by Susan Rvachew, Ph.D., S-LP(C), School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill University
Currently, experts don’t know whether animations help children learn from stories or not. For example, , Verhallen, Bus & de Jong (2006) reported that animated stories helped English-language learners retell stories; on the other hand, the children had a harder time retelling a story presented without animations. In contrast, Chiong, Ree, Taeuchi, & Erickson reported that enhanced ebooks interfered with children’s story comprehension.
It is hard to make sense of these research findings because we don’t know very much about animated story books. What exactly is an “enhanced ebook”? What elements in this kind of digital platform help or hinder a child’s story comprehension? What can parents or teachers do to help children learn more from animated story books? That is why we were pleased to find a research report in which the stated aim was to explore the question “What does children’s engagement with ebooks look like?” Our project has a similar goal except that Roskos, Burstein, & Byeong-Keun observed children in the classroom whereas we are specifically interested in parent-child interactions. We will be describing some of our findings in this and the next few blog posts.
Roskos et al. point out that one aspect of engagement is attention: if the animations in electronic books attract and hold the child’s attention we hope that the child is more engaged and will learn more. Parents can also help the child learn from the story by making sure that they understand the words and the events in the story. We have been describing shared reading interactions between parents and their preschool children with a particular focus on how the elements of the book capture attention. We also describe how these elements are used by the parent to help their child understand the story. When describing interactions over standard books the elements in question are fairly straightforward: parents and children attend to the illustrations (pictures), the narrative (story), and the text (letters and words on the page). When describing interactions over electronic books we have found that it is more complicated to figure out which elements of the book are holding the readers’ attention. An electronic book adds animations but these animations also disrupt the description of the traditional categories in that text and illustrations can be animated and the animations may or may not be congruent with the narrative. Often text (i.e., a word in the printed story) will trigger an animation in the illustration when you touch it. Alternatively, the book might “read” the word out when you touch it or show a picture of its meaning. When does a text element cease to be text and become an animation itself? Animations provide varying sensory experiences involving color, sound, and movement. It is not clear how these characteristics in different combinations impact on engagement; we are not sure how finely we need to categorize the animations according to these dimensions in order to explain the impact of digital media on children’s engagement with electronic books.
Another complicating factor in our research is that animations come in many different types. Some animations require specific actions on the part of the reader to activate. Some animations activate automatically with a page “turn”. Other animations are a constant part of the background. Do we need to describe these as different types of animation or not? We thought that we would make our decisions based on the readers’ attention and response to these different types of animated elements but it seems that sometimes animations can have an impact even if they are not remarked on.
One of the books that we are using in our video-explorations of shared reading provides examples of how animations might help or hinder children’s learning of story elements. This ebook, “The Frog who wanted to be as big as the Ox” (La Fontaine, Poésies Industrielles), has a fair bit of “background animation” and one impressive user activated animation. The background animations consist of sounds and movements that make the outdoor setting of the story come alive, for example, birds singing, leaves rustling on the trees, etc. These animations are subtle and occur on every page. I was not at first sure whether we should refer to these elements as animations or illustrations since they simply seemed to provide background for the story. However, after watching many video recorded interactions I am beginning to think that these subtle animations change the way that parents read to their children. When children are engaged with the story they participate by answering their parent’s questions and commenting on events in the story. They may do this verbally but they always use a lot of gestures to communicate their involvement in the story. Parents generally communicate information about the story with words, especially when reading standard books. We have seen parents gradually use more and more gestures as they read digital books to their children however. It is possible that the sound and movement in the books encourages them to use more movement when communicating to their children about the story. It is also possible that when parents pair gestures and speech, they help their children to understand the words and events in the story.
Enhanced animations have a dramatic effect on engagement with the book. The impressive user activated animation in the “frog and ox” book is an exploding frog! The parent or child can make the frog explode by blowing in a sustained fashion into the tablet microphone. This animation illustrates a key part of the story, when the frog, trying to puff himself up to the size of the ox, literally blows himself apart. This animation stimulates a great deal of participation and conversation on the part of both parent and child; it is clear that we need to code the animation and the behaviors stimulated by it when describing the contribution of digital animations to parent-child engagement with this book. I have started to worry however that the exploding frog may interfere with the child’s comprehension of the story even though this animation is hugely entertaining and very engaging to both parties,. One very interesting conversation arose between a mother and child when the mother told her son that the credits at the end of the story told “who made the exploding frog”. The child became very animated as he explained “I made it! I made it with my wind”. It seems possible to me that, at least on first reading, active participation in the exploding frog event by the child may lead to some confusion about perspective. The frog’s intention (to become as big as the ox), the result (puffing himself up to the point of explosion) and the intervening causal relationship may become lost. This is one way in which “enhanced ebooks” may interfere with story comprehension. The child is so excited about exploding the frog that the frog’s motives and actions in the story may be harder for the child to grasp.
Clearly a lot more study is required before we can sort out which animations interfere with story comprehension. We do see many instances where the animations help parents explain word meanings more effectively than static pictures. It seems possible that story comprehension is improved with multiple readings of an electronic story. But there is much we do not yet know and we need to be cautious about our conclusions in a study that involves a single reading of each book.