the lower-tech version worked better I stuck with it. When a higher-tech version was better then I changed my teaching methods to take advantage of it.

      iPad games are very inexpensive but the device is pricey, so I’m not sure if the argument that games are cheaper holds up.

      In truth, I am not a cranky old guy who hates technology and yells at the neighbor kids to get off my lawn. I’m fine if they want to cut across my yard. Seriously though, you are completely right that I am not entirely comfortable with games as an educational medium when I have seen computer games with too many distractions or ways for kids to play the game and avoid the educational part.

      But as you say in your thoughtful and well-written response to my article, I do need to learn more about this educational frontier as games evolve, and even play them.

      I look forward to discovering games and apps that change my opinion.

  2. Patrick says:

    This is not an app review. It is the author’s point of view on books vs iPads. The game in question seems to get unfair review due to the author’s negative view of iPads as a teaching tool.

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