Assistive learning tools make a big difference for those with ADHD or learning difficulties, and some of our favorites are small enough to fit in the palm of a student's hand. Learning apps can be lifelines for students struggling with reading, writing, math, time management, and other challenges.
These 17 apps and gadgets are not games; they're tools. They can help learners from preschool through college access the curriculum, understand material more easily, and organize ideas and schedules. Academic success may be a touchscreen tap away.
1. Read2Go/Learning Ally Audio
Bookshare and Learning Ally, audiobooks services for people with reading challenges, are familiar names in education. Read2Go (for Bookshare) and the Learning Ally Audio app make these valuable resources more accessible. Some students with attention challenges find it tough to focus while listening to audiobooks. Read2Go and audiobooks in Learning Ally's VOICEtext format highlight each word on the screen as it is read. This innovative feature is also good for students who need to build decoding skills. Seeing a word while hearing it improves reading skills.
2. Voice Dream Reader
(voicedream.com; iOS; $4.99)
Voice Dream will read text from any source — from Microsoft Word and PDF files to webpages. Users can listen to text in one of 36 available voices, and it's easy to pause, rewind, or fast-forward. Voice and reading speed can be adjusted easily while reading text. Voice Dream makes it simple to navigate text and start reading anywhere, and users can highlight and make notes in the app as they listen.
3. Rhyme to Read
(rhymetoread.com; iOS; first book free, full series is $9.99)
Developed by two expert educators, this app gives kids and parents access to a series of high-quality, controlled texts (short, simple stories that use a combination of patterned words and sight words). Controlled texts help young children gain fluency, automaticity, and confidence. The series is so well designed that kids who are easily discouraged will stick with it. Readers can tap target words to hear them and words they've already learned will appear in later books in the series.
(itunes.apple.com; iOS; free)
For Mac users, it's hard to beat the simplicity of iBooks. Students can replace heavy stacks of textbooks with an iPad or an iPhone. The app makes it easy to use reading comprehension boosting strategies, like highlighting and note-taking, which are critical for students with low attention. Some textbooks go a step further, with interactive features and quizzes at the end of sections. College students will breathe a sigh of relief thanks to iBooks' update policy: it automatically replaces old textbooks with new editions.
(motionmathgames.com; iOS, Android; free to $6.99, depending on game; bundle for $25.99)
It's tempting to prescribe a stack of flashcards when kids struggle with math, but students with weak attention benefit more from improving their number sense than from rote memorization. The research-based MotionMath helps to improve that. Preschoolers can begin with Hungry Guppy, which teaches basic numeracy using both objects and number symbols. As students progress, there are plenty of more difficult games. One of our favorites is Zoom, which requires players to tilt their devices to drop whole numbers and decimals on number lines.
(sylvanlearning.com/resources/sylvanplay; iOS, Android; free)
This imaginative, two-player game is sure to please students who need motivation to practice their math facts. The screen is divided into two hemispheres, so that each player can easily read his own half of the iPad as he adds and subtracts. The goal is to arrive at the same total using different numbers, but the numbers are only the beginning of the challenge. Every successful equation causes the globe to spin, turning day into night and night into day. The seasons also change, and players must survive "storms" of multiplication and division. This game is fun.
7. Math Ninja
(math-ninja-app.com; iOS; $1.99)
Making things fun is important to students with attention challenges, and Math ninja is an addictive way to practice addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Correct answers earn more weapons for ninjas' arsenals, like ninja stars and smoke bombs, which can be fired at the evil Tomato-San and his robot cronies. The graphics are bright and cartoonish, and squeamish players (and parents) can rest assured that these battles are silly rather than violent.
(mindnode.com; Mac, $19.99; iOS, $9.99)
Organizing a jumble of ideas to write a book review or essay is a daunting task. Mind mapping is a good way to understand how thoughts fit together to make a coherent essay. MindNode is an excellent tool for this kind of pre-writing. Many students with learning difficulties find that visual mind maps work better than outlines. Writers begin by placing their initial idea in the center, then add ideas, color-code them, and draw connecting lines. It's easy to convert maps to Microsoft Word documents or image files, to share with parents and teachers for feedback.
