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Revisiting the Digital Divide: Collective Responsibilites and Individual Responses

On September 1, 2017 I was privileged to present the key note address for the Working Group 3 panel, part of the DigiLitEY COST meeting held in Bologna Italy. The presentation was comprised largely of video excerpts from studies in my lab concerning shared reading with ebooks as well as some charts from our published papers. I cannot post those here obviously but I am posting a copy of my remarks with links to the relevant papers and sources and hope that readers of this blog will find it of interest.

The most common attitude to digital media that is projected in the public sphere at present is one of moral panic, especially with regard to digital media use by children. However, it is evident that that digital technologies have been integrated – or, depending on your view, one might say they have intruded – into every sphere of adult activity (a point illustrated by this YouTube clip of Mauril Bélanger introducing a bill into the Canadian House of Parliament during the late stages of his struggle with ALS). We now use tablets and laptops and smart phones indoors and outdoors, for work and for play, alone and with others, for teaching and for learning, for solitary entertainment and for communicating in new ways and with more people than we ever did in the past. These technologies allow us to solve problems that were previously intractable although I admit they introduce many new problems that perhaps we have failed to fully anticipate.

I can repeat this idea somewhat more formally with this concept map: digital digital tech concept maptechnologies facilitate communication by and with diverse people, thus enhancing inclusion and participation by more segments of our society. Furthermore, these technologies connect us to the material world in new ways, permitting more precise control of our environment. Jointly, these two aspects, inclusiveness on the one hand and empowerment on the other, lead to better problem solving. So, these benefits of technology combined with the sheer ubiquity of these mobile devises in adult life mean that we have no choice about teaching our children to live in this technology rich, or if you prefer, technology-laden, environment.

How do we prepare children to live out in the world? One tool that parents and early educators have is shared reading. Although picture books present situations that children are unlikely to encounter in real life (fairies, monsters and talking bears), they provide opportunities to identify familiar emotions and to talk about solutions to problems that arise from differences in perspective. Kathrin Rees, in her doctoral dissertation, indicated that shared reading necessarily involves shared attention by the child and adult to the reading medium. Furthermore the adult and child also share a common script for the exchange – in our research we found that there was some variation among families in how they managed the shared reading interaction but each dyad adhered to a well-practiced script. The child typically accepted their role which was surprisingly quite passive, even for those children who were rather chatty; they knew when it was their turn to listen and their turn to speak and these turns were largely coordinated by the parent. Another aspect is the way that the close proximity of the adult and child creates a safe cocoon for exploration of difficult or frightening realities. For example, in our recordings of parents and children reading “The Big Bear Hug”, we were surprised to find that all of our Canadian research participants, with the exception of one indigenous child, were unfamiliar with axes. Their parents clearly considered the ax to be an unsafe object that should be kept away from their children; however, shared book reading provided a safe environment for exploring the concept, not to mention the encounter with the large bear. Many of the share reading sessions that we recorded in my laboratory began with the parent encouraging the child to come closer, no matter how close the child was to start with. With words and gesture ‘come closer’ was the cue that shared reading was about to begin.

As already mentioned the child in these shared reading exchanges took on a relatively passive role, recognizing the expert role of the parent as the reader and teacher in these exchanges. The notion of an expert reader is so well ingrained that when we video recorded co-reading by kindergarten children in a school setting, one child always took on the role of expert reader, either reading or pretending to read the story and maintaining complete control of the book until the end. The reading child would use gestures and words, both subtle and blatant to maintain control of the book and lead the interaction throughout. When finished reading the child would offer the book to the listener, saying “it’s your turn now” but often the second child would refuse to take their turn with the book because they did not want to take on the expert role even though they expressed their interest in interacting with the book medium more actively while the first child was reading. Equal co-viewing of the book did not happen among the preliterate French-speaking children in our study, even when sharing ebooks.

We know from much research [Bus, Van Ijzendoorn, & Pellegrini, 1995; Reese & Cox, 1999] that shared reading interactions between adults and children have long-term benefits for the cognitive-linguistic, academic, and social development of the child. Given those known benefits, many parents and teachers see no reason to share ebooks with children. But let’s explore some reasons to disrupt this well-known interaction by introducing a new reading medium.

Although a lot of the literature on reading with ebooks has focused on potential disadvantages [e.g., Parish-Morris et al., 2013], there are some aspects of well designed ebooks that can promote learning, especially in the area of print referencing. It has been shown in eye-tracking studies that preliterate children do not look at the print in paper books unless specifically directed to do so, and that expert readers rarely reference print explicitly [Evans & Saint-Aubin, 2005] without prompting or special training [Justice, McGinty, Piasta, Kaderavek, & Fan, 2010]. Ebooks highlight the print in a number of ways. We consulted with Tribal Nova Inc. (now an HMH company) to create a series of ebooks that contained certain features designed to draw attention to print: specifically, highlighting of key words in the text invited adults and children to touch these “living words” that were also hotspots activating relevant animations that linked text to meaning as well as a prompt bar for the adult reader that suggested comments or questions the adult reader might use to help the child make connections between print, word structure and meaning. We found that the living words in the iReadWith series naturally drew the attention of children and adults, raising the frequency of print referencing, right from the first page. A very few parents in the highest income bracket in our observational studies did this kind of print referencing with paper books, but for the most part it did not occur in that context [Rees, Rvachew, & Nadig, 2017].

