Software for revving up reading

There's a fair amount of software out there for children just starting to read or having trouble doing so. Despite the relative simplicity of the programs and graphics, many options do a good job of allowing kids to explore the sounds and meanings of words at their own pace, and with a straightforward interface. Pictures come alive, games make the exercises fun, and, on the whole, the classroom experience is complemented in a compelling way. We've highlighted a few of the more successful options out there.

By Chris Colin

Starfall

Starfall
Online, free

Not all reading software must be installed on your computer — more and more websites are popping up, letting kids do their reading online. Starfall.com offers four separate programs, each with their own activities to facilitate reading in kindergarten-age children. In "Ten Little Snowmen," kids follow written instructions for building an animated snowman. In "Four Leaf Clover," they click on animals when prompted.

The bottom line: Starfall's fun, free games can help teach reading.

Clifford book

Clifford Interactive Storybooks

Clifford Interactive Storybooks
Online, free

When you're exploring a new realm — like reading — there's sometimes comfort in a familiar face. If your kids are Clifford the Big Red Dog fans, they'll enjoy this straightforward series of online, interactive stories. By selecting a word, choosing a missing letter, or matching a sound, the reader gets to advance the plot of these simple Clifford tales. They're brief but well done.

The bottom line: Clifford's big, lovable mug guides kids in online word games.

Reader Rabbit

Reader Rabbit

Reader Rabbit: Learn to Read With Phonics
Windows & Mac, $20

An early-reading program populated by a handful of animated characters dedicated to making phonics fun. Kids can follow a regimented word-for-every-letter routine or else explore a variety of activities at their own pace. Reading is taught via sounding words out and memorizing sight words.

The bottom line: Don't like dogs? Try a rabbit.

Phonics

Phonics & Reading Excelerator

Phonics & Reading Excelerator
Windows & Mac, $20

The four-disc CD-ROM set weaves phonic rules, consonant sounds, short and long vowels, and other key concepts into a collection of entertaining activities. Kids eventually move up to synonyms and homonyms, creative thinking skills, and writing proficiency.

The bottom line: An extensive collection of phonics-based activities.

LTK screen

Language Tune-Up Kit

Language Tune-Up Kit
Windows, $79 to $129

This multimedia CD-ROM was designed for children 6 and older, reading at a preschool to fourth-grade reading level. Phonics is at the heart of the approach, using the so-called Orton-Gillingham method. Users automatically start at the appropriate first lesson after taking a simple placement test.

The bottom line: This scrappy software package can boost your youngster's reading skills.

Raz-Kids

Raz-Kids
Online, $80 for classroom license

Interactive e-books have proven useful for some new and struggling readers, and this website offers a wide array of titles — kids can listen to an audio reading while making their way through the text. Online quizzes are available too. You must subscribe to access the books.

The bottom line: A hefty subscription fee gets you access to instructional content.

Chris Colin is the author of What Really Happened to the Class of '93 and writes the "On the Job" column for the San Francisco Chronicle as well as stories for the New York Times, Mother Jones, McSweeney’s Quarterly, and GOOD magazine. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and daughter.