When my son came home from school with a list of one hundred words to learn (thanks Michael Gove) I wondered if some technology could help. Somewhat hesitantly I started searching Apple’s App Store hoping to find something that wasn’t tied to a US-English dictionary. My search turned up a range of apps, the one I settled on was Super Speller by a husband and wife software team – Quiet Spark. One of the reasons for this was their sensible approach to privacy and an absence of adds (well worth paying £1.99/US $1.99 for).
Don’t let the clean interface of this app fool you into thinking it is too basic. It is deceptively powerful. Essentially you create a series of tests by typing in words, then use the iPad or iPhone’s microphone to record yourself saying them. That means your children will hear the words spoken in the local accent. So far so good…
The list supplied by (to?) the school doesn’t just contain words that are tricky to spell (like achieve or rhythm) it also contains words that sound alike. The question that initially troubled me was how can you use an auditory cue to help the listener differentiate between the potential responses? That’s where (with a bit of lateral thinking) this app excels. Rather than just saying the word and stopping, you can follow it with an explanation, e.g. recording the phrase “aloud – as in speaking out loud” or “allowed – as in permission to do something”. This way the meaning of the word as well as its spelling can be reinforced each time the test is taken. Equally, you could include it in a sentence and say something like “Spell allowed, as in ‘you are not allowed to pick your nose'”.
Once a test has been set up, there are a range of delivery options. Most are what you expect – the ability to shuffle the order, ignore capitalisation and, if you really feel the need, to set a time limit. Something that isn’t part of the enterprise testing solutions I am used to (think QuestionMark, Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) but perhaps should be is Super Speller’s Smiley hints option. Essentially this feature adds a Smiley at the top of the screen that provides the user with regular clues whether or not their spelling of the word is on track. This is particularly useful when learning a new list of words. Whilst helpful, achieving full marks in a test using this feature means you miss out on the reward offered under “full test conditions” – a screen full of balloons to pop.
The app also offers a Study the Test mode, where a link is added exposing the iPad’s dictionary. Just remember to set up the appropriate language for your iPad and enable/disable the dictionaries before hand! The app will honour these settings – an important feature as it should be your teacher, not the device that has the last word in how a word is spelled.
Unlike some apps designed for mobile devices, this one supports multiple students, making it great for families who have chosen not to issue everyone with their own device. Before you take a test, you are prompted to enter your name, and the results are saved against your name.
Often it can help to add a few words not on the test list. This doesn’t need to be an attempt to trip them up – inserting the name of a favourite toy or TV character can add a bit of light relief and remind them that learning should be fun!
The app has a lock option you can use to prevent access to the Manage Test (a.k.a. the See the Answers) page. Whilst locking it down might initially seem appealing to parents, if you leave the app unlocked, then children can have fun making up their own tests, challenging each other (and who knows, even their parents!) Creating extra tests has proved much more of a draw to my children than the built in word search and scrambling tools (though your results may vary!) It also provides some insight into the breadth of their current vocabulary and a chance to pick up any misunderstandings or mispronunciation early on.
It provides good reporting tools if you want to check on your children’s progress – you can step through the responses in each attempt. I’ve yet to explore the tools for sharing tests with others via email, but I can see the advantage, particularly if I was a teacher wanting to use this for practice in my class.
This app was written by parents to help their own child and I think this focus on making it appealing to children is the key to its success. Only time will tell whether the balloon popping will retain its appeal with my children, but Super Speller has already proven to be a good way of getting them to complete their literacy homework. If I could change one thing, I’d like to add the ability to record an introductory or congratulatory video clip for a test, to make it feel even more personal.
Image: No Technology in Brighton – taken by Sammy0716 and shared on flickr using a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.