Oceanhouse Media has updated three of their popular Dr. Seuss iPhone/iPod touch apps for the iPad by updating their existing apps to universal binary. If you are already an owner of The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss's ABC, or How The Grinch Stole Christmas! (US$2.99 each), all you need do is accept the free update and presto, you'll get a version that takes full advantage of the larger iPad screen while still working exactly as before on an iPhone or iPod touch. This is a wonderful idea, and one that I'd love to see other developers follow.
We briefly covered some of these apps but haven't yet done a proper review, so it's about time we did. Oceanhouse has partnered up with Dr. Seuss Enterprises LLP, and they have done a remarkable job of turning these classics into apps. They put together an engine that they can plug any Dr. Seuss book into, since the apps all work exactly the same way. I don't think this was done to make it easier on themselves, but rather to address their market of ankle-biters. If you learn one, you've learned them all, and even for small children, mastering them is easy.
Each book has three options on the main screen. Auto Play is for the youngest of users. Employing wonderful narrators, full sound effects, and music, the book is read aloud from start to finish. As a word is spoken, the text is highlighted, which provides help for pre-readers starting to recognize patterns and then words. The books use subtle and appropriate animation, zooming in or out, or focusing on a different part of the page in a slow and soothing manner.
Next up is Read To Me which does exactly that. Each page gets read, words get highlighted and you are reminded to swipe anywhere to go back or forth. It also adds one of the nicest features of the apps: Tapping on any picture causes a large version of the underlying word to be displayed and spoken. In the graphic above, you can tap in the appropriate place and be rewarded with the following words: wet, sit, chair, fish, picture, door, table, mat, hat, umbrella, bow-tie, and of course Cat in the Hat.
I know how effective this is from personal experience: Both my kids started playing with my Apple ][+ when they were two years old, using a program called Stickybear ABC. At that time all that program did was to let kids type any letter, and a colorful animation of a word starting with the typed letter was shown along with the word clearly pronounced. There were two animations behind each letter. That was it. Yes, it was a simpler time, but I couldn't drag my kids away from the computer. They would sit there for long periods of time and type random keys to see what would happen. It was very effective and gave them a head start on reading. The Dr. Seuss book apps take this sort of interactivity to a much higher level, since I'm sure that hundreds of words are embedded behind pictures, creating an amazing amount of play value that you can't get with the books themselves.
The third option is for early readers. Read It Myself switches things around a bit. The page gets displayed and everything is active, including sound effects, but no narration plays. I can see this being quite frustrating for kids stuck on a word, or wanting reinforcement, so if you tap the block of text, it will be read to you with each spoken word highlighted. This is just a simple switch, but I feel a very important one that adds more value to the apps.
There's one more small touch that just seemed right. When you quit out of an app without finishing the book, the next time you run it, a screen appears asking whether you would like to resume where you left off or start from the beginning. This is probably more for the parents than the kids, since I can easily see a child hitting the button and ending the app, then asking a parent to get them back to where they were. In a book of any more than a few pages, this would prove to be frustrating experience if the app was being used without parental supervision.
Obviously none of this is meant to replace reading to your child. I don't believe that to be any part of the purpose of these apps. Instead, presenting a child with a degree of autonomy can be a very worthwhile thing.
So what's the difference between the iPhone and iPad version? Nothing at all outside of the iPad version taking advantage of the larger screen and keeping the graphics sharp and beautifully rendered. Having a larger screen will make it easier to use, since on the iPhone it's easy to tap on something not exactly in the right place, causing the wrong word to come up. The apps work in landscape mode only to keep the pages looking exactly the same as the books, another fine decision.
If you have kids just getting used to the concept of reading, I couldn't recommend these apps more highly, and I fully expect that in time the entire Seuss catalog will be along for the ride.
Take a look at this video of the Dr. Seuss's ABC app on the iPhone to see it in action.
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