The Best Learning Games, Part 3: Reading, Languages and Coding

Reading skills are the other over-represented category in learning games, in addition to math. This is, in a sense, a good thing, given that reading is the #1 skill we need for extensive learning to happen. I’ve often thought that reading skills (both elementary reading and more advanced skills like media literacy) are actually a kind of a vaccination against stupidity. Reading skills are also important for the society, given that literacy correlates highly with advanced well-being and lower adverse social effects.

In addition to reading, language learning is a big thing in learning apps, and the two go often hand in hand. It may well be that some children get the gist of reading not from an ABC app, but rather from an English language app.

I had to scratch my head a little about which category to include coding apps in. The more obvious choice would be math, especially since in Finland, coding will be included in the math curriculum starting fall next year. I decided, however, to include coding games in this list. Coding is, after all, a part of 21st century literacy, as the MIT Scratch team point out.

1. Duolingo

The first, and for me the most impressive, learning app here is not exactly a game. Rather, Duolingo is a gamified language learning app. However, somewhat similarily to the math category there are a few exceptions where gamification actually works. And Duolingo is, in a sense, an exceptional exception.

The app contains a gamut of languages, ranging from Italian to Spanish, from Esperanto to Klingon (coming in 2018). Duolingo is perhaps the best exemplar altogether of what I’ve come to call casual learning: learning in bite-size installations.

You don’t have to invest hours on top of hours to use Duolingo efficiently. Rather, you can use the app a few minutes here, another few there, and you’ll start to get the gist of the new language gradually. It’s a great example of the kind of future learning paradigm, where learning happens everywhere and pretty much instantly.

2. Ruzzle Adventure

While Ruzzle Adventure does not wear its learning content on its sleeve, it is, in fact, an amazing addition to any suite of English learning apps. In the game, you’ll get to brush up your existing vocabulary and also, time and again, bump into new words. In a learning environment that contains other, more pedagogically designed language learning apps, Ruzzle Adventure can be a little gem that keeps the motivation pumped up.

This is also one of the few (learning) games that actually performs very well as a game even when set up against typical casual games. In a nutshell, it’s mad fun to play.

3. Fun English

Fun English was my first brush with the amazing power of learning games when executed right. My two oldest kids, then three and five, fell in love with the game and played it day in, day out. In only two weeks, they both covered basic English vocabulary (colors, animals, numbers etc.) pretty much through and through. I’d ask the kids what’s, for example, “three brown dogs” in Finnish, and without batting an eye, the answer would come out. Think about it: three- and five-year-old kids, two weeks of playing a game, and 100% of learning substance covered.

Compare this to a typical Finnish school, where they start teaching English typically at the third grade (age 9) and where learning results get distributed on a Gaussian curve. This is the future of learning.

Fun English contains a massive amount of learning material that you can unlock as you or your kid advances through the game. Some of the materials have been created with more insight (for example, a balloon popping game that teaches color words), and others are a little less impressive. But altogether, Fun English is a great game and an awesome introduction to the English language.

4. Metamorphabet

Metamorphabet is a very innovative and atypical take on alphabet learning. The amount of crappy ABC apps in the App Stores is almost as large as 2+2 apps, and it’s amazing to see such a fantastic and artistically challenging take on learning the letters.

With Metamorphabet, you’ll manipulate letters in many inventive ways. But unlike with the typical ABC apps, the game is aesthetically interesting even for a grown up. This is one of the things I believe every single learning game designer must take into account when creating lasting learning: you cannot “dumb down” your game for kids. They’ll see straight through it. And with Metamorphabet, you’ll get a memorable and truly interesting take on alphabet learning, as odd as that may sound.

5. Word Wizard

The French app Word Wizard is great for basic reading and writing learning. It’s basically just an app to create words from letters. I believe it has had a key role in my own kids’ learning to read (which my oldest ones both did at around age four or five).

In the app, you use letters to form words and hear the app read them for you. Available in several languages (including Finnish!), it’s a great addition to any set of learning to read apps.

6. Alphabear

Alphabear is another crossword puzzle app, and similarly to Ruzzle Adventure, it does not seem to come through as an intended learning game. However, just like Ruzzle, Alphabear will help you brush up your existing vocabulary and, by trial and error, come up with new words that you can then check in the dictionary.

Having a few of these best crossword puzzles on a language learning iPad or a suite of apps will help deepen both reading skills, vocabulary and language understanding.

7. Endless Alphabet and Endless Reader

Endless Alphabet is another interesting take on learning the alphabet and basic words. It could, in fact, do a double job for a non-English speaker in first helping figure out the ABC, where Metamorphabet and Word Wizard may support it well. And secondly, it may also work well as an expansion to learning English, for example as a complement to Fun English.

Another title from the same studio, Endless Reader, begins quite similarly to Endless Alphabet, but takes reading a step further, with introducing for example typical words used in childrens’ books. While these games are aimed towards young children, they may well function also for adults for example in wanting to learn English. (Mind you, childrens’ books are a great way for an adult too to top up basic vocabulary when learning a language.)

8. Scratch and Scratch Jr

Scratch and Scratch Jr are pretty much the king (and prince?) of coding games. Although I think the MIT team that designed Scratch doesn’t like to call it a game, it’s a very game-like environment in which you get to design your own stuff by using a very innovative graphic coding system.

Scratch is a great introductory app to learn coding, and once you’ve got the gist of the basic concepts like loops and if-then clauses, you can migrate to an app or website teaching an actual language, such as Codecademy.

9. Hakitzu

Hakitzu is a great and original take on learning to code. It’s a very innovative and inspired 3D robot fighting game, where you have to use elementary code to guide the robots in turn-based fighting. The code in the game is actually based on real life Javascript.

The game starts with giving you ready code snippets to use, not unlike Scratch, although the interface is immediately based on the actual code instead of graphic symbols. And as the game proceeds, you will get to write your own code. A great stepping stone toward starting to learn your first programming language.

10. Lightbot

In Lightbot, you’ll learn to use basic commands like loops and if-then -clauses to move a robot through a labyrinth. This will give you a basic idea of how coding works and how it can be used.

Lightbot is a great introductory app for coding. If I were to build an intro course to coding, I’d probably go the way of Lightbot – Scratch Jr – Hakitzu and then introduce the first language through a website such as Codecademy.

I want to mention already here an app I’ll describe in greater detail in a further post on early childhood learning apps that could work also in a learn-to-code home curriculum, for example in preceding Lightbot in the progress I delineated above. Namely, Loopimal is a great introduction to loops, and a ton of fun to fool around with.

As always, there are a variety of reading and language learning games out there. Especially if you want to build a self organizing learning environment, it may be worth testing a wide variety of games and apps. In addition to the following, you may get some use out of these: Endless SpanishLola’s ABC PartyBusuuWordWagonAlphaWriter and Intro to Letters.

More to follow.