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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:
- Rapport & Behavior (e.g., “Have you ever read an iPad before?” “So let’s start reading.” “Good job, you’re paying attention.”)
- Book mechanics (e.g., “Turn the page now.” “Press this one.” “Use your finger, not your fingernail.”)
- Story related (e.g., “Who is this?” “Where are the children?” “Do you remember what happens next?” “The end.”)
- 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.”)
- 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.
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.
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.
The third and final presentation for Theme IV: Teaching with eBooks in the Classroom was presented by Susan Rvachew (with co-authors from the Digital Media Project Susan Rvachew, Kathrin Rees, Aparna Nadig, Elizabeth Carolan & Elizabeth Christe). This study was conducted in the context of a community reader program designed to support the oral language and emergent literacy skills of kindergarten children attending English-language schools in low-income neighborhoods in the Montreal region. The iReadWith books were developed by Tribal Nova in consultation with our research team to prompt the adult reader to use a dialogic reading style while sharing the book with the child. The books are also designed, via the linking of ‘living words’ with story congruent animations, to promote word recognition skills. A randomized within-student design was implemented to compare language and literacy outcomes after exposure to equivalent paper and iReadwith versions of two ‘Caillou’ stories in counterbalanced order. Stories were read three times in one week before outcome measures were administered. We did not find any disadvantage to the iReadwith book for story retell or story comprehension scores. We did find a significant advantage to iReadwith exposure for emergent literacy skills, and an interaction with the children’s letter knowledge skills such that children with the poorest letter knowledge skills showed the greatest advantage of exposure to the iReadwith books. Furthermore, analysis of the transcripts of reading interactions showed that adult comments and questions related to emergent literacy (i.e., print concepts, printed words, sound structure of words, and sound-letter correspondences) increased five times during iReadwith sharing in comparison to paper book sharing. When combined with the outcome of the studies described by Julia Parish-Morris, Mary Courage and Gabrielle Strouse, the conference findings in general confirm that children’s outcomes are determined by the intersection of ebook design and adult scaffolding during shared reading.
Conference abstract: We worked with Tribal Nova Inc. to develop ebooks that encourage a dialogic reading style by adults when sharing the book with a child and tested the efficacy of the books in the context of a community reader program for kindergarten children. Outcomes are described for story retell, story comprehension and emergent literacy skills as a function of the children’s letter knowledge at intake.
Conference handout: Rvachew DigLitMcGill Slide upload.
The Key Note presentation in Theme IV: Learning to Read with Digital Media was presented by Rob Savage (“A Cluster Randomized Control Field Trial of the ABRACADABRA Web-based Reading Technology: Replication and Extension of Basic Findings”, Noella Piquette, Rob Savage and Philip C. Abrami). The presentation was largely concerned with ABRACADABRA, free, interactive web-based literacy program designed for early elementary school-aged students. The presentation covered a lot of research with a primary focus on two recent studies. The efficacy and effectiveness of ABRACADABRA for reading outcomes has previously been established in well controlled trials. A new study was presented that demonstrates effectiveness given a district wide implementation in Northern Alberta with implementation largely handled by local personnel in order to establish external validity. Subsequently Rob turned to the conflicting reports of the efficacy of computer based reading interventions in the scientific literature. A review study examined the inclusion of detailed descriptions of the methods used to implement the trial interventions and the methods used for ensuring fidelity to those procedures in trial reports in relation to outcomes. The results supported the conclusion that computer based reading interventions are most likely to be effective when there is evidence of good quality training and support for teachers in the implementation of the intervention. This finding was a recurring theme during the afternoon sessions and during the second day of the conference.
Conference abstract: The present paper reports a cluster randomized control trial evaluation of teaching using ABRACADABRA (ABRA), an evidence-based and web-based literacy intervention (http://abralite.concordia.ca) with 107 kindergarten and 96 grade 1 children in 24 classes (12 intervention 12 control classes) from all 12 elementary schools in one school district in Canada. Children in the intervention condition received 10-12 hours of whole class instruction using ABRA between pre- and post-test. Hierarchical linear modeling of post-test results showed significant gains in letter-sound knowledge for intervention classrooms over control classrooms. In addition, medium effect sizes were evident for three of five outcome measures favoring the intervention: letter-sound knowledge (d = +.66), phonological blending (d = +.52), and word reading (d = +.52), over effect sizes for regular teaching. It is concluded that regular teaching with ABRA technology adds significantly to literacy in the early elementary years. We discuss these findings and those of our previous work against wider literature on the effectiveness of educational technologies.
Conference handout: Savage DigLitMcGill slide upload.
The third talk in Theme I (How do Parents and Children Engage with eBooks?) was presented by Kathleen Paciga. This presentation represented a shift to more qualitative work with interesting video presentations of Kathleen’s children interacting with a complex electronic story book. This longitudinal study raised several important issues that reverberated through to the round table discussions on the second day. First, the importance of ensuring developmental appropriateness of the ebook relative to the child’s age and interests became very clear. Second, the common problem of mismatches between cognitive and motor challenges at the intersection of the story and interactive features in the ebook came to the foreground. The study also raised the issue of possible gender differences in response to digital applications, an issue that would arise again in other studies presented at the conference; personally, I became aware that this variable is not well controlled in this emerging area of research. Katie’s thoughts about apps and preschool education can be found on her blog. Katie has published other data on children’s listening comprehension of digital story books in the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy.
