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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.

References:

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.

School Based Shared Reading with iRead with Books Improves Emergent Literacy Skills

DSCF4616 RvachewThe 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.

DSCF4596 Christe Rees iReadwithConference 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.

With Infants, E-Books and Traditional Books May Not Be So Different

The second presentation in Theme I (How do Parents and Children Engage with eBooks?), by Gabrielle Strouse was entitled “With Infants, E-Books and Traditional Books May Not Be So Different” (Gabrielle Strouse and Patricia Ganea). Gabrielle described her study that involved 102 toddlers who shared a traditional book or electronic book with their parent. The books were very simple apps designed for infants (Happy Babies series by Penguin Books). Therefore, there were few ‘pages’ and no narrative — the app, upon tapping, simply exposes the infant to an animal, and then the animal’s baby, with a repetitive sentence frame for labeling the illustrations. In contrast to several prior studies involving preschoolers and story books, the study revealed no disadvantage to the ebook format in terms of the quality of language input provided by the parent reader. In fact, parents and infants both made more content-related comments with the electronic book compared to the paper version of the book. Interestingly, the toddlers were observed to be highly engaged with the electronic book — more attentive than with the paper book — in direct contrast to the parent’s responses on the pre-experiment survey about their infant’s behaviors during shared reading. This study raises many questions about the intersection of the child, the ebook features and parental behaviors that must be considered before we draw firm conclusions about the potential of ebooks to support learning by children. Gabrielle is a co-author of the well-known study “Can babies learn to read: A randomized trial of baby media” . We look forward to seeing this new study in print.

StrouseConference abstract: There is reason to believe that important differences exist in the way parents and children treat new technologies and traditional formats. In this presentation, we describe the results of a study in which parents of 102 infants aged 17 to 26 months were randomly assigned to read electronic or traditional format books with identical content with their infant.

Conference handout: Strouse DigLitMcGill slide upload.

Adult Supports for Children’s Understanding of Interactive eBooks: A Cross-sectional Case Study

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.

DSCF4455 Paciga

Parent-Preschooler Interaction during Electronic and Traditional Book Reading

DSCF4404 Julia colourThe Key Note presentation in Theme I (How do Parents and Children Engage with eBooks?) was presented by Julia Parish-Morris. Her presentation, Parent-Preschooler Interaction during Electronic and Traditional Book Reading (Julia Parish-Morris, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff & Brenna Hassinger-Das) perfectly covered the themes and issues that would reverberate throughout the two days of the conference. She began by illustrating the growing infiltration of digital technology into every aspect of our children’s lives, describing this situation as a “giant unplanned experiment” that produces a great deal of anxiety as reflected in popular news stories. Julia presented several experiments, including both published and unpublished work. These studies led to a common conclusion: interactive features such as hotspots and animations in electronic books increase “behavior-related” talk by parents and lead to a competition for control of the device during shared reading by parents and children. All these distractions hamper story comprehension by children. At the same time, the use of high quality dialogic reading prompts by parents (in particular “distancing prompts” that help the child relate story content to their own life experiences) promote story comprehension during reading with both traditional and electronic books. These findings stimulated a back and forth dialogue about alternative responses throughout the conference – do we redesign the electronic books or redesign parents’ reading strategies when using the books? Or more drastically, try to proscribe access to these digital tools altogether?

Conference Abstract: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents read to their children daily from birth. At the same time, the AAP suggests that parents avoid screen time for children under age 2. Given these recommendations, how do we as parents, educators, clinicians, and developmental scientists, deal with the case of electronic books? Should e-books be considered shared reading, or are they more accurately categorized as screen time? In this talk, I will review a recent study of dyadic reading between three- and five-year-olds and their parents in the context of electronic books and traditional paper books. I will talk about how parent language, child language, child story comprehension, and parent enjoyment of the shared reading interaction changes when parents and children read electronic books and traditional paper books. A new study using iPad apps will be described, and language implications of screen time for our youngest children will be outlined. Finally, I will present some new ideas for electronic applications that may be beneficial in certain early childhood contexts (but not all).