We compared use of print referencing by adult readers when sharing paper books versus the iReadWith book that our partnership developed in a recent randomized control cross-over trial [Rvachew, Rees, Carolan & Nadig, 2017]. This study was conducted in English-speaking kindergarten classrooms in low income neighborhoods using volunteer readers who read a paper book or the equivalent ebook to children 3 times in a week. Children were randomly assigned to order of condition with story and book type counter-balanced. The reading exchanges between the adult readers and each child were recorded and transcribed. Each adult utterance that was not verbatim reading of the book text was coded according to five categories: rapport and behavior; book mechanics; story related; word meanings; print or word structure. There were very few references to print in the print book condition, fewer than one on average per reading session; the number of print references per read in the ebook condition was not great but still, five times greater with the iReadwith book compared to the paper book condition. Another significant difference shown was talk about book mechanics – the adult readers engaged in direct teaching about how to access and use hot spots and other features. Finally, there were differences in adult talk about word meanings. This experiment showed that when the book is designed well the animations can support the child’s comprehension of new vocabulary.

Regarding the child outcomes in this trial, the results in the paper book and ebook conditions were similar for story retell and story comprehension. We found a significant advantage to the ebook condition over the paper book condition for emergent literacy results however: here we measured learning to recognize key words in the story and certain phonological awareness skills that were targeted by the stories. There was a significant effect of book medium and the children’s letter knowledge but also a significant interaction, such that children who had no letter knowledge to start with obtained the largest benefit from sharing the ebook with the volunteer reader. Children who had good letter knowledge to start with were better able to learn from print books, which is not surprising because eye tracking studies have shown that these children are most likely to attend to print without prompting [Evans, Saint-Aubin, & Landry, 2009].

In our study [Rvachew, Rees, Carolan & Nadig, 2017], we have suggested that the beneficial effect of sharing ebooks was mediated by changes in adult behavior, triggered in part by a prompt bar meant to facilitate adult use of dialogic reading strategies. This may not be necessary however as shown in a recent study by Strouse and Ganea (2017) in which toddlers showed superior vocabulary learning in the ebook condition even though there were no differences in parent behaviors across reading media. There was significantly greater child engagement however with the ebook.

We have observed similar benefits of this ebook among second language learners in the home environment. The most gratifying observations have involved immigrant parents and their children learning the language of their new home together when jointly engaged with animations that are carefully designed to highlight the meaning of specific words and concepts as described in detail by Rees, Rvachew and Nadig (2017). It is not clear which theoretical model best describes the power of multimedia to support vocabulary learning (for discussion see  Wong & Neumann) but in any case there is now a consensus that multimedia presentations create more robust representations [Takacs, Swart, & Bus, 2015].

Having established that there can be benefits from sharing ebooks with young children, I will turn to the question of how we maximize those benefits for diverse children in relation to potential threats to children’s learning from shared ebook interactions. To do that we must consider four factors that contribute to a successful shared ebook interaction: the device, the child, the adult reader, and the reading script shared by the child and adult while reading ebooks.

Starting with the device, accessibility remains a concern with regional and social class inequities continuing, especially with respect to broad band access, but this is a problem that governments are actively engaged with and access to devices in near universal in developed countries at present [The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Kids Aged Two to Eight]. Therefore I will turn to the question of app design which is more critical.

Obviously there is huge variability in the quality of apps that are available to families. Parents prefer that their children play with apps that are educational but many appear to be educational while not adhering to research principles. However, a number of studies have shown that nudges can be built into books that support the adult reader to provide better quality scaffolding of child learning from books. In the iRead With books the living words attract the adult’s and the child’s attention to print and animations that link text to meaning. This ebook was designed to support shared reading by parent and child with the inclusion of the prompt bar which nudges the parent to use dialogic reading strategies. These prompts explicitly target vocabulary, emergent literacy and narrative skills. Furthermore, in ‘read and talk’ mode, the text is not narrated to the child; it is intended that the adult and child read this book together. However, after HMH bought Tribal Nova Inc., they did not support this series of books and it is no longer on the market. HMH has focused on a subscription based service that provides content to parents along with a facility for parents to track their child’s online activity. Their webpage makes it clear the parent participation is defined as remote monitoring of their child’s on-line activity. Corporate definitions of “educational” and “parent involvement” are not aligned with the views of the research community or that of experts in early childhood education [Rvachew, 2016].  As Hirsh-Pasek et al. [2015] point out, not all content labelled educational actually supports learning. Interestingly, a lot of these subscription based services include material that is freely available on the internet but wealthier parents have the option of paying to shield their children from advertisements and in-app purchasing. Poorer parents can obtain some of the same content for free while exposing their children to a lot of advertising which is a significant concern.

The approach to improving app quality and ensuring access to good quality apps thus far has been the publication of guidelines for evaluating and selecting apps  as well as the recent development of a voluntary ethical framework for marketing apps to children developed by the Kid’s Media Centre in Canada. These are valuable enterprises but the difficulty that I have is that a lot of the responsibility is placed on individuals – consumers such as parents, teachers and librarians-and also on individual researchers who collaborate with industry. In the past, collective action in the form of government regulation and support for content development has been used in the domain of children’s television but there seems to be a consensus that this approach is untenable in the modern context in which trust in government has been eroded. Such declines in public trust are perhaps warranted given that the moral panic around children’s social media use has led to government regulations that have resulted in greater social control than the public might otherwise accept .