Conference abstract: A cross-sectional case study was utilized to examine an adult’s use of supports for two siblings’ (male, 54 months old; female, 30 months old) experiences with the same interactive e-book.
Conference handout: Paciga DigLitMcGill slide upload.
The Key Note presentation for Theme IV: Teaching with eBooks in the Classroom was presented by Jeremy Brueck . Regrettably his co-author Kathleen Roskos was unable to join us but Jeremy’s presentation, attached below, was a perfect introduction to the Theme. The presentation was visually gorgeous, immensely practical and intellectually stimulating since it reminded us (again) that children’s learning from ebooks is not just about the design of the technology. Teachers’ knowledge, skills and experiences play a very important role. Jeremy reviewed best practices related to five key points: (1) Know your device; (2) Know your ebook; (3) Establish routines; (4) Link apps together; and (5) Be persistent. Jeremy also introduced us to some tools for evaluating and rating the quality of ebooks for teaching, including his own eBook Quality Rating Tool. Jeremy has discussed this tool in more detail on his blog and he and his colleagues have published data collected with the tool in journals such as The Journal of Interactive On-line Learning. I invite readers to download the conference handout because a brief blogpost cannot do justice to the presentation. However, as Jeremy stressed during the presentation, professional development helps but supported and persistence exploration and practice with devices and apps is the key to successful integration of these technologies into the classroom.
Conference abstract: The surge of eBooks and storybook apps into the early childhood world is rapidly changing the traditional early book experience and thereby the way literacy is promoted in early education. As eBooks increasingly replace print books on an array of devices, the need to understand their impact not only on children’s engagement and learning, but also early literacy teaching grows more urgent. How do adults help young children learn to read and write in an electronic reading environment? Our session focuses on emerging e-reading practices that appear promising for promoting children’s early literacy knowledge, skills and motivation. Drawing on a series of field studies in early childhood classrooms, we describe hybrid pedagogies teachers are using to support early literacy experience with eBooks and apps. We also report both the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” when implementing eBook reading instruction in mobile learning environments. Finally we discuss the supports that teachers need when adapting their existing practices to eBook enriched classrooms.
Conference handout: Brueck DigLitMcGill slide upload.
The second talk in Theme II: Learning Language from Shared Reading with eBooks, presented by Natalia Kucirkova, was a refreshing change from many of the other presentations during the morning conference: there was no comparison of paper and ebooks with the implication that one had to be ‘better’ than the other. Rather, Natalia presented software that she created to take full advantage of the potential of digitization to completely transform the ‘book’. Her app, Our Story, allows children and their parents, teachers or peers to construct personalized multimedia stories. The presentation covered the functionality of the app and the advantages of personalization from the theoretical and empirical perspectives as outlined in more detail in Kucirkova’s prior publications.
Conference abstract: In this paper, I use the personalisation framework developed by Oulasvirta & Blom, (2008), to reflect on the various forms personalisation can take in children’s digital reading materials, paying close attention to the notions of agency, aesthetics and bidirectionality in multimedia.
Conference handout: Kucirkova DigLitMcGill slide upload.
On June 26 and 27 we held a conference at McGill University to bring together a diverse group of speakers and participants for the conference “Digital Literacy for Preschoolers: Maximizing the Benefits of eBooks for Emergent Literacy”. We learned a lot about digital media for young children and were challenged in our thinking about how best to design and use ebooks and other digital media for the benefit of children’s literacy and digital literacy skills. We will be posting the direct outcome of the conference here by linking the speakers’ slides or guest posts that describe the speakers’ presentations to this page. Over the longer term will inform you about our progress toward the development of a new section of the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development that will bring together our collective knowledge on this topic.
The posting of these materials requires obtaining materials and permissions from the conference presenters. We are posting these mini-blog-posts as we receive the required information. We will note the date of posting below. We invite you to revisit from time to time to check for new postings.
Theme I: How do parents and children engage with ebooks?
1. Keynote presentation: Parent-Preschooler Interaction during Electronic and Traditional Book Reading (Julia Parish-Morris, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff & Brenna Hassinger-Das) POSTED ON JULY 8, 2015
4. Story-Related Discourse by Parent-Child Dyads: A Comparison of Typically Developing Children and Children with Language Impairments Reading Print Books and eBooks (Kathrin Rees, Susan Rvachew, and Aparna Nadig) POSTED ON JULY 6, 2015
Theme II: Learning language from shared reading with ebooks
Theme III: Teaching with ebooks in the classroom
Theme IV: Learning to read with digital media
1. Keynote presentation: A Cluster Randomized Control Field Trial of the ABRACADABRA Web-based Reading Technology: Replication and Extension of Basic Findings Noella Piquette, Robert Savage and Philip C. Abrami) POSTED ON JULY 17, 2015