Zip and Abby

There are a lot of trite websites and apps available for teaching elementary education concepts. And then there are the occasional gems. Zip and Abby, from The Learning Chest, is one of the true gems.

The goal of Zip and Abby is not to teach simple “math facts” or to drill on numbers as abstract concepts. Most of the questions don’t even use explicit numbers. The goal is to get the pre-K and K set ready to talk about numbers in a relative sense, with full-sentence thinking.

Each of the lessons (there are currently sixteen in the Google app, available for $1.99; presumably the Apple app is comparable) starts with a series of questions.

For each question, a statement is read aloud and the user must choose the image that matches the statement. For instance, for the image set below, the statement is, “Zip is holding some balloons.”

zipballoons

The questions get rather complex. In the fruit lesson, for instance, a distinction is made between “fewer” (comparing the count of items) and “less” (comparing the volume of items), while the image set below goes with the statement, “The red bowl has the most fruit but the fewest cherries.”

zipfruit

When the user gets a selection wrong, the selected image turns red and the user picks again. Statements which were answered incorrectly are repeated again, later in the set, until they are answered correctly on the first try.

Once the user gets through the entire set of questions successfully, they are rewarded with a cute, humorous, and delightfully engaging story involving Zip and Abby. In Balloon Monster, for instance, Zip and Abby are carrying balloons and can’t figure out why they keep popping. Eventually they learn that there’s a bee flying around and accidentally breaking them.

There are all sorts of details to this package that absolutely tickle my educator fancy:

  • There are no explicit instructions. Users are left to figure out what they’re supposed to do, from the very beginning. Given that there’s not much to do (listen to the statement and pick a picture, then listen to a story), that’s fine. It reinforces the “inquiry-based” aspect that Millenials-and-post approach computer software with. My six-year-old knew exactly what to do: When in doubt, click something.
  • Error correction is gentle but clear. My son (six years old) was admittedly a little confused when he got a question wrong and got it again later. He’s used to RAZ-Kids, where you have to go back manually to questions you got wrong. There were a few times where I could tell my son wanted to have an explanation of why his selection was incorrect for the statement given, but that’s the role of the parent working with the child, not of the software.
  • The software is simple, sleek, and professional. It is also age appropriate: No written instructions (indeed, no instructions at all), everything is click- or touch-based, and the images are bright and interesting.
  • The stories are genuinely engaging. This is especially impressive given the amount of repetition involved. Even in the stories, there’s more learning to be had: Zip and Abby like to share equally, which leads to humorous frustration as they try to share an odd number of things.
  • The software has a clear purpose, explains that purpose to parents, and sticks to that purpose consistently.
  • The software shines for Language Arts as well as for mathematics. Indeed, while it’s meant for a much younger audience than the high schoolers that I teach, I will keep it in mind as an example for my colleagues of how to include Language Arts in mathematics education.
  • Some more advanced math concepts are tucked in without comment. In Balloon Monster, the statement “Abby and Zip have the same number of balloons” is repeated for several image sets; in one case, the correct answer is where Zip and Abby aren’t holding any balloons at all.

Because of the nature of the software, it’s not something that can be played over and over. The ability to randomize has been sacrificed for coherence and quality of what’s provided, and that’s all right. Since my son is just now finishing up Kindergarten, most of the tasks seemed too simple for him, although he was stuck for several iterations at “The red bowl has the most fruit but the fewest cherries” and similar statements. But these limitations leave the user hungry for more: Zip and Abby for first and second grade math. I hope such things are on the horizon.

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