Moving on to child factors, recent research demonstrates that cognitive-linguistic and executive skills play an important role. Engagement and attention control are clearly associated with app design and therefore researchers can encourage app designers to support child learning through evidence informed app design. However, there are factors intrinsic to the child that also determine outcomes. Richter and Courage (2017) published research showing that when adult support is controlled across reading media, story comprehension was predicted by the child’s language and executive skills and not by reading media, hotspot use or child age.

My doctoral student, Kathrin Rees, described shared reading by parents and their children who had language impairments (Rees, Rvachew and Nadig, 2017). Children with language impairments have previously been described as unengaged by paper books [Kaderavek & Justice, 2002] but Rees found that they produced more verbal initiations with a wordless print book than age matched children with typical language development, reflecting the better match of the book to their language abilities. Verbal engagement went down in the ebook context, reflecting the greater linguistic and executive function demands of the iReadWith book. The message here, by the way, is not to avoid using ebooks with language impaired children. Prior to this study, I conducted a randomized trial with another doctoral student, Francoise Brosseau Lapré, in which we taught speech impaired children to listen and process language input first and then we taught the parents dialogic reading skills, with a good impact on phonological awareness skills and greater parent satisfaction [Rvachew & Brosseau-Lapré, 2015]. I have always thought the typical practice of introducing the parent intervention before the speech and language therapy rather than after was completely backwards. But in any case, there is a need to match books in any medium to the child’s linguistic and cognitive abilities which creates a selection challenge for parents and teachers, especially when there are developmental discontinuities across these domains within a child.

Regarding the adult reader, one important challenge is to not make assumptions and to allow for the full range of diversity in terms of attitudes and skills that exists among parents and teachers. On the basis of much research it is known that there are, on average, differences in language input to children as a function of social class [Hart & Risley, 1992]. But recent data obtained using the LENA recording device shows that socio-economic status is a poor proxy for actual observations of parental behavior (Gilkerson et al., 2017). These researchers recorded adult words and conversational turns over a twelve hour period for families with more or less parental education. Their data show that half the children in the homes with college educated mothers received less language input than half the children in the homes whose mothers had less education. One of the benefits of universally targeted television programs and ebook apps is that built in nudges for parents can be used or not according to their own judgment about their child’s needs and their own abilities.

Parental attitudes to technology and these kind of technological nudges vary with social group as well however. In recent experimental work, Troseth and colleagues (2017) have been testing parent’s responses to a built in avatar that produces dialogic reading prompts. She has found that less educated parents respond more favourably to this avatar than more educated parents. Survey research also reveals social class differences in attitudes toward technology use by children [Rideout & Katz, 2016]. Some parents in wealthier homes view technology as a poor quality and potentially unsafe replacement for the parent or other adult guidance. On the other hand some poorer parents sometimes report that they don’t have time to play games or read to their children as often as they would like and see these apps as a relatively safe and educational activity for their children to engage in. It behooves us to make sure that the apps are in fact safe and educational for those families that are relying on them.

An anomaly that always strikes me when I read the parent surveys is how often the parents report that not only do they not enjoy reading ebooks to their children, but they report their children do not enjoy ebook reading either. Our observations specifically and the published research in general clearly shows that children are highly engaged by these apps but the source of this disconnect is clear in our video data. We observe during paper book sharing that children typically respond to their parent’s questions with responses that meet their parent’s expectations – verbal replies or points to relevant parts of the illustrations. When children become engaged with “inconsiderate” interactive elements within ebooks however, children may stop responding to their parent’s bids for attention. It becomes difficult to synchronize a three-way interaction between child, parent, and device. In some studies however, objective measures of engagement actually confirmed more engagement by the child in the ebook condition, for example-more story relevant comments by children during the ebook condition compared to the paper book condition alongside equivalent story comprehension across conditions (e.g., Richter & Courage, 2017). However, adult participants or observers rate the children in the ebook condition to be less attentive. The parent feels like they are competing with the device for the child’s attention and they are not aware of how much learning occurs when the parent follows the child lead, providing parallel talk while the child focuses on the ebook.

A related problem from the parent’s perspective, is that the app can be perceived as usurping the parent’s role as expert in the familiar shared reading routine. Different parents have different ways of dealing with this. In our video observation studies we observed some parents achieve successful interactions by establishing a “total control” strategy at the outset, making it clear that the parent would control the device and let their child know when it was their turn to touch hotspots, answer questions and so forth. Other parents did not negotiate a strategy with their child at any point during the shared reading session and subsequently experienced an ongoing battle for control of the device, desperately trying to regain their role as expert reader in an unfamiliar context. Other parents achieved successful interactions with their children by following the child’s lead and then negotiating a new role for themselves-a role in which they and their child co-created meaning as they engaged jointly with the interactive elements.

My interpretation of our video observations is that the advice that we are giving parents and early educators about ebooks is not always the most helpful. Firstly, the idea that you can read an ebook “just like a print book” is clearly incorrect. A new strategy is required in which the adult reader allows the child a much more active role in the exchange. And this brings me to the final point, and that is much of what we see when we watch adults and children share ebooks is caused not by the medium itself but by the lack of practice that these dyads have had with the device. Shared print-book reading is an activity that parent and child have engaged in for 3 or 4 years before we turn our cameras on them. This is not the case for shared ebook reading. The child’s experience with ebooks may be limited or extensive but it is almost exclusively solitary because of the way the books are designed and because of conflicted attitude that the parent has towards these apps—not surprising given the scaremongering that is so common in the media. If adults and children are to develop productive working relationships with ebooks, we need to permit them to practice this activity so that they can develop a new reading script that is adapted to this new context. Relatedly we need to develop many kinds of books with features that can be adapted to different kinds of families with different needs.


