Teacher’s Little Reading Helper

Know any child iPad addicts who should be learning how to read instead of playing Candy Crush? Try Bam Boomerang

In trying to create a children’s reading app, engineer Keenan Wyrobek discovered he had a feedback problem. More specifically, he learned that teachers frequently didn’t have time to give individual attention to students as they practiced reading aloud. “As a teacher with 20, 30 kids, I only listen to each kid once a week—best-case scenario,” one educator informed Wyrobek. He decided that’s what would make his app, Bam Boomerang, different.

Plenty of reading software already competes for children’s attention. A search of the Apple app store nets plenty of vibrantly illustrated virtual worlds filled with jumbo fonts and smiling cartoon characters. And that’s assuming you don’t immediately get sidetracked by less educational alternatives like Candy Crush Saga or Angry Birds. Wyrobek hopes that Bam Boomerang, halfway to its $30,000 fundraising goal on Kickstarter, is the best of both worlds, giving kindergarteners a “crowdsourced teaching assistant” who can help them learn to read at their own pace with games just as entertaining as the non-educational ones.

As students play Bam Boomerang, the free app prompts them to record themselves reading. Adult volunteers—real people who also have the program—listen and rate a child’s effort. The app’s playful cartoon parrot host then shares how the student did on a particular sound or word, rewarding users with “honey money” to spend on characters as an incentive keep playing.

Making Bam Boomerang fun for children and convenient for volunteers has been a year-and-a-half long task for a team that included Wyrobek, a literacy expert, a software developer, and several visual and audio creative artists. “I’m just an engineer. I don’t know how to teach kids to read. I don’t know how to make engaging games,” says Wyrobek. “It’s a truly honoring and humbling thing to have that many people come together.”

Wyrobek’s engineering experience creating robots and medical devices imbued him with a respect for testing and user feedback that would guide him through the app’s development. Apparently, 4-to 7-year-olds are a tough crowd to please. “I haven’t met a 4-year-old who doesn’t know how to switch apps on an iPhone,” he says. “If they want to do something else that’s more fun, they’ll switch. Unfortunately, a lot of what’s out there for learning to read, especially, is boring.”

At press time, Bam Boomerang had 1,000 student users. In classrooms, Wyrobek says adoption of the app has varied from iPad stations, where students take turns using four to five tablets for around 10 minutes a day, to one-device-per-child systems, where everyone can play the games on their own school-provided devices. At home, he sees Bam Boomerang as a way to keep kids occupied with an iDevice that parents can feel good about. Some at-home users completed all the available activities—a third of the overall kindergarten-level curriculum, with the rest coming next month—in a day or two.

Though there are only 100 volunteers so far, Wyrobek says the app’s simplified interface allows adults to quickly process several students’ work. In a typical 10- to 15-minute session, Wyrobek says users will get feedback on a little more than half their recordings by the end of their playing time, with the rest of the feedback coming as soon as volunteers can evaluate it. (As for privacy, adults can neither speak to students, nor learn their identities; they can only hear their voices through the app.)

Bam Boomerang’s Kickstarter campaign page maintains that the app will remain free, with fundraiser money going toward developing teacher tools that will later be offered through paid subscriptions. Expanding on the app’s use as a teaching assistant, the analytics will help teachers objectively evaluate students’ reading strengths and weaknesses. And though much time has been spent on the gaming experience, Wyrobek has not lost sight of how this app will help teachers make better use of precious classroom time. “If we can make teachers more productive and empower them, that’s huge,” he says.