A New App Aims to Reduce the Education Gap

PHOTO: A new app aimed at getting low-income English-learners ready for school features Pocoyo, a popular animated television character.

Two media companies are partnering to launch a series of iPad and iPhone apps aimed at preparing low-income, Spanish-speaking three- and four-year-olds for school. The apps feature Pocoyo, a popular character from an animated Spanish children's show, and are partially funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The apps are intended to teach preschool children everything from English to math skills, and they are designed specifically to reduce the education gap between higher- and lower-income Latino youngsters. A producer showed how the apps prompt children to select from a handful of games that range from puzzles to read-along stories during the product launch on Wednesday in Washington, D.C. The games also have different levels so that children can start with simple tasks and work up to more difficult ones.

The Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network, a noncommercial, Spanish-language media company that focuses on educational programming, and Zinkia Entertainment, the Spanish media company that created Pocoyo, are the two companies behind the apps, which they're calling playsets. The grant from the U.S. Department of Education is part of Ready to Learn, a program that funds initiatives aimed at increasing and improving early childhood education.

Pocoyo, the character featured in the apps, is a young boy who goes on adventures with his friends, mostly a collection of colorful animals. His developers have a little girl to thank for his unusual name. The daughter of one of the developers was praying one night, and instead of correctly saying "como yo" for one of the lines, she said "poco yo." Thus was born Pocoyo, the animated star of a television series that has now racked up more than 1.6 billion YouTube hits.

The playsets aren't available to the general public yet but may be available on iTunes by the fall. They will likely cost about $3. Right now, they're being introduced in 25 to 30 areas in New York, Alabama, Maine, Florida, California and Washington, D.C.

Two of the 23 planned playsets are currently downloadable as iPhone and iPad apps, but they're not yet available for Android users. Android-compatible apps are in the works, however.

The playsets use word games, puzzles and songs to help kids learn basic vocabulary words, shapes and basic math concepts. They also present instructions and phrases in both English and Spanish, but are geared toward helping youngsters, especially kids who have lived the first years of their lives in Spanish-only households, learn English.

According to Barbara Bowman, founder of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development in Chicago, low-income, English-language learners develop "typically" but still become "candidates for failure" at school. Part of the reason is that, while they're every bit as intelligent as other kids, they often don't have the same opportunities to learn. They've had less exposure to a nightly bedtime story in English, for instance, and can flounder in an English-language kindergarten. The playsets, Bowman said at the launch, will encourage kids to develop basic math skills and larger vocabularies, two areas they lag behind in when it comes to being ready for school.

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