As a child of the 1980s I have fond memories of my Texas Instruments Speak & Spell, the first digital learning toy, which taught a generation how to spell words such as "oven" and "yolk, as in egg".

By the turn of the century, such educational toys had been superseded by laptops and, more recently, tablets, which allow children to learn and play in an endless number of ways. But I'm not convinced it's all progress – computers bring with them an equally endless array of distractions from games to the internet.

Facing that issue with my soon-to-be four-year-old son, I've started looking for gadgets that allow independent learning and discovery without the diversions of a computer.

In this quest, LeapReader, from educational specialist LeapFrog, caught my attention. Shaped like a chunky marker pen, LeapReader teaches children how to read and write by following stories and exercises in a set of accompanying interactive books.

Unlike other interactive book systems, there are no electronics or batteries inside the books themselves. Instead, the system employs an infra-red camera in the pen to detect not only which book you're reading but also which page you're on and, impressively, which individual word or picture you're pointing to.

The result of all this wizardry is that the child can point the pen at any word, phrase or page in the LeapReader books to have them read aloud. Pre-readers can have entire stories read to them automatically, while more advanced readers can read independently, turning to the pen for help when they're struggling with a particular word.

Books of "LearningPaper" allow children to practise writing too, first by following pre-drawn letters and numbers, then by writing on the provided lined paper. Sensors in the pen track these strokes and give feedback on accuracy. It all sounds like science fiction, but works surprisingly well.

Additional game modes introduce variety, challenging children to identify animals, dinosaurs or even bones in their bodies.

The pen sports a large internal memory with enough capacity for 40 books at a time. New books – around £10 each – need to have their audio syncronised to the pen by USB via the free software, a quick and seamless process.

Unlike my old Speak & Spell, LeapReader isn't limited to American accents and spellings. An interactive book of the film Brave features great Scottish accents and teaches some choice words like "numpty".

There's a lot to like about LeapReader – it's keenly priced, has a wide selection of books and activities, and makes the most of technology without the distractions of a computer.

Positives Clever technology, fun books and high-quality audio content.

Negatives Additional books are fairly expensive.

Twitter: @grant_gibson