Special Needs | Feature

7 Apps That Teach Literacy Skills

Visual and sonic aids can help students with language disorders improve their reading, writing and speaking.

A video from VizZle walks educators through the process of creating an activity that teaches phonics.

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Mobile devices can help students who have trouble communicating orally by allowing them to converse using pictures and the written word (what’s known as augmentative and alternative communication, or AAC). Any number of apps can facilitate AAC, but some of them are particularly well-suited for helping students with language disorders learn how to read and how to effectively express themselves in writing. Below, we review some exciting new features in six apps that teach these skills.


VizZle’s portal called Teach lets you organize, customize and launch interactive instructional academic lessons on the VizZle Player (free in the App Store). Lessons can then be used on PCs, Macs, touchscreens, interactive whiteboards and within Player apps for Android tablets and iPads. Families, school staff and therapists who subscribe can share lessons and data regarding student progress. (Yearly rates start at less than $500.)  An extensive shared library contains educator-approved audio, video, photos and line drawings that you can customize with appropriate behavioral supports to make it fun for students. These resources cover social skills lessons in addition to an array of academic subjects, many of which are aligned with the Common Core. The app has a visual schedule built in, with a timer in the corner to show how much time is left. Students can track their progress with game boards that list their scores.

A new set of materials for teaching reading includes activities that break words down into letter and sound pairings, while also showing how to combine those sounds to form words. Additional activities reinforce word comprehension. Teachers can add a quiz to check that the student understands; VizZle allows you to layer phonics, pop-ups and quizzes in whatever way works best for the child. The Phonics+ template is also great for teaching spelling or vocabulary words. You can use any list, from basic CVC words to SAT vocabulary, and set the lessons up to emphasize meaning, spelling or both.

Other new features include switch accessibility, with either automatic or two-step switch scanning; a redesign of the Build-a-Book application that allows you to record yourself reading a book so your student can listen and read at any time; and bigger audio and video buttons.

Crack the Books

Crack the Books is a standards-based, core curriculum-aligned digital book series, with both interactive elements and universal design accessibility features. Designed for students at all ability levels, the interactive books in the series can be adjusted for reading level, from first grade to eighth grade, so students in a class can experience the same content while reading at their ability level. These books include beautiful photographs; video footage; interesting facts; animations and images; and interactive charts, tables and globes. Comprehension supports are built into the text, along with pop-up definitions for associated vocabulary. Users can adjust print size and customize voice-over options within the app to accommodate students with print disabilities or other limitations.

Currently, three books in the series include teacher resources with lesson plans, worksheets, activities and study guides. These titles, which cost $9.99 each, are Pines to Vines (about forests), Sea Shores to Sea Floors (about oceans) and Blades (about grasslands). Other books (available without the teacher resources) include Aquatic Earth, Cycles of Earth and Parched Planet (about deserts).


Designed as an AAC for students who have trouble with oral language, AutisMate ($149.99 in the App Store) is an iPad app that offers a variety of visual supports, including visual scenes, visual schedules, video modeling, visual social stories and grid-based AAC. The app supports vocabularies ranging from simple to complex. While the visual schedules, video modeling and visual stories are all wonderful, we focus on communication skills, which are best improved using the Smart Scenes and Sentence Builder functions.

Sentence Builder uses grid displays that organize items by topics or by categories (such as people, places or animals); events and activities (such as birthday party, opening presents or cooking dinner) or speech categories (such as nouns, verbs and locations). Users can build sentences using these grids; switching back and forth between different grids is easy. For younger kids, or those who find the grid displays confusing, AutisMate has Smart Scenes (visual scenes) where teachers or parents can take pictures of a child’s environment and place labels within those scenes. Scenes can be shared via iTunes and e-mail. AutisMate is in the process of building an extensive crowdsourced content library with premade scenes that will be stored in the cloud so users will be able to sync data across multiple devices.

In addition, AutisMate now offers a predictive keyboard and text-to-speech capabilities; new symbols are easy to learn because the app pairs the symbols used in Sentence Builder with the predicted word.