Update on Digital Media for Children Project

We have not been blogging of late, largely because Kathrin Rees has been focused on finishing her dissertation and we have been busy communicating the results of the first phase of our project and transitioning to a new phase. Here I will provide an update on some of our recent activities.

A major project that has been ongoing since our conference in June 2015 has been the development of a new topic for the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development, edited by Susan Rvachew, specifically Technology in Early Childhood Education, consisting of 6 articles, a commentary, a synthesis and an information sheet for parents.

Table of Contents: Technology in Early Childhood Education
Infants, Toddlers and Learning from Screen Media
Mary L. Courage, PhD, Georgene L. Troseth, PhD
Learning in the Digital Age: Putting Education Back in Educational Apps for Young Children
Jennifer M. Zosh, PhD, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, PhD, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, PhD, Julia Parish-Morris, PhD
Literacy Technologies and the Early Years of School
Robert Savage, PhD, Eileen Wood, PhD
Electronic(E)-books as a Support for Young Children’s Language and Early Literacy
Ofra Korat, PhD, Ora Segal-Drori, PhD
Teaching Early Literacy with E-books: Emerging Practices
Kathleen Roskos, PhD, Jeremy S. Brueck, PhD
Educational Media Supports for Preschool-aged English Language Learners
Kevin M. Wong, PhD Student, Susan B. Neuman, PhD
Technology in early childhood education: overall commentary
Susan Rvachew, PhD

A second long running project is a special issue of the International Journal of Child-Computer Interactions, edited by Natalia Kucirkova and Susan Rvachew: Reading in the 21st century: how does digital book-reading influence the reading processes and outcomes for young children? Two of the six articles in the issue come from our project:

Improving emergent literacy with school-based shared reading: Paper versus ebooks Susan Rvachew | Kathrin Rees | Elizabeth Carolan | Aparna Nadig

Elizabeth Carolan made a short slide show describing this study:

Story-related discourse by parent–child dyads: A comparison of typically developing children and children with language impairments Kathrin Rees | Aparna Nadig | Susan Rvachew

We will send out a notice attached to a new blog post when all of these articles are finally gathered together into a “virtual special issue”.

A smaller publication this year was an op-ed in the Montreal Gazette, written by Susan Rvachew.

Currently we are busy with new projects funded by a new grant from SSHRC. Several conferences are upcoming in the remainder of 2017. New students will be arriving in the fall. All of these developments will lead to new blog posts in the future.

Describing Shared Reading with eBooks

by Susan Rvachew and Kathrin Rees

The short history of research on children’s learning from digital media has been marked by technological determinism – a sense that child outcomes can be linked more or less directly to the reading medium. For example, Neuman, Kaefer, Pinkham, and Strouse (2014) determined that infants cannot learn to read from ‘baby videos’ after conducting a randomized control trial. Parish-Morris, Mahajanm, Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, and Collins (2013) concluded that ebooks impair children’s story comprehension relative to paper books, because parents do not use optimum shared reading techniques in the ebook condition. Takacs, Swart, and Bus (2015) found that multimedia features in ebooks support children’s vocabulary learning, whereas interactive features distract children from learning. We have found that understanding how children learn from ebooks requires a more comprehensive view in which complex interactions among aspects of the reading medium, the child, and the adult are amplified. Our desire to view all aspects of the shared reading interaction forced us to develop a coding system for our video data that broadened the scope of currently available coding schemes while incorporating the theoretical perspectives validated for each of the individual components (e.g., Hirsh-Pasek, Zosh, Golinkoff, Gray, & Kaufman, 2015; Van Kleeck, 2003). We provide information about our coding system here for anyone else who may find it to be useful.

The coding scheme that we describe is applied to the analysis of video recorded shared reading interactions, ideally with synchronized video showing the back and front views of the reading dyad, permitting a full view of the reading medium and any actions performed on it as well as all relevant verbal and nonverbal behaviors of the adult and child or children involved in the reading context. The interactions are described in the form of discrete behaviors by each person involved, organized to identify consecutive or overlapping behaviors in the verbal and nonverbal domains within or between parties. We produced these transcripts with CHAT (, supplemented with excel worksheets and Noldus coding.

The coding scheme has three aspects with multiple codes for each aspect. The details are shown in the attached Three Aspect Coding Scheme for Shared Reading with eBooks. We stress that the hypotheses for any given study guides the focus of the coding however, so that the aspects and codes that receive focus may vary. The aspects of the coding system serve to shift attentional focus from (1) events or stimuli in the environment that are perceived or attended by the actor; (2) the specific actor that produces each action; and (3) the action that is being described, including the mode of the action (verbal or nonverbal). When we first started our research, aspects of the environment were a particular point of focus, because we had not previously studied ebooks and were interested in understanding how print books and ebooks were similar and different from the perspective of the user. For example, parents often point to illustrations in print books when attempting to teach their child vocabulary; the same illustration in an ebook might support vocabulary instruction or distract from it depending upon the quality of the animation that is triggered when the illustration is touched. The coding of these book features may be described with greater or lesser specificity depending upon the hypotheses proposed. Codes are provided for events external to the book (the other reading partner, extraneous stimuli), allowing for a description of adult-child interaction as well as engagement versus distraction during the reading exchange.

