How to Learn iOS

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Tricky Words

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The Problem

Tricky Words ApplicationI have 4 year old identical twin boys.

In September 2013 they started primary school and began to learn to read.

In the UK (and I suspect most other English speaking countries), children are taught to read using synthetic-phonics. In short, rather than learn the name of individual letters they are taught the sounds that are commonly used to form English words – these sounds can be comprised of 1, 2, or 3 letters (phonemes). They are then taught to blend these phonemes together to make words.

However, English is not a strictly phonetic language and it has some very odd and confusing features. As a result, in addition to learning phonics, they also need to learn some words by sight. These are commonly referred to as “Tricky Words” or “Sight Words”.

So, shortly after starting at school the boys began to come home home with lists of tricky words to learn by sight. They were initially provided with a tricky words book with a list of 5 words in it and each week (provided they had passed the weekly test) they were given a new list of 5 words to learn. The tricky words book had to be kept inside a waterproof plastic wallet, which itself was kept inside their school bags.

The problem was that each time I wanted to spend a few minutes helping them to learn their tricky words I had to find the school bag, remove the plastic wallet, remove the book from the plastic wallet and only then begin the process. Children generally have very short attention spans and, very often, by the time I had found their books the moment had passed. They also do better if exposed to frequent short bursts of learning rather than a couple of longer sessions every week.

To make things even more frustrating, very often I would find myself out and about with the boys (dentist, shopping, waiting for a bus/train etc) and it would have been the perfect opportunity to spend a little time learning their tricky words – but of course their books were at home and not available.

If only I could find a way to ensure that I always had their tricky words available for use in these situations?

The Solution (in theory)

The one thing that I never leave home without is my iPhone – I would be lost without it (sad I know – but completely true!)

So, I decided to create a “Tricky Words” application that could be used in these circumstances.

At first I had all sorts of fancy ideas about voice recognition, but quickly ruled them out as such an application would be very error prone, frustrating to use and (perhaps most importantly) it would exclude the parent from the learning process.

They key features were fairly basic:

  • 3 modes of play – single list of 5, multiple lists (list 1-x), all words
  • words needed to be presented in a random order to ensure genuine word recognition
  • a child-friendly font
  • a scoring system with sound effects and written message of encouragement
  • had to involve the parent

It took me about 2 weeks to create the basic app (part-time) and it is certainly not visually attractive – but the most important thing is that it worked and their reading progress has improved significantly.

Every morning when we arrive at school I pull out my iPhone and we spend 5 minutes or so learning their tricky words.


The Tricky Words Application

The application only has 3 scenes: main menu, sub menu, game.

They look like this (I will just show the single list mode):

Tricky Words Main MenuTricky Words Single List MenuTricky Words Game ScreenTricky Words Perfect Score

  Main Menu – Select Mode                 Sub Menu – Select list 1                   Words presented randomly          Score announced and applause


Game Play

The words in the chosen list are presented randomly and for each one:

  • if child gives correct answer parent presses green button (nice ping sound played + score increased)
  • if child gives incorrect answer parent presses red button (not so nice ping sound played)
  • Whenever red or green button pressed, next random word presented
  • After final word answer is given, the final score pop-up appears with suitable message (and applause if perfect)

I chose portrait orientation since it makes it very easy for parent to hold the iPhone up for child to see, and the buttons can be pressed with the thumb.

Okay, so its not the next Flappy Birds or Clash of Clans, but it works and it serves a useful purpose. Remember, this website is not about making millions of pounds – its about having fun making iOS games and Apps. If, in the process, you happen to make something with commercial appeal then its just a very welcome bonus.

One thing that games like Flappy Birds demonstrate is that iOS commercial success is not necessarily about making complicated games – many of the best are very simple, but highly addictive. You certainly don’t need to be a coding genius to make great games and apps, but you still need to learn the basics.

It probably won’t end up in the App Store any time soon since it is programmed to only work for my sons’ school and each school seems to have a different method of teaching tricky words.

Having said that, their school teacher is interested in developing it for use by other pupils … so watch this space.


Next Steps

Whether or not Tricky Words makes it to the App Store, I plan to improve the User Interface. When I initially designed the menu system I had no idea that there would be as many as 28 lists and the current layout won’t accommodate that many. So, the next steps are:

  • Create new sub-menus for the single list and multiple list modes
  • Create an icon, splash screen, background images, and generally improve the look of the app
  • Improve the results screen to make it a bit more exciting


Watch this space…

If you have any observations or suggestions to make about this application please feel free to email me at or leave a comment in the box below.