Phonics is the primary way in which children learn basic literacy at schools in England and Wales. Phonics is all about the sounds that each letter, and letter combination, makes. These sounds are identified and manipulated into letters and words.
Phonics is widely regarded as the quickest and most effective way of teaching young children to read, write and spell - plus, it's enjoyable to boot.
Thanks to the intuitive nature of the iPad, it's a great way to introduce your children to learning, and there are hundreds of great educational tools in the App Store. In this roundup, we'll be looking at six of the best phonics apps, primarily aimed at children aged from three to six years.
Words that you'll come across in phonics include the likes of phonemes and graphemes. These can be intimidating to the uninitiated, but - for the main - they can essentially be viewed as the simplest building blocks of spoken (phoneme) and written (grapheme) language.
It's not particularly helpful to use terms such as these in the context of an app, but they work their way into a number of the apps we've reviewed (so it's worth having a quick read of the phonics Wikipedia page before getting started).
Also, before you start learning phonics with your child, you should identify which programme your primary school is using as the core of its phonics training. Most schools will have this information on their websites or entrance literature, or you can simply ask their teacher.
Daisy, who is helping out with this group test, is at a school where they use the Department for Education's Letters and Sounds programme (bit.ly/opve6U). You can find out more general information here, including PDF guides with learning activities: bit.ly/xgUFuC)
We've chosen six leading phonics apps for this group test, which all take a slightly different approach; but all apps follow the same principles for learning phonics. So, let's get started!
Test one: Content
What do you get for your money?
Mr Phonics Letters and Sounds features 70 videos across a number of sections. Some of the videos are freely available via Mr Thorne's YouTube channel at bit.ly/5iQvox, but the app puts them together in an engaging interface.
Up there with Mr Phonics for great content is Simplex Spelling Phonics 1. Focusing on spelling, this app teaches 450 high frequency words, divided into 42 lists. There's a slight US pronunciation issue that may bother some UK parents, but we were impressed with its depth.
abc PocketPhonics, meanwhile, enables children to learn how to sound out and spell over 170 frequently used words in a very simple, but engaging, manner.
The last app of note, if you're looking for content-heavy apps, is Ladybird: I'm Ready For Phonics. With 12 levels to unlock, lessons on blending and segmenting 44 sounds, and a host of challenges along the way, you can't fault the sheer breadth of content.
Test two: App features
What's under the bonnet?
Not only does Simplex Spelling Phonics 1 teach spelling based on phonics, but it also introduces children to the QWERTY keyboard. Tapping a Hint button will gradually reveal more tips, which is a brilliant way of addressing different levels of understanding.
abc PocketPhonics also covers different age groups well by giving you the option to choose lower-case or cursive (joined up) characters, making it appeal to both pre-schoolers and those starting their primary education. As an aid for practising mark-making and then writing, abc PocketPhonics was probably the best app we tested.
Ladybird: I'm Ready For Phonics has 12 planets to unlock, so there's plenty to keep you busy. And you can even record your own phonics and play them back. But to unlock each planet, the previous one must be completed in full - Daisy got bored of the first level fairly quickly. Thankfully, there's a 'cheat code' so parents can unlock all planets.
Test three: Fun factor
All work and no play...
phonics abaca is aimed at children starting out with phonics. There are four main sections, and introducing a new area of learning through song is - for most children - familiar and fun. Daisy was more than happy to sing along and explore the interactive alphabet, and recited the phonic elements without any prompting.
Likewise, in the Mr Phonics app, Mr Thorne (the teacher, and creator of the app) really gets into the spirit of things, and Daisy really took a shine to him (we particularly enjoyed the Nonsense challenges).
Ladybird: I'm Ready For Phonics and abc PocketPhonics also benefit from guides, who help draw kids in, and introduce sections and themes that might otherwise be complicated.
However, there's only one winner in this section: Hairy Letters puts the fun into phonics. Furry characters guide you through the app, which provides an instant connection. The app is also packed with quirky animations and sound effects.
Test four: Design and use
What's it like to use?
Hairy Letters is by far the most intuitive app, opening with a simple alphabet board, with letters gradually being revealed as you go. You can hear how it should be pronounced phonetically, and a dotted outline of the letter takes you to a section where you trace its shape.
As you progress, a number of mini-games are unlocked, which test spelling based on these letters. The app is packed with classy animations, and each section complements the next, with almost seamless transitions between them (vital to stop children feeling lost).
With other apps - such as Mr Phonics and Simplex Spelling - Daisy needed some prompting, and she was confused by the locked levels in Ladybird: I'm Ready For Phonics. All three apps are well designed, with I'm Ready For Phonics boasting great touches such as animated rockets.
Phonics abaca, though fun and simple to navigate, felt like it could have had more effort put into its presentation, however.
The winner: V for victory
The staggered introduction of letters and spelling tests, coupled with first-class design and animation, make Hairy Letters the perfect combination of entertainment and learning. It's a great complement to the more structured learning at school and, if being accosted as soon as you walk through the door with demands to use an app is a sign of quality, Hairy Letters is up there with the best.
Despite all the great things we've said about Hairy Letters, as children get older, it may lose some appeal, but as an iPad introduction to phonics is a clear winner. It may not have the strength-in-depth of a product like Ladybird: I'm Ready for Phonics or Simplex Spelling Phonics 1, but bowled us over with charm and originality, and made learning phonics fun.