Favorite literacy apps for kids

Stop summer brain drain with these great literacy apps for kids.

Keep kids learning all summer

An iPad and a great app can make learning feel like playing. So what better way to keep kids sharp all summer?

Whether your children are just getting started with the alphabet or they're readers ready to improve their spelling and vocabulary, we've got a literacy app they'll love.

Endless Alphabet

This funny app from Callaway Digital Arts teaches the alphabet and broadens vocabulary all in one. Kids pick a letter and then put together a word puzzle. We’re not talking words like “apple.” Endless Alphabet covers more eccentric territory: Think, “gargantuan,” “lopsided,” “juggle,” or “kazoo.” Letters squeal out their sounds as they’re dragged into place. When you complete a puzzle, little monsters act out the meaning of the word. (Beware the sudden roar of the word “scary!”) These skits are guaranteed to cause giggles.

More info | Price: free.

Reading Rainbow

Reading Rainbow, the beloved PBS series starring LeVar Burton, has been reborn in this iPad app. The free version allows access to one book with interactive pictures, read aloud by a professional narrator—often Burton himself—as well as short videos, both new and from the original series. The paid version ($30 for a six-month subscription) unlocks hundreds of picture books, both fiction and non-fiction. Kids select their books by visiting themed “islands,” such as Action Adventures & Magical Tales, Awesome People, or National Geographic Kids. The depth of the library is impressive, as are the videos. They include fun romps with Burton to meet interesting people, as well as beautiful National Geographic videos about places and animals all over the world. This is an expensive app, but if you have a kid between the ages of 3 and 9, it’s worth it.

More info | Price: free version; six-month subscription $30.

Scribblenauts Remix

Scribblenauts isn’t supposed to be about learning. In this action puzzle game from Warner Bros, you are a character named Maxwell. Type in a word, any word, to see an object materialize. Use what you have at hand to solve the level’s puzzle. The trick is, the better your words, the cooler the objects that will appear. Even adjectives count: type in “bad unicorn” and you’ll get a naughty horned creature ready to cause trouble. Type in “good unicorn” and a sweet version will appear with a halo above its head. Play is open ended and full of possibility. Before you know it, kids will be asking you the meanings of words generated in response to something they misspelled (“Mom, what is a ‘cthulhu’?”) and stretching to learn new words so they can bring them to life. This is the moment to casually offer them a dictionary to browse. You'll find Scribblenauts a stealthy way to help readers increase their vocabulary.

More info | Price: $1.

Monkey Word School Adventure

In this app from Thup Games, preschool and kindergarten kids learn literacy skills with the help of a silly and enthusiastic monkey. Kids practice recognizing sight words quickly, deciphering word puzzles, and tracing upper and lower-case letters. Monkey Word School Adventure comes at skills from many different angles. For example, kids will enjoy helping little chinchilla by finding a path of rhyming words or by building bridges out of letters. Multiple correct answers win prizes for the player’s terrarium. My 4 year old finds this highly motivating; her one complaint is the limit on how many frogs, plants, and butterflies her terrarium can hold.

More info | Price: $2.

Starfall Learn to Read

Starfall Education's phonics-based reading app is filled with songs and games geared to get kids reading. Classic word puzzles—think “cat,” “hat,” “rat”—build upon each other to teach kids letter sounds. Movies explain basic concepts like how we read from left to right. As children progress, the exercises become more interactive. This is a well thought out curriculum, not just a simple game. And at $3, it’s worth trying it out to see if your kid likes it.

More info | Price: $3.

Spelling Test

The life of an elementary school student is filled with spelling tests. How can a parent help? Get this app. List in hand, you type in each word and then record a spoken sample of it used in a sentence. Tip: make your sentences funny. (A running gag about a killer kraken has worked well in my house.)'s app scrambles the list so that the words are offered in a different order each time and then it tracks your child’s progress. One bonus: For kids who find writing by hand laborious, this app provides practice without the need for a pencil. Looking for spelling lists for the summer? Try these free ones from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

More info | Price: $1.

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