Conference slides: Parish-Morris DigLitMcGill slide upload.

Digital Literacy for Preschoolers: #DigLitMcGill Day 1 Conference Outcomes

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

2. With Infants, E-Books and Traditional Books May Not Be So Different (Gabrielle Strouse and Patricia Ganea) POSTED ON JULY 22, 2015

3. Adult Supports for Children’s Understanding of Interactive eBooks: A Cross-sectional Case Study (Kathleen Paciga) POSTED ON JULY 14, 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

1. Keynote Presentation: Preschoolers in the Digital Age: How do E-storybooks and Paper Storybooks Compare? (Mary Courage and Anna Richter) POSTED ON OCTOBER 22, 2015

2. The Complexities and Learning Opportunities of Personalisation in Children’s Digital Books (Natalia Kucirkova) POSTED ON JULY 7, 2015

3. Parental Co-Viewing and Language Learning from Digital Media (Georgene Troseth, Gabrielle Strouse and Colleen Russo) POSTED ON OCTOBER 22, 2015

Theme III: Teaching with ebooks in the classroom

1. Keynote Presentation: Teaching with ebooks in the classroom: Emerging practices (Kathleen Roskos and Jeremy Brueck) POSTED ON JULY 10, 2015

2. Using Constructive Apps to Develop Digital Literary Skills in Early Childhood Education (Monika Tavernier and Jeremy Brueck) POSTED ON OCTOBER 22, 2015

3.School Based Shared Reading with iRead with Books Improves Emergent Literacy Skills (Susan Rvachew, Kathrin Rees, Aparna Nadig, Elizabeth Carolan & Elizabeth Christe) POSTED ON AUGUST 9, 2015

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

2. The e-Book as a Facilitator of Language and Literacy among Hebrew-Speaking Children (Ofra Korat) POSTED ON OCTOBER 22, 2015

3. Early Reading Outcomes among Preschoolers: Digital vs. Print Media (Iva Son) POSTED ON AUGUST 1, 2015

Shared e-reading is better e-reading: an uncertain certainty

by Kathrin Rees, Doctoral Candidate, School of Communication Sciences and Disorders

Mobile media continue to increase rapidly in popularity. A report put together by Victoria Rideout (2013) for Common Sense Media found a decrease in average daily use of “traditional” screen media such as television or computers for the group of 0 to 8 year-old children, whereas the time per day this group spent with mobile media (e.g., smartphones, tablets) had tripled within the same two-year period. E-books in particular are popular with children, although parents are ambivalent about these devices. They have many questions reflecting multifaceted concerns such as tradeoffs between excessive screen time and the potential academic benefits of some digital products. For professionals working with families, it is a challenge to adequately answer parent’s questions because the research evidence remains fragmentary and often contradictory.

For instance, it is not quite clear whether e-books should generally be recommended for shared reading with children, i.e. an adult and child (or several children) reading e-books together on a screen. This is a fundamental question that has been settled in the case of print books: it is well established that children learn important language skills from shared reading. Family literacy groups expend considerable resources promoting this practice by providing books to families and teaching families shared reading techniques. In the case of e-books however the research is unclear. Some studies (e.g., Segal-Drori et al., 2013) suggest that preschoolers, especially children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, learn more from e-books when they are shared with an adult. Other studies, including a recent meta-analysis (Takacs et al., 2014), have found that carefully placed features such as motion pictures, sound, and music can scaffold children’s learning to a similar degree as the comments adults provide during shared reading of print books. Surveys such as the one by Vaala and Takeuchi (2012) reveal that some parents do not enjoy reading e-books with their children: given this finding, perhaps we can conclude that solitary reading of e-books by children is a beneficial practice in some families.

