Republished from TheGuardian.com
With Christmas holidays round the corner, many parents are considering the pros and cons of digital books. Storyapps are a hybrid of books, short films and digital games. In the Nosy Crow Cinderella app for example, children do not just hear and read the story. They can dress Cinderella’s stepsisters in their ball clothing, help Cinderella tidy up plates in the kitchen and even insert their “selfie” in one of the magic mirrors.
Many storybook apps claim to support children’s budding literacy. The Nosy Crow app received rave reviews and several prestigious awards. Yet ongoing research warns that the very interactive features that make apps so exciting may actually disrupt children’s ability to learn from them.
Two recent studies at Royal Holloway University show that with traditional print picture books, learning is facilitated by simple, non-manipulatable stories with realistic illustrations. When books have features that can be manipulated, children are less able to follow the storyline and focus instead on the various features they can play with. Flaps, for example, such as opening a window in a print book, can create a form of interaction that is great for capturing children’s attention.
However, to gain a deeper understanding, children need to appreciate the flow of a narrative and gradually learn that there is a sequence to events, sentences, words and indeed letters that afford meaning and coherence. High-quality children’s books are characterised by rich vocabulary and grammatically complex sentences. If we take children’s attention away from such rich language stimulations and replace them with a fancy game instead, children are unlikely to benefit from repeated exposure to high-level text and simply spend that time playing the game.
Parental or peer support is also critical when children are learning to read from print books and this may be less available when children interact with storyapps. In 2012, researchers explored the differences between reading styles when parents and children read a print book as compared to a story presented on a children’s touch-sensitive electronic console book. The more electronic features there were in the book, the less parents engaged in supportive reading styles and the lower the children’s overall story comprehension.
We know from observational studies that parents and children have a great time when interacting with storyapps, with a lot of fun and bonding as a family. Many storyapps offer scaffolding for the emerging reader (eg highlighting the text when each word is read aloud) or let the child choose independently how to advance the story (eg by choosing alternative story endings). This is great for cultivating children’s independent reading ability and can support learning.
Research with print books shows that for specific groups of children, for instance for children with language impairments, books that can be manipulated to work better for learning than the ones without interactive features. Some basic customisation features (such as enlarging the text or changing the background colour) make reading easier for those who are not confident. Similarly, for children with attention difficulties, feedback embedded in apps helps capture their attention and improve attitudes about reading.
A particularly accomplished feature in many storyapps is the ability to customise and personalize the story to tailor the reading to the child’s needs and interests. Personalising digital stories means that storybooks can enrich relationships that already exist. Family members can be various story characters, Daddy can be Superman, children and parents can write and illustrate stories together.
Personalisation is especially useful for children with special needs. For example, for children with severe learning difficulties, the ability to personalise the digital story can provide a unique opportunity to share their feelings with others in the classroom . Digital interactive books can also be changed for different markets more easily than print books and therefore might better address the problem of diversity in children’s books than print media.
For each child, parents and teachers need to decide the appropriateness of any story, the context of use and the platform it is delivered on. They also need to bear in mind that no matter how well-designed and interactive the storyapp is, children still need adults and other peers to share the story experience with. This old truth applies to children’s interaction with TV, digital games or storybooks. Their hybridisation in storyapps has intensified its relevance for the new generation.