Saturday, March 8, 2014

Talking Shapes iPad app (A Schoolhouse Crew Review)

Talking Fingers, Inc. has developed an interactive learning app ($5.99, for iPad with iOS 6.0 or higher)  for early pre-readers (grades PK/K) called Talking Shapes.  is a research-proven program created by neuropsychologist Dr. Jeannine Herron and funded in part by a research grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).  Using pictures as mnemonic devices, it introduces English speech sounds (phonemes) by helping children develop a correlation between the shape and sound of the letter.

 I originally had expected that preschooler Damien would be the reviewer for this product, and he did try it out.  At not quite four, I think he was just too young. Each activity takes about 10-15 minutes to complete, and he just did not have a long enough attention span.  If we had been able to break activities into five minute chunks, I think he could have managed, but when you close the app you "lose" your place.  This meant there was no way to do little bit and then come back to where we left off.  However, once Jude saw there was a new iPad app to be worked with, he elbowed his way in and took over.  Damien still played a little bit, but ultimately, it was Jude who gave the program a workout for this review. 

The premise of this program is summed up in the title of the storyline:

Patricia ("Pat") and Natalie ("Nat") are two sisters who want to remember their adventures, but have so many that they can't recall the details.  They decide that they are going to write them down -- but how?  Enter a way to correlate a written symbol -- a letter -- for each sound.  Through their stories (the "Read to Me" sections) we learn the letters of this new alphabet, and how to combine their sounds to make words. 

The key to this program is it is multisensory teaching of letters and sounds. 

Talking Fingers Review

Here, you can see how the letter C curls around the back and tail of a snoozing cat.  Visually, you see the letter and a representation of a word that uses it, and the image of the cat brings forth the audible word "cat" and the child associates the hard C sound with the word cat. The program continues this practice through the alphabet - ie, the letter T:

 The letter T looks like a tree - the trunk and branches - and makes the /t/ sound, like we hear at the beginning of the word "tree."

The program is divided into three books. Book One, "The Fat Cat,"  introduces the phonemes f, c, h, s, (short) a, and t,  which make the words fat, cat, hat, sat.  Books Two ("The Silly Hen") and Three ("The Dancing Pig") not only teach new phonemes, but that different combinations of the same sounds make different words - new words are really just these same sounds rearranged.  The addition of phonemes p, n, m, l, (short and long) e during Book Two gives us not just the "new" words pen and men, but adding n to the repertoire means the words fan, and can are possible; using the /h/ sound and letter already known, the word hen is created.  Among the sounds added from Book Three are d, w, g, and short i (along with others), allowing us to see pin, fin, dig, and wig.  With introductions to letters and sounds, and the idea that individual words are simply how the sounds are arranged,  the program works to help children crack the code of language.

 Once the child has learned about the letters (the "Read to Me" section), he can then move on to practicing the letters and making them into words. "Draw Letters" introduces Talking Fingers' hallmark letter-shape pairs; for example:

Part three, Play Game, allows the child to practice.  Three games - Find the Shapes, Find the Letters, and Draw the Letters - help the child practice.  

In Find the Shapes, a vocabulary word is stated, and then the child uses the visuals (l-r snake, acrobat, dog, inchworm, butterfly, mountain) to sound out the word (in this example, mad),

 Find the Letters allows for practice using just the letters without any visual cueing.

The third game, Draw the Letters, combines the two concepts -- the child chooses the letters based on the mnemonic visual, yet then gets the opportunity to practice writing the letter himself.

After each letter sequence is properly completed, the program then sounds out the individual sounds (/l/ - /e/ - /g/, in the above example) and then blends them together at the correct speed to create the normally articulated word ("leg"). 

If a mistake is made, the program continues on, but at the end, the student is "sent back" to try that word again.  An egg-laying animal lays a golden egg for correct-from-the-start answers, a white one for those that needed a second try.  After four words, a puzzle appears.  Four golden eggs means the puzzle is completely filled in; white eggs trigger blank pieces and the need to go back and try again.

Finally, rhyming words help create a story, and the student needs to choose the word "scrolling" by that is missing.  First you read/listen to the story, then fill in the missing word by choosing the correct word. 

I used to answer "When will Jude would learn to read?" with "When pigs fly," because even though we have had some minor successes with other programs, Jude really hasn't been able to crack the code of reading.  Since we started this, he is starting to sound out words, and recognize component sounds.  He's not quite reading yet, but he's so much closer than he's ever been before. This program really is forcing him to break down words into sounds, and between hearing and seeing the sounds, his speech and reading abilities have made great strides.  The pigs are at least floating...

Jude progressed quickly, completing entire program in about three weeks.  At first, I was a bit underwhelmed thinking, "Ok, now what?"  However, there are more than those four initial words shown in each game.  Go back and play any of the games again, especially those associated with Books Two and Three (simply because there are more letters/sounds to work with), and get four more words that use those phonemic sounds.)  We found that once we were past the initial story and into the games/word forming, the possibilities seemed almost endless.  Yes, there were some words we practiced repeatedly, but the groupings of four didn't repeat.  It also mixes up the words so that the student becomes reliant on a pattern and can guess what comes next; one practice day the program-chosen words were dig, sad, wig, wag and a second go issued pin, jet, mad, fin

Talking Fingers focuses not only on visual understanding and hearing of a sound, but proper pronunciation.  It asks the child to say the sound, and will ask for it to be repeated if necessary.   As Jude has some significant articulation issues, we did a lot of repeating.  With the cueing, I could tell his second attempt was better.  There is no reinforcement (positive or negative) beyond the second attempt - the program simply moves on.  It's certainly not a substitute for his formal speech/articulation therapy program, but it's a good reinforcement.

In the Talking Shapes program, a story about the "origin" of letter-sound correlation helps introduce and reinforce phonemic awareness.  Simple stories are used to introduce sounds and words, and then lots of opportunity to practice sound combining helps the child understand how to break down and reassemble words as sound clusters.  By introducing the twin concepts of "sounds make letters" and "letters make words" sequentially, children acquire phonemic awareness that will develop into the ability to read independently.

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