Given this scant and conflicting research base, how have experts in children’s media use been responding to families’ e-book-related questions? Three non-profit organizations, two American and one Canadian, have recently published guidelines for parents regarding e-books. Interestingly, they appear unified in the core assumption that for young children, shared e-reading is generally better e-reading. Upon closer examination it turns out that all three organizations infer this insight from available research. The reader needs to be critically aware that a majority of the research underlying these guidelines is only partially related to e-reading; often the research is concerned with joint (paper) book reading and television co-viewing rather than shared reading with digital tablets directly.

One example of a guideline that is firmly rooted in research on television and DVD co-viewing is Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight by Lerner and Barr (2014). These guidelines target parents of children in the youngest age group and early childhood professionals. The white paper’s bottom line: While the type of medium and its content are influential, parent-child interaction is key for learning, notably in relation to the youngest age group. Resembling a research report in format, this document clearly succeeds in integrating pertinent research findings on the wider issue of screen use and learning by the youngest children in a language accessible to many. Another strength, practical implications are presented in note form at the end of each paragraph. Following a thorough review of research on how young children may learn from TV programming and DVD’s, the authors just briefly touch upon e-books in a paragraph entitled The danger of too much interactivity, citing two selected studies which yielded contrary findings about e-books and children’s story comprehension. Regardless of the medium (TV, apps, and touchscreens), the authors generally advise parents to prioritize content-focused conversations with their child over interactions about tech features. Yet a certain amount of tech talk seems inevitable dependent on how much previous experience each member of the dyad has with digital technology in general and the sharing of e-books more specifically. From a digital literacy perspective it might even be that some of this tech talk is quite useful—an issue that research to date simply has not addressed. On a more fundamental level, one may ask whether the TV viewing and e-book reading contexts are sufficiently similar that we may treat the research base as one.

To address a second example, the NYC-based Cooney Center chose to deploy the medium of interest itself for communicating their advice to families, an e-book app named Family Time with Apps  (available for free from Apple’s iBook store). This source similarly highlights the importance of “using apps together” (p.3), but has a comparably higher emphasis on opportunities for learning that occur in this process for both children and adults. Core content is packaged in carefully designed graphics, more precisely eight comic strips featuring interactive use of diverse apps by children and adults. Although the book app does not contain direct references to research, these may be found on the Center’s website and reveal a strong theoretical foundation in TV co-viewing as well as joint media engagement in general. The section “Reading together every day” (p.7) shows a friendly grandfather and a little girl looking at an e-book together: Acting in the best tradition of dialogic reading practices, the grandfather engages the child in talk about the story through a number of carefully formulated prompts while looking at the e-book. The girl is portrayed as very responsive, even initiating a few of the interactions herself. A box to be found in a bottom corner of the screen highlights the quintessential recommendation to read e-books just like traditional paperbooks. In other words, parents are advised to revert to strategies they have experienced as effective in a related context (i.e., reading paper books). It is not clear how parents would receive or implement this advice however: parents report that they find shared reading with print books and e-books to be quite different experiences.

To turn to a third and last example, the Canadian Hanen Centre  provides tips on e-book use for parents and professionals in the technology corner of its website. A short article by Lauren Lowry lists possible advantageous and less advantageous aspects of e-books (making reference to selected studies) and identifies quality criteria for selecting them. The article ends with a loosely connected sequence of tips under the subheading, “It takes two to read an e-book”. This claim, and one could question the certainty with which it is presented, is in fact a playful variation of one of Hanen’s traditional program titles: “It takes two to talk”. It is important to note that the latter program was originally developed for contexts such as parent-child toy play and print book reading: it is not clear that the generalization to e-books is justified. That said, this last part further lists some useful ideas like manipulating the reading medium itself, e.g. by selectively turning off specific interactive features (read in read-only mode first), followed by the hint to give the child the lead in the interaction. However, what specific purpose a strategy like “giving the child the lead” might fulfill in the context of shared e-book reading remains largely unexplained.

When we look at e-books through our old glasses mainly—i.e., what is known regarding paper book reading and TV co-viewing–we risk ignoring very specific characteristics (positive or negative) of a novel context such as shared reading with e-books. In future blogs we will explore what our own research in the context of the “digital media project” has brought about in relation to some of the recommendations reported above.