Avaz ($99.99 in the App Store) is an iPad app for students who struggle to speak. It comes with 15,000 Symbolstix picture symbols and high-quality voice synthesis to help users create messages that can be read aloud or sent to others via e-mail, Facebook or Twitter. The picture symbols are color-coded and organized into linguistic categories. A user can choose from more than 80 topics sets, and a Core Words set is also available. Avaz has some attention-grabbing features to help the user understand what they are doing, including icons that grow and then shrink in size when you tap on them. The app can also be set to say the selected word aloud before you move into the communication space.

Users can back up or synchronize vocabulary content on Dropbox. A search feature makes it easy to explore vocabulary words. By surrounding words with “conversation starters,” users can quickly construct natural-sounding sentences; this also helps them learn how to effectively use such constructions.

Parents, teachers and clinicians can customize the app in a variety of ways by adding their own pictures to the picture symbol library, removing distracting content, controlling the picture grid size, controlling the speech output and using a high-contrast mode for students with poor vision.  It comes with seven voices from Acapela, or you can record your own voice; you can even customize the pronunciation of unusual words. Avaz tracks therapy sessions automatically, and can be set to send the data to a clinician or teacher for later review.

An integrated picture and keyboard mode allows students who are ready to transition to text to alternate between the two modes seamlessly. Avaz’s keyboard has support for saving and loading words and phrases, a Quick Response bar for frequently used messages and a picture-assisted text prediction capability for sight readers.

Clicker Sentences and Clicker Docs

When students are ready to move from learning vocabulary to writing sentences, Clicker Sentences ($28.99 in the App Store) and Clicker Docs ($30.99 in the App Store) can enable them to produce work they can be proud of while learning the key skills necessary for independent writing.

Clicker Sentences allows clinicians, parents or teachers to create sentence-building activities using grids that contain the words required to build a sentence. Students tap words in the grid (a customized keyboard) to build sentences in the simple word processor, then hear each sentence automatically spoken aloud as they complete it, helping them identify any mistakes and make corrections. As the app reads the sentence, it highlights the currently spoken words by changing fonts, background color or text colors, depending on the user’s preference. Learners can hear words before they write them to help them find the word they want.

The app provides support for students at a range of levels. For example, in the early phases of learning to write sentences, students can see a completed sentence as a model that they can then copy. Later, the model sentence can be displayed in a pop-up that must be closed before they can continue. Other options include an auditory model that requires the student to listen before writing and a guided-order activity for reinforcing left-to-right sentence construction in English. Users can add a picture to each sentence from a photo library or straight from the iPad camera.

The final product can be e-mailed or sent to any AirPrint compatible printer. A professionally curated learning resource bank offers a wide range of topic-specific Sentence Sets created by the curriculum team at the LearningGrids site. 

Clicker Docs has many of the same features, but it is completely text-based. It includes a word predictor that suggests age-appropriate vocabulary based on the already-written part of the sentence, as well as a spell-checking functionality. Word Banks provide tabbed vocabulary support for a variety of topics. All of these features are completely speech supported. Teachers, clinicians and parents can customize the speed and voice of the text-to-speech, the word predictor level and the contrast color schemes. Clicker Docs allows users to share Word Banks and documents across using Dropbox.


Abilipad ($19.99 in the App Store) is an iPad app for taking notes, creating lesson plans, importing photos and designing customized keyboards. An integrated filing system allows user to create folders to manage their notepads and keyboards. You can create customized keyboard layouts by assigning a letter, word, sentence or picture to each key, as well as an audio recording that plays when the key is pressed. The user can select the font and letter size displayed on the keyboard and can color-code each key. The keyboards are switch accessible.

The Adaptive Notepad provides a distraction-free writing space where you can compose messages. You can also add stock images or your own pictures into your notes. The app also includes a spell-checker and word prediction capabilities to help users with word-retrieval challenges. Users can set the font, size and color of the text as well as the background color of their notes. The Adaptive Notepad allows users to use any keyboard they wish.

Abilipad gives students the ability to read letters, words or sentences in their messages with text-to-speech as they compose using one of the 20 Acapela voices. The speaking rate is adjustable, and the words are highlighted as they are spoken.

The Adaptive Notepad lets you add or duplicate pages, reorder them, and organize them into folders. You can e-mail text and images from a note share Abilipad. An extensive library lets you share keyboards, lessons and activities from others, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.