A central aspect is the actor, coded for each discrete action. In our studies the gross categories are adult and child, but greater specificity may be desired within these categories. For example, in our studies we have been comparing children with different characteristics (typical versus delayed language skills) as well as varied adults (mothers versus fathers from different language and SES groups). In the future we anticipate observing pairs of children reading together in dyads, observing gender-matched and gender-mixed pairs. Here as elsewhere the specific codes will depend upon study design and hypotheses.

Regarding actions, the type and function of verbal utterances and a predefined set of nonverbal gestures are coded according to a relatively complex scheme (see “Coding of aspect: actions” in the PDF attached above). The transcript captures both verbal and nonverbal “utterances” (i.e., communicative gestures), capturing gestures that overlap with verbal utterances as well as those that occur in isolation. These data can be aggregated in various ways (e.g., by number or length of utterances or turns) to reveal theoretically interesting characteristics of interactions in different reading conditions. For example, in a community reader program we reported a greater amount of behavior management related talk when reading ebooks compared to print books; however print-referencing–the narrative/text code–also increased substantially in the ebook context.

Kathrin Rees has been using this coding system in her thesis research on how diverse parent-preschooler dyads co-read with print and e-books. In particular the reading interactions of parent-child dyads have been compared for children with typical language (TD group) versus children with language impairment (LI group) prior to and after a parent education program, focused on home based language stimulation techniques. Figure 1 gives an overview of the reading protocols followed in two consecutive phases of the study, with more details about the books provided here: (Book reading protocols for comparing children with typical versus impaired language).

Figure 1 Reading Protocol

Several papers are in press and in progress describing different aspects of adult and child verbal behavior while reading ebooks compared to print books. We have learned that synchrony in the verbal and nonverbal actions of the parent and child is key to a successful reading exchange. Parents and children can adapt to the ebook reading context, but some reading dyads do this more effectively and more quickly than others. We have not yet conducted detailed analyses of nonverbal behaviors by parents and children during the reading exchanges. Our preliminary analyses suggest that this is an aspect of critical importance to children’s learning however, especially for younger children and children with delayed language skills. Certain types of gestures (notably so-called ‘representational’ or ‘iconic’ gestures, cf. Lavelli, Barachetti, & Florit, 2015) may be used to enhance children’s understanding of vocabulary and story details, and it is not clear how book features in print or ebooks contribute to adult use of such gestures. In these two examples however, the parent clearly uses gesture to scaffold the child’s learning:

Reading Transcript

First transcript excerpt: Father reading “Ah ha” to child with language impairment, post treatment. Second transcript excerpt: During the same reading session, the father demonstrated an action to help the child understand the story in the ebook, Caillou’s First Play.

These transcripts could be examined to reveal the circumstances under which parents offer these kinds of gestural supports for meaning during shared reading. Attention to the four aspects of our coding system and the interactions among them would be essential to further investigation of this question.


Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, J.M., Golinkoff, R.M., Gray, J.H., & Kaufman, J. (2015). Putting education in “educational” apps: Lessons from the science of learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16, 3-34.

Lavelli, M., Barachetti, Ch., & Florit, E. (2015). Gesture and speech during shared book reading with preschoolers with specific language impairment. Journal of Child Language, 42(06), 1191-1218. doi: 10.1017/S0305000914000762

Neuman, Susan B., Kaefer, Tanya, Pinkham, Ashley, & Strouse, Gabrielle. (2014). Can babies learn to read? A randomized trial of baby media. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(3), 815-830. doi: 10.1037/a0035937

Parish-Morris, Julia, Mahajan, Neha, Hirsh-Pasek, Kathy, Golinkoff, Roberta Michnick, & Collins, Molly Fuller. (2013). Once upon a time: Parent–child dialogue and storybook reading in the electronic era. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7(3), 200-211. doi: 10.1111/mbe.12028

Takacs, Zsofia, Swart, Elise K., & , & Bus, Adriana G. (2015). Benefits and pitfalls of multimedia and interactive features in technology-enhances storybooks: a meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research. doi: 10.3102/0034654314566989

Van Kleeck, A. (2003). Research on Book Sharing: Another Critical Look. In A. Van Kleeck, S. A. Stahl & E. B. Bauer (Eds.), On reading books to children : parents and teachers (pp. 280). Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.


Designing Apps for Joint Media Engagement

by Elizabeth Carolan and Susan Rvachew

The market for educational apps and e-books is exploding, with no controls for quality or assurances of effectiveness. How are parents and educators to find apps to suit the needs of their children among the tens of thousands of apps available in this “Digital Wild West”? The Joan Ganz Cooney Center examined apps in order to gain insight on what information is available to parents and educators as they pan for technological gold in this new frontier. Specifically, the researchers analyzed a sample of 170 apps from lists like “Top 50 Paid”, “Top 50 Free”, and “Awarded” from various marketplaces, such as Google Play and the Apple App Store. They looked at the app descriptions and content to find out what is available for children and to develop recommendations for parents, teachers and industry.  Their report coupled with our own research from the Digital Media Project for Children have inspired this post on what makes a quality app.

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center report identified many characteristics of a quality app but two in particular overlap with our own research so we highlight them here. First, they stress the importance of “purposeful design” which requires that the design team include experts and that the design process be guided by theory and research. The authors report that less than half of the apps in their sample describe the development team in their marketplace description; only 2% of the sample note research that has been conducted on the learning outcomes of the app.

