14 apps to develop literacy skills

Every student at Royal School Manchester takes part in activities to develop their literacy skills. We believe that 'literacy' describes a spectrum of different skills, and students will move along and between different strands of these skills at different rates. Developing their practical skills and their interest in literacy, through high-quality, inspiring and engaging activities, is a basic right we think all our students should be able to enjoy, and we've found several useful apps to help make this possible.

In this blog piece, we'll explain these strands of skills and then look at some of the software we find useful.

Mark making: Students start to make their own 'marks' by drawing different shapes, lines and patterns. They know that other people are mark-making around them (by writing, painting or other activities) and take an interest in mark-making.

Fine motor skills: Being able to hold something like a pen is important for mark-making students, but other fine motor skills like being able to shape letters, turn the pages in a book or run your fingers over a braille sentence are all important skills.

Language and vocabulary development, which is very strongly linked to Concept building and development: Students understand an experience, object or idea through hands-on experience or repetition, developing a concept of that thing. They also develop their understanding of what different words mean. At Royal School Manchester, a lot of our students use different communication methods - 'words' are not just spoken but also signed, written, brailled and conveyed through pictures or symbols. Whichever methods work best for the student, recognising what different words mean helps them develop their vocabulary.

Concepts about print: Students learn that text (in English) runs from left to right and top to bottom, that text and symbols have meanings and are aware of text around them.

Visual and/or tactile discrimination: Students can spot patterns or recognise familiar symbols like the pattern of letters which spells out their name. This can be very useful for students becoming more independent - for example, a boy might recognise that he uses the toilet with a 'male' symbol on the door. Tactile discrimination - recognising symbols or telling differences through touch - is vital for visually impaired students practicing their literacy skills.

Book and story skills: Students are interested in sensory stories (a way of telling stories that uses the different senses to convey an idea), print and illustrations, or stories and books about themselves.

For a lot of our students, iPads (and similar computer programmes) are fun and motivating, which encourages a love of literacy, but none of these activities are used in isolation. All our students will join a wide range of activities to practice their literacy skills both with and without computers. What works best for each student depends on the individual - what they need, what they're interested in, what skills they already have and what they would like to develop. That said, the following apps have been tried out in our classrooms and we've found them all useful for helping students move along those strands of skills. 

Mark making and fine motor skills

Sand draw

Simple but engaging app that encourages mark-making and drawing before the sea comes in and washes it all away!


We use this app to practice different fine motor skills including tracing shapes, pinching (this movement is needed to hold a pencil as well as picking up small items) and tapping.

Letter tracing

A simple app which uses bright colours to practice making letter shapes.


Phonics and reading skills
Phonics is a way of learning about reading and writing by learning about the connection between different sounds and the spelling patterns to make different sounds.

Reading Rockets

Early phonics game focused on sounds at the start of words.

Pocket Phonics

A more complex phonics app which also includes writing letters and matching sounds to letters. It introduces the idea of blending sounds ('sounding out' the spelling patterns and combining them to make a word) and segmenting (breaking down how a word sounds into the letters which make those sounds).

Collins apps

A set of free apps from Collins containing an illustrated book with options for audio, read along or create a new story using the illustrations.

Chooseit maker literacy

A more expensive app from Inclusive Technology with activities to develop an understanding of initial sounds, everyday words and high frequency (commonly used) words.




Stories about me

Allows the user to make their own stories using photos saved on the iPad as well as adding text and recording audio.

Signed stories

Traditional tales and picture books available in BSL and ASL. Each story needs to be bought individually. 


Visual discrimination

Tiny Hands Sorting

Sorting pictures into groups of similar things is a great way to develop visual discrimination skills.

Endless alphabet

Drag and drop the coloured letters to match the grey outline. The words themselves may be too complex for some students who are still developing their early literacy skills but this app still provides a great opportunity to match and orientate letters.



Clicker app bundle

An expensive set of apps which can also be bought individually. The bundle offers word banks, pictures and help to write sentences and add captions to pictures.


This is used to create word banks for students to use to make sentences. It can also be used to read words and sentences aloud, letting students make the connection between what they hear and what they have written.

Boardmaker student centre

This free app is still new to us but we're very excited by the potential to share resources, games and activities created for individual students at school - this project is still in development at the moment, but we hope to be up and running soon! When we do, we will be able to share symbol adapted activities and learning materials personalised to meet each student's needs.

Helen B., teacher, Royal School Manchester