How a People Magazine Teacher of the Year created the Reading Train iPad app

Libby Curran is an accomplished educator, with 20 years of experience teaching kindergarten and special education classes. In 2012, she was recognized by People Magazine as one of their Teachers of the Year.

When the iPad came out five years ago, Curran like many in her field recognized its transformative power, particularly as a tool to teach foundational reading. Over the years, Curran says she has sampled more than 1,000 educational applications. She often writes about her favorites for publications including appoLearning, KinderTown, and others.

Last year, she collaborated with a group of teachers (including her son), to create and develop an iPad application called Reading Train. The app, which is free to download and includes freemium features, includes beautifully designed storybooks and related games that teach foundational reading. The Reading Train soundtrack is also among the catchiest you will ever hear for educational or any other applications.

See and hear for yourself:

As Reading Train developer The Learning Station expands its offering into a series of apps that focus on individual themes, we asked Curran about her path from teacher, to reviewer, to educational app creator. Here are some edited transcripts from our conversation.

appoLearning: At what point in your teaching career did you decide to apply your knowledge into educational game content and development?

Libby Curran: I have been teaching for over 20 years, and my greatest passion is teaching children to read. If you can’t read, you can’t learn, and if you can’t learn, you can’t succeed in school or in later life. Many of my students are growing up in poverty with few or no books in the home. They enter Kindergarten with language and literacy deficits and without the right intervention can fall further and further behind each year. I find the most effective way to bridge the achievement gap, develop reading skills and foster a love of reading is to provide children with a wide variety of easy and enjoyable books that they can read all by themselves. Since high quality books for the earliest readers are not readily available, I have created hundreds of “little books” using simple language and pictures to illustrate concept words, and including topics and humor that appeal to young children. The books can be printed and stapled at a cost of pennies per book and used in school for instruction as well as sent home for kids to share with their families.

Over the years, my little books and early literacy teaching methods have been so successful that they garnered state and national attention, including a 2012 People Magazine Teacher of the Year Award. Around this time, I began using iPads in my classroom and recognized the power of mobile technology to remove barriers to learning. After searching in vain for an early literacy app which got emergent readers reading real books, rather than listening to books and practicing isolated skills, I decided to create one myself. I knew I wanted to do more than create an e-book collection. I wanted there to be enough interactive audio and visual support to build confidence and ensure success for every child.

After interviewing several children’s app developers, I chose to create a joint company with Joseph Chen and Andrew Friday of revSquared Studio, in Beijing, China. RevSquared contributed “Edify”, their prize-winning quiz software platform, which generates custom questions. They also did the design and programming work. I recruited my son, Evan Curran, also a teacher, and a children’s musician, to do the voiceover narration and create song books and original music. I provided the illustrations and text for over a hundred books in the first version of the app. Working collaboratively, in late night conversations over Skype, and with thousands of hours of unpaid labor, the app has grown in depth and complexity to provide children with a deep and multi-faceted early reading experience.

appoLearning: How do you work with engineers and product designers to make sure the game is both engaging and educational?

Libby Curran: The Reading Train app is the product of countless discussions and compromises. In our first year we have produced 12 updates and 51 different builds in an attempt to create a marriage between form and function. The design of an iOS app should, as Apple advises, “focus on content and functionality”. Every feature was analyzed to ensure that it serves the primary purpose of the app: to teach young children how to read. The books themselves are engaging, and learning to read is very exciting. The challenge of the design has been to provide the scaffolding so that children are able to access the content all by themselves: providing a tutorial that guides children without being obtrusive, adding audio and visual cues to the train game, making every word tappable, recording over 70 different encouragement phrases for the train game and designing a reward system that continues the learning.

In my years of teaching, I have found that the best motivation is success, and that external rewards can often detract from learning. Many apps have elaborate reward systems that take children away from the learning tasks to play with stickers, drive vehicles, color or build. On the Reading Train, children collect stars for their personal dictionary in the Train Yard, and coins to spend on sing-along song books which also build reading skills. There is also a setting which allows kids to read books in order and “win” the next book in the series.

Our designers came from a gaming background and had thought it would be fun for kids to make the app is increasingly challenging. After many lively debates, I was able to help them see that for young children we have to design for universal access, scaffolding the progression carefully and building in visual and audio supports to ensure success for all.

When we designed the train game, Andrew and Joseph thought kids should answer three questions in a row. I thought answering five questions correctly the first time would be a better idea. We were both wrong. By analyzing the anonymous data, we saw that some children were “stuck” answering 20 or even more questions and never winning the prize at the end. So we changed the interface so that visual cues guided kids to the correct response, everybody progressed after five questions, and the scores were available to parents who could see what was causing difficulty.