Other quality indicators follow directly from the first because theory and research should guide the choice of curriculum content and app features. For example, research clearly supports joint media engagement as an important factor in children’s learning. Therefore app designers should build co-use into their apps, such as multiplayer games or opportunities to hand the device back and forth between adult and child. However, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center researchers (Vaala et al. 2015) found that only two apps in their sample were designed for co-use. Based on our research as well as recent studies and meta-analyses, we believe these features to be key for a quality, educational app. Below, we talk about how these concepts apply to an app we helped develop, the iRead With books.

In partnership with Tribal Nova, Inc., we have developed a series of interactive e-books, bringing ‘Caillou’ and ‘Curious George’ into the digital age. In a process involving repeated cycles of design-research-redesign, we integrated features that promote acquisition of important emergent literacy skills in a shared reading context. Unique features include living words and prompt bars for parents. Living words appear in the text that, when tapped, elicit an animation in the illustration to support text comprehension. The parent prompt bars suggest comments or questions that parents might use to deepen their child’s emergent literacy or narrative skills. We have previously described how these ebooks (in comparison to paper versions of the same stories) promoted emergent literacy skills in kindergarten aged children. Here we focus on how the books changed the interaction between the child and the adult reader, thus accounting for those outcomes.

Our research team went to two English schools in the Montreal region and implemented a within-student design to compare language and literacy outcomes of print books versus the iRead With e-books. The participating children were read two ‘Caillou’ stories over two weeks, one story in paper book format and the other in interactive e-book format; the books were presented in counterbalanced order. The stories were read three times over the course of the week (one book per week) by a volunteer reader from the school community. We analyzed the transcripts for child and adult behaviors during reading and for the quality of the interaction between reader and child. One analysis coded the content of the adult speech (disregarding read text) as follows:

  1. Rapport & Behavior (e.g., “Have you ever read an iPad before?” “So let’s start reading.” “Good job, you’re paying attention.”)
  2. Book mechanics (e.g., “Turn the page now.” “Press this one.” “Use your finger, not your fingernail.”)
  3. Story related (e.g., “Who is this?” “Where are the children?” “Do you remember what happens next?” “The end.”)
  4. Word meanings (e.g., “What is that?” “Oh, it’s a duck!” “Do you know what specific means?” “We need a certain one. We can’t just use any costume.”)
  5. Print or word structure (e.g., “This is the word mommy.” “We read this line, there’s three more lines to read.” “This is the word nose. Do you know what rhymes with the word nose?”)

Below is a chart showing the frequency of these behaviors while reading paper books compared to the iRead With e-books.

Phase III Study Parent Reader Comments

When using ebook, the adults spent much more time instructing the children about book mechanics. There were also more comments about behavior, but the difference is not statistically significant. Most importantly, there were statistically significant increases in comments and questions about word meanings and about print or word structure. Adult readers actually made five times more comments about print and word structure while reading the e-book compared to the paper book! We believe that these differences in parent comments account for the differences in child learning that we observed in this study. Specifically, we found no disadvantage to the iRead With e-book for story retell or story comprehension scores. We found a significant advantage to iRead With for emergent literacy test scores. In particular word recognition and phonological awareness scores were better after iRead With book exposure. This was especially true for children who started out with relatively poor letter knowledge skills.

In sum, we believe a quality app is comprised of thoughtful content creation and testing to ensure that the app is fulfilling its purpose. Our job as developers and researchers is to collaborate with the overall aim of producing content that is educational, choosing interactive features and integrating design principles such as joint media engagement to support the learning goal. We also believe it is essential to have feedback from educators and parents regarding marketing and presentation, content, and usability of the apps. Please feel free to leave comments below if you have any thoughts on this subject, we would love to hear from you!

In this blog, we focused on e-books and apps with narrative content in regards to early literacy. For tips on what to keep in mind when choosing early literacy apps with aural input, check out this blog by Barbara Culatta, Kendra Hall-Kenyon, and Gary Bingham from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.


Culatta, B., Hall-Kenyon, K., & Bingham, G. (2016). Five Questions Everyone Should Ask Before Chosing Early Literacy Apps. Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

Guernsey, L., Levine, M. H., Chiong, C., & Stevens, M. (2014). Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West: Empowering Parents and Educators.

Shamir, A., & Korat, O. (2015). Educational Electronic Books for Supporting Emergent Literacy of Kindergarteners At-Risk for Reading Difficulties–What Do We Know So Far?, Computers in the Schools, 32:2, 105-211.

Takacs, Z., Swart, E., & Bus, A. (2015). Benefits and Pitfalls of Multimedia and Interactive Features in Technology-Enhanced Storybooks: A Meta-Analysis, Review of Educational Research, 85:4, 698-739.

Vaala, S., Ly, A., & Levine M. H. (2015). Getting a Read on the App Stores: A Market Scan and Analysis of Children’s Literacy Apps. Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

#DigLitMcGill Conference Day 2 Theme III Report

As e-books are now part of our children’s daily lives, what is the daily reality of an educational e-book publisher? by Chloe Benaroya, Tribal Nova, Inc.

Recent reports show that the children’s e-book industry is a dynamic economy with an appetite for kid’s reading on digital platforms. According to the 2015 study by Digital Book World and PlayScience[1], 93% of children (2-13 years old) read an e-book once a week. 21% of children’s books purchased in 2014 were e-books[2], a market driven by young adult e-books.