(storybird.com; Web; free)
Writing is one of the toughest tasks for students, and the beautifully crafted Storybird provides young authors with engaging, meaningful ways to express themselves. A multitude of artist-created images are available for inspiration or as supplements to stories, making Storybird valuable to students with strong spatial skills. Images are also useful for helping to sequence events in a story. There are a variety of genres to choose from, and Storybird allows writers to share their stories easily and to comment on others' work, too.
(spellbetterapp.com; iOS; free)
Students with learning difficulties often find writing frustrating, so poor spellers are bound to love SpellBetter as a word processor. Word prediction and auto-completion features allow writers to focus on recording their ideas instead of on spelling. SpellBetter can untangle the most mangled spelling, and its text-to-speech function makes it easy to listen to the suggested words in the word bank or proofread one's writing. SpellBetter's spell checker considers both phonetics and context, and it exports finished pieces to other formats (PDF, e-mail) for sharing.
Getting Stuff Done
(any.do; iOS, Android; free)
Sometimes there's beauty in simplicity, and it doesn't get much simpler than Any.do. For those who get lost in options and details, Any.do is the perfect solution for managing a busy life. Set up a to-do list and program the app to send reminders. That's it. Because it's sometimes easier to lay out an agenda while looking at a calendar, the Cal version (also free) combines iCal and the Any.do task list.
(getfinish.com; iOS; free)
Writing down every task can result in an intimidating list. Since prioritization is critical, Finish allows users to place items on one of three lists: short-, mid-, or long-term. The app initially defines short- term as tasks due in 0-2 days, mid-term tasks as 3-7 days, and long-term as due in 8 days or more, but these settings are adjustable. Finish is user-friendly. Type in the task ("E-mail Prof. Brown re: paper"), select the deadline for completion, and relax, knowing that Finish will send a reminder. When you enable it, it will prompt the app to send continuous reminders.
(wunderlist.com; iOS, Android, Mac, PC; free)
Wunderlist is a simple, powerful way to organize lists of all kinds. But the best reason to use Wunderlist is its collaboration capability. Users can make group lists, assign tasks to different members of the group, and even arrange for the app to send reminder e-mails. The organizer can see which delegated tasks have been marked complete, and a conversation feature allows group members to discuss their tasks seamlessly, too. Parents of teens can use the app to provide the nudge many kids need, without having to nag, and Wunderlist's ability to attach files to tasks can coordinate group projects.
(idetectiveapp.com; iOS, $2.99)
Computers and other electronic devices are helpful tools, but they can distract kids. Parents who want to make sure that their child is spending more time on research sites than on Facebook can use iDetective to monitor activity. This app gives detailed reports on how a computer is being used. iDetective allows a parent to send messages to the device, so a child's social media session could be interrupted with "Done your homework?"
Students and professionals with focus challenges miss important content if they zone out during lectures or meetings. LiveScribe, which looks like an ordinary pen, records everything that is said, so a student can replay a lecture later to hear what he or she may have missed. Since relistening to a whole lecture is time-consuming, LiveScribe's time-sync capability enables note-takers to tap on any word they've written in the LiveScribe notebook to listen to what was said at the moment they wrote that word.
16. WizCom Tech Pen
This high-tech tool can be a great resource for readers who need help with tough words or vocabulary. This scanner, which is about the size of a marker, enables readers to "highlight" a word in a printed text to hear its pronunciation and definition. (There's a headphone jack for use in the classroom.) Because the scanning motion is somewhat disruptive to the reading process, we recommend the pen to readers who need help only with a word or two per sentence.
17. Time Timer
(timetimer.com; iOS, $2.99; Android, $0.99; timers and watches, $29.95–$79.95)
Time Timer is a lifesaver for those who lose track of time or get too wrapped up in what they're doing. The format of the timer — a red field within the clock face gets smaller as the time passes — is simple enough for even young children to understand. Time Timer is wonderful for preventing arguments between parents and kids. When the limit is reached, there can be no real argument that a few more minutes of Minecraft are warranted. Older students and adults can use the timer to keep breaks from lasting twice as long as they should or to keep from spending 20 minutes composing an e-mail that should take five.