Another difference of opinion was around the issue of novelty. Andrew wanted colored backgrounds and a variety of fonts and placement of text. I argued for consistent placement of clear text font on a white background in order to make the books more readable. Andrew also advocated for more complex illustrations and here we were able to compromise. While the images needed to clearly illustrate the text, Andrew’s high standards of graphic design and his insistence on the highest production values pushed me to create more sophisticated images. The first illustrations I created were basic clipart which I edited in Photoshop. Over the last year, I have taught myself to work with vector images in Adobe Illustrator and I think the quality of illustrations has greatly improved.

appoLearning: How do you go about incorporating Common Core and other learning standards into your games and books?

Libby Curran: Learning to read is a complex process, like learning to play a sport or a musical instrument.

Few children can master a musical instrument just by listening to music, or by learning isolated notes or practicing scales. And for most children, becoming a proficient reader requires more than simply listening to books or drilling phonics skills. Children do need to learn letter sounds, sight words and decoding skills, but these “foundational skills” are best learned in the context of real reading activities. The more children read, the better readers they become. On the Reading Train, beginning readers will find a wide variety of easy and enjoyable books, along with visual and audio support to enable them to read all by themselves.

The app was tested in real preschool and elementary classrooms during every stage of development. The Reading Train books and activities are based on the Common Core and best literacy practices.

Here’s how we measure up to the Language Arts Common Core challenge:

A fundamental tenet of The Common Core standards for Language Arts is that students should build a foundation of knowledge by reading widely and deeply from among a broad range of high quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts.

appoLearning: Are there other educators that made the transition into digital content/game developer that influence you?

Libby Curran: I learn a great deal from other children’s app developers, though not specifically from other educator/developers. I belong to a Facebook group created by the Moms With Apps community and get a lot of practical advice and support from members of the group. It is particularly helpful to get the international perspective since our apps are available all over the world.

appoLearning: You are also an app reviewer. What have you learned from evaluating other educational apps that you apply in your own practice?

Libby Curran: Since receiving my first iPads nearly four years ago, I have downloaded and used over 1,000 apps. I believe that mobile technology has the power to transform education, particularly for special education students. A few years ago, educational apps were quite primitive, and more like glorified worksheets than versatile learning tools. But the field is growing and changing incredibly quickly. Like all teachers, I love to “borrow” great ideas, so I have used both great apps and not-so-great apps as models for what to do and not to do in my own apps. One of the most important things I have learned, though, is not to prejudge what I think to be an effective app. My students are the world’s greatest beta testers and I have often been surprised at their responses. For example, one of the most popular apps on my iPads is Math Drills, where kids learn basic math skills in addition and subtraction. There are no bells and whistles, no animations or cute characters. Kids just solve math problems and receive a score in miles per hour. They call it the “race car game” and love to compete against their own scores to try to get to first place.

appoLearning: What are the biggest challenges for educational app developers? (Marketing and awareness? Finding development talent? Continuing to create quality content?)

Libby Curran: For me, one of the biggest challenges is the lack of feedback. Creating an iPad app is rather like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it into the sea. We have had nearly 100,000 downloads, and 8,000 people use the app every week, yet only a handful of people have ever contacted us directly, to let us know what is working and what needs improvement. It can be frustrating to receive a one star review and have no way to let the reviewer know that there is sound on the app if they would just check the mute button.

The quickly changing environment can also make life difficult. When iOS 8 came out, we, like many other developers, had to scramble to create updates and correct problems in the apps.

The main Reading Train app is very large and multifaceted. There is a bit of a learning curve. As a teacher, I just want to sit down with every child and show them how to navigate the app and use all the features. It typically takes about half an hour to learn how to use the app, but I see from the data that many people spend only a few seconds. I think parents sometimes just hand over the device to their children and hope an app will keep them entertained. This was one of the reasons we decided to create a smaller app, and one with an inherent structure that is clear to everyone. The books in the Alphabet Book app are presented in alphabetical order so children will anticipate where to go next.

Since we are a very small company, another challenge is finding time to do everything, especially on top of our “day jobs”. Marketing and managing social media can be very time consuming and I would much rather spend my time writing new books to get my students and children around the world excited about reading.

appoLearning: What is your opinion in general about most educational iPad apps targeted to early childhood and early elementary school learning?

Libby Curran: There are over one million apps on the App Store, but only a handful of those apps really address a need in a unique and engaging way. Too many apps just assess what a child already knows. As with worksheets, if you already know the answer, you don’t learn anything, and if you don’t know the answer, you don’t learn anything either.

One of my biggest disappointments about many children’s apps is a lack of accessibility for the youngest children and those with special needs. Many apps are designed from a gaming perspective where users progress through the app by beating the level. One endless runner math app has double digit addition with regrouping in the third level and my kids would be in tears because they were unable to play that level. Developers often do all of the heavy lifting by creating complex and beautiful apps with engaging animations, and then shut out the children who need the app the most. But I do believe the industry is moving quickly in a positive direction. Apps like Book Creator, Marble Math Junior, Piiig Labs, Endless Reader, Little Big Car Factory and, I hope, Reading Train, have the potential to engage the minds and imaginations of young children all over the world.

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