Although there are real business opportunities, the reality of an electronic publisher is trickier than one can imagine at first. The e-book market is segmented, and it can be a  challenge for digital publishers to have a long-term strategy, to build a sustainable business model and to streamline the digital production process.

Whereas traditional book publishing is a mature industry, the e-book industry has still to define itself. What is an e-book for children in the first place? The definition of an e-book varies enormously according to the format, the content, and the user experience you target. Are you referring to a digital version of a book that can be read on your smartphones, tablets or other reading devices? Are you referring to an e-book with interactions, sound-effects, music and audio, usually called enriched e-books? Do you include in the definition reading apps that are sold as standalone apps in digital stores and can propose various user experiences (where audiovisual and interactive stimuli can be dominant over text elements)?

For each of these types of products, there are different distribution channels and marketing strategies. According to the path you choose, your final product can be distributed as an e-book and sold as a paid downloadable product via e-book retailers (Amazon Kindle Store or Barnes and Noble Nook store) or via publisher’s sites, or subscription services. Alternatively, your product can be considered a children’s app and be sold on completely different distribution channels, such as the Apple App store and Google Play. It will then compete for visibility in a competitive market (over 80,000 education apps in the App Store) with other children’s apps and renowned branded games.

The distribution channels you choose as a publisher will impact your pricing strategy and your business model. For example, if you consider the average price in the e-book

[1]  The ABCs of Kids and E-Reading: Volume 4–Devices, Content and Reading Habits of Children 2–3, 2013, Digital Book World and PlayScience

[2]  The Nielsen Children’s Book Summit, 2014.



#DigLitMcGill Conference Day 2 Theme II Report

Responsible Science Communication re: Digital Media by Aparna Nadig

Many academics are much more comfortable communicating their research findings to other academics than to the popular press, and regard the sound bites and snippets of research served up in the press with scorn. Yet, the intersection between research and the popular press is critical and particularly consequential when it comes to topics of health and education, as for our topic of digital media for young children. Our second Round Table Discussion focused on the Responsible Science Communication re: Digital Media to move past this passive position and consider what is needed to achieve more evidence-based and responsible dissemination of research findings. We started by exploring the context created by the popular press on digital media use by children, as this is the environment that educators and professionals working with children, digital media professionals, and scientists confront when trying to convey key messages about digital media use. I asked participants (who self-identified as students or researchers, 40%, education or health professionals, 32%, parents of young children, 16%, digital media professionals, 8%, or other 4%) to report their gut response with respect to how much they agreed with a barrage of headlines, from sensational takes like this one (1) from which talks about “rotting kids brains”:


 rot brain

This is the report from the audience on the Salon headline:

agree 2

 To more balanced and nuanced reporting as seen in this article (2) from BBC News, which discusses varying degrees of video gaming being related to different outcomes in children:


 video gaming

 Polling results showed that our participants, who were well-informed about digital media use and/or how to communicate with families of young children, largely disagreed with the sensationalist headline and fear-mongering approach of article (1), and conversely were much more in agreement with the nuanced headline of (2) which appeared give a more comprehensive view of a research study.agree 1

Unfortunately, in our search of news headlines on digital media use in children we overwhelmingly encountered the inflammatory approach seen in example (1).

We then worked through a detailed example of the disconnect between popular press stories (using an example article from The Telegraph, 3 below) and research evidence, leading to inflammatory and potentially dangerously misleading claims.



Participants discussed the causes and impacts of such claims on different stakeholder groups, as well as what should be done to improve the accuracy and reliability of reporting. Recommendations to increase the public’s understanding of research evidence on digital media included:

Taking an active role in critical dissemination of research findings

Scientists taking steps to be more savvy communicators of their research evidence

  • Cherry pick your journalists and media outlets to control your message
  • Be prepared, have your key messages ready for sound bites
  • Be able to communicate findings clearly in lay language, convey consistent, simple messages
  • Publish using open access methods to increase availability of full research reports

Making use of media mediators

 Widespread changes needed to have a more critical public in the digital age

  • The ability to extract and evaluate the validity of information should be emphasized in school curriculums
  • Basic literacy in how to be discerning and critically evaluate claims
  • Make the public aware that universities and their websites are great, valid tools to access relevant information

The topic of this Round Table discussion was a novel one for me in my history of attending research conferences, and the response of many of our participants indicated that it was similarly new to them and that they found it important and refreshing to consider this intersection of research and the press. The general take home message was one urging researchers, educators and professionals working with young children to get up and take an active role in the responsible communication of information on digital media use in children, in their communities as well as in online forums.

#DigLitMcGill Conference Day 2 Theme 1 Report

Theme I: Key Messages for Parents and Teachers, by Lizzie Carolan, Melanie Orellana and Kathrin Rees

The kick-off presentation for the first theme was introduced by Kathrin Rees, Certified Teacher at Special Education Schools/Germany and Doctoral Candidate at the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at McGill University. Her kick-off presentation (Rees diglitMcGill Day 2 blog slides) focused on three pieces of advice that parents frequently encounter in relation to sharing eBooks with their children: (1) quality eBooks guarantee learning, (2) read eBooks just like traditional books, and (3) give the child the lead. She evaluated the validity of these messages in turn.

