by Kathrin Rees, Doctoral Candidate, School of Communication Sciences and Disorders
In the preceding blog I referenced an article by Lowry, which contains a very practical list of tips for using ebooks with children at home. In particular, parents are advised to give the child the lead when being jointly engaged with e-books. Clearly, this advice comes directly from Hanen’s long-established “It Takes Two to Talk” program, which teaches parents of children with language delays to apply this strategy when playing or reading paper books together. One specific purpose of the strategy is to prolong the period of time during which the child stays in the interaction, thus increasing opportunities for practicing communicative skills. Hanen is not the only organization to suggest a child-centred strategy for sharing ebooks with children: like Hanen’s give the child the lead, the introduction to Family Time with Apps advocates placing the child in the driver’s seat in order to facilitate learning from apps.
Rather than taking a prescriptive approach, we have been describing what happens when parents and children share digital devices. In our digital media project we have been curious to know whether parents follow their child’s lead with paper or ebooks. Interesting, we have found that the vast majority of parents follow an opposite impulse: just like when looking at print-books with their child, they strive to retain a relatively high degree of control in shared reading of e-books. The major difference between the two contexts is that children are usually tolerant of taking a passive role when sharing paper books but sometimes less so when sharing ebooks with their parents. This observation holds true for diverse parent-child dyads, i.e., mono- and multilingual learners, children with typically developing language, and children with language impairments. In particular, parents of children accustomed to using mobile devices autonomously often made sure to reserve specific types of interactions (e.g., page turning) for themselves, even before beginning the actual reading. For example, one participating father introduced the e-book to his son by saying: I am the one who‘s gonna drive, okay? This example immediately flashed to my mind when I first came across the advice to place the child in the driver’s seat (as given on page 3 of “Family Time with Apps”); the latter curiously represents the very reverse while making use of the same (driving) metaphor. The son in what followed acted in quite an inhibited way, cautiously stretching out his finger and awaiting the father’s permission each time before allowing himself to touch the screen. Admittedly, not all children showed such a high degree of compliance.
In about 1/4 of the cases we have video recorded over the past two years, we have seen a fair amount of struggle for control over the device between parent and child; usually the parent tries to limit the child’s ability to physically interact with the screen (touch, swipe etc.) by holding his/her hands down or taking the device out of the child’s reach. It would be surprising if this did not impact negatively on the way in which parent and child go on to communicate about a story. Struggles as the ones described above may in part be linked to children’s general digital habits. Many children are used to playing with digital devices (i.e., tablets, iphones) autonomously; therefore, they enter the shared reading exchange with the clear expectation they will be free to interact with the device at will. In contrast, the parent expects that the exchange will unroll like a typical book reading interaction. In other words, the parent’s expectation is “I will read and talk”, while the child’s expectation is “I will touch and play”. In such cases the parents’ and child’s behavioral scripts for how to act upon the mobile device stand in stark contrast to one another.
Various explanations that are not mutually exclusive may be found for the parent’s insistence on maintaining control in joint reading with e-books. First, for some it may mean no more than reverting to a script they have found to work in a similar context (reading of paper books). Second, parents may have witnessed before that, from a learning perspective, their child often does not make optimal choices while using apps. Supporting this perception, authors such as Kirschner and Van Merriënboer (2013) have recently raised a skeptical voice against a general trend in education to romanticize the child as self-educator, notably with regard to computer-based learning contexts. Third, parents to some extent may be aware of their own and their child’s differing scripts and increase their control over the reading process at the outset in order to avoid coming into conflict with the child. It is important to recognize that in all three of these cases the parents’ reserving control for themselves represents an individually meaningful attempt.
One reasonable way of counteracting conflicts is certainly to manipulate select features of the e-book itself (by turning the interactivity off) at the first read, as recommended in the article by Lowry mentioned earlier, or in the first place not to select any e-books with a lot of interactivity (e.g., hotspots, games). There are, of course, other ways, and this is where “giving the child the lead” may be purposeful. As the adult tries to abandon any conventional ideas about book reading, he/she may give the child complete lead in the first joint encounter with the e-book. This can mean—if only temporarily—giving up on reading the text and the habit of asking questions. It is also easier said than done, since the parent must abandon the established book reading script. In doing so, the parent may have several goals in mind: on one hand, to signal to tech-savvy children that they may be able to teach the parent something about this experience (acknowledge their competences); on the other hand, to motivate children who generally seem less interested in book reading by putting them in a more active role from the outset. By extension, behaving in this way takes into account that most apps are deliberately designed for intuitive use by young children, using animation features and icons that are readily understood by nonreaders and inviting them to touch and explore. We think it is important to make it transparent to parents that “giving the child the lead” is neither practiced for its own sake, nor can it be deemed a universal recipe for effective shared reading with e-books.
Parents who know why they are following the strategy of “giving the child the lead” will above all be better able to communicate this to their child. It should not be forgotten that taking into account a child’s level of digital literacy, language competences or needs seems essential for applying this principle successfully.
Going beyond “giving the child the lead”, our third and final blog post in this three-part series will present two language-based communicative strategies that parent-child dyads intuitively come up with and apply successfully while looking at e-books together.