Review by Mieke VanderBorght, Common Sense Education | Updated November 2015


Expansive ebook library meets video chat to promote shared reading

Subjects & skills
  • English Language Arts

  • Character & SEL
  • Critical Thinking
  • Communication & Collaboration
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Pros: Lots of long-loved classics presented in a high-quality, illustrated format.

Cons: Multiple features in the reader could make for a somewhat complex experience.

Bottom Line: Use this fantastic platform to encourage social reading among friends and family near and far.

Ustyme will work best with one, or perhaps two, people on either end of the video call. Teachers may find it a good tool to use in collaboration with other classrooms, outside of their school. Keep in mind, though, that someone on at least one end of the call will need to be able to read. Teachers could also consider using ustyme simply for its ebook library without taking advantage of the video-call capability. Lots of books are available, and all could be projected onto the board for a whole class to read. Also, it's conceivable that some classrooms could attempt to connect with an author, or another featured reader from afar, for a live in-class reading via video call. More often than not, though, you'll probably use ustyme as something to recommend for parents and kids to use at home.

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Ustyme (pronounced "us time") is a video-call program, much like Skype, that allows two users, in two places, to read a story or play a game together. The app is free to download and includes two books and one game. Those who register with the Reading Is Fundamental site can also get 50 ebooks for free. Additional books and games are available as in-app purchases.

The collection includes many classics retold and illustrated specifically for ustyme as well as original works by independent authors adapted into ebook form. Most books are in English, but there's also a small collection of books in Spanish. Users will need to create an ustyme account -- a name and email address are required -- and invite and/or approve contacts to add to their "friends" list. Once in the app, tap the call button next to Available Friends to start a video chat. Once you're in a chat, the video feed appears as a small thumbnail, and the book or game takes up the majority of the screen. Users on both ends can choose books -- or games -- and flip pages.

WIth ustyme, kids can easily connect with others and share that ever-special experience of reading a story together. Books and reading nicely take center stage as the main focus of the video call. And, though it can vary from book to book, stories and illustrations are mostly of decent quality. Many books end with a list of discussion starters that can help grown-ups continue the interaction and get kids thinking. The games are super simple and lack bells and whistles, but that only serves to highlight the interaction between the people on the call.

For this type of app to work well, a smooth experience is essential -- unfortunately, some technical problems can potentially get in the way. On occasion, the app can freeze unexpectedly, and sound quality on some calls can vary. Another potential frustration for grown-ups is that, when you're using ustyme on a small screen (such as an iPhone), the text can be too small to read comfortably and there's no way to zoom in. Nevertheless, ustyme's potential to create genuine, shared-reading experiences will likely make up for these issues. Giving kids access to these types of special, shared experiences will be well worth it.

Overall Rating

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?

Reading books and playing simple games together is a great way to interest kids in sharing an experience with a faraway loved one.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?

Kids stretch their imaginations as they hear the tales. Exposure to lots of different stories can inspire a love of reading, and kids can follow along to practice budding reading skills. 

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?

There's a basic guide to orient users. Discussion points help continue the conversation and deepen potential for critical thinking.

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