For key message (1), quality eBooks guarantee learning, Kathrin brought up the fact that finding quality eBooks is often challenging. Although there is a growing number of excellent reviewer websites , not all parents or teachers know about such resources or take the time to consult them before making a purchase. Oftentimes, the frameworks that are out there have not been scientifically evaluated. Fortunately, researchers are beginning to put out evidence-based frameworks, such as Hirsh-Pasek et al. (2015) (discussed in more detail below). Apps often have flexible settings, which presents another challenge as both the basic and the enhanced version of the app need evaluation. Clearly, there is a need for a more efficient and streamlined way for parents and teachers to evaluate apps before sharing them with children.

For key messages (2) read eBooks just like traditional books and (3) give the child the lead, Kathrin presented video clips to the audience from her own research on shared reading with tablets (for a more detailed discussion of these topics, see Kathrin’s previous blogposts here and here ). She presented a few instances in which the advice to share the e-book just like a traditional print book evidently worked, in other words dyads seamlessly adapted to the novel reading medium. However, a number of counter-examples showed how other dyads failed at the attempt to treat the new as something known, experiencing conflicts and disruptions in turn taking when trying to talk about the e-story. Giving children more control over the device was presented as one potentially useful strategy, if accompanied by a change in parent’s verbal strategies, e.g. a higher volume of parallel talk instead of directive questions by the parent. After presenting these videos, Kathrin left the audience with questions to discuss, namely: What are your own perspectives on the three pieces of advice that were introduced in this presentation? What do you think are the most important key messages that we should transmit to parents and teachers about digital media use with children? The responses, reported below, centered around three ideas: setting a routine for eBooks, emphasizing the interaction between parent/teacher and child during the reading, and evaluating and familiarizing yourself with the apps you might use.

The idea of establishing a routine with your child or with children in the classroom was brought up by several tables during the discussion. Establishing separate routines for eBooks and paper books is encouraged; for both formats the audience agreed that it is important to be clear about the objectives and the expectations for the shared reading experience. For example, are you reading together for fun or for educational purposes? Who will turn the pages? Will you leave the interactive features on or will you do two readings (first without the interactive features and the second reading with)? Questions like these will help you establish a solid reading routine for you and your child.

Another key point raised during the discussion was about the interaction between parent/teacher and child during shared reading. The audience agreed that the scaffolding provided by the adult and the interaction between the adult and child are the most important components of the shared reading experience, not the format of the book. A concern with eBooks was brought up in this regard: oftentimes, interaction when reading eBooks is too centered on the technology (see a previous blogpost that discusses the high amount of technology-related talk between parent-child dyads when reading eBooks). This brings us back to establishing a good routine – if the objectives are clear and the routine is set, technology-related talk is likely reduced.

Lastly, the audience agreed that it was important for parents/teachers to first evaluate the apps that they might use with children and then also be familiar and comfortable with these apps. Here we provide a summary of the framework proposed in Hirsh-Pasek et al. (2015) in hopes of providing you with a tool for evaluation . In their paper, Hirsh-Pasek et al. propose evidence-based guidelines rooted in the science of learning to facilitate this process. These guidelines are envisioned as “pillars” to support the overall learning development of the child. Below, we take a closer look at each of the four pillars of learning.

The four pillars proposed by Hirsh-Pasek et al. (2015) are active learning, engagement in the learning process, meaningful learning, and socially interactive learning. Active learning refers to minds-on learning, such that the app should require the child to embody an active role as opposed to a passive role. The next pillar, engagement, is evaluated based on the content and features of the app. Parents with a learning objective in mind would do best to avoid apps with features that may distract the child from being engaged with learning. The child will be most likely to remain focused and on-task if the eBook integrates the three following ingredients: contingent interactions (e.g. the app responds to a swipe or touch), feedback and positive reinforcements, and intrinsic motivation (namely, fun!). The third pillar is about meaningful learning, which occurs when new information alters or builds on the child’s prior knowledge. This can take place when there is a clear goal or when the learning is personally relevant. eBook designers can make the learning meaningful to the child by using the narrative as a tool or by linking the activity to the child’s everyday life. Finally, high-quality interaction between parent and child is essential for learning to take place as social contingency plays a central role in learning. This is particularly true for tasks that are related to language or to the development of the child’s critical thinking skills. Although not mentioned as a “pillar” per se, scaffolded exploration  (Hirsh Pasek et al., 2015) is another important component to include when sharing apps or eBooks with a child, as without it, learning goals can be compromised. Scaffolding toward a learning goal according to these authors can be provided by an external source, such as a parent, or within the app itself.

We would like to thank the audience for their participation as well as for sharing their ideas with us during this day. We hope that the ideas generated from the round-table discussions serve as a point of reflection for parents and educators who are establishing their own eBook and app practices at home or in the classroom.

Theme I Handouts

Cooney Center (2014) Family Time with Apps: A Guide to Using Apps with Your Kids available as a pdf, or,

Available as an interactive app

Lerner, C. and Barr, R. (2014). Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight. Zero to Three.

Little eLit (2015) Young Children, New Media, and Libraries: A Guide for Incorporating New Media into Library Collections, Services, and Programs for Families and Children Ages 0-5. Amy Koester (ed).

Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, J. M., Michnik, Golinkoff, R., Gray, J. H., Robb, M. B., & Kaufman, J. (2015). Putting education in “educational” apps: Lessons from the science of learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16(1), 3-24.

Wartella, E. (2015). Educational apps: What we do and do not know. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16(1), 1-2.