Monday, 20 October 2014

Designing digital books to support children’s reading and language

The question of whether traditional or digital books are more effective at supporting and developing children’s literacy skills is an important one and one that has been examined in several studies (e.g., De Jong & Bus, 2002).  However, as digital books are predicted to be used increasingly at home and within schools, perhaps a more interesting question is not whether traditional or digital books are more effective, but rather which design features of digital books are most likely to support children’s literacy skills and development.   I’ve provided below a short discussion of some of the features to consider in the design of digital books:

1. Text placement and attention to text

Like many traditional books, digital books typically present the text separately from the picture (usually underneath the picture, and often within a specifically designed text box). However, if there is an opportunity to embed the text within the picture, this may influence the amount of time children spend looking at the text. Embedding text within the picture has two advantages: 1) It helps the child to realise that the text is not separate from the picture – the two combined create the story; 2) It may increase the amount of time that children spend looking at the text. Researchers interested in multimedia learning often refer to the ‘split attention effect’ (Mayer & Moreno, 2003). When the text is separate from the picture, children have to split their focus/attention across the screen; integrating the text within the picture is therefore beneficial in this respect.

Interestingly, research with traditional books has shown just how little time young children actually spend attending to print. For example, in an eye tracking research study with pre-schoolers comparing picture and print salient books (Justice et al., 2005), in picture salient books, pre-school children spent approximately 2.7% of their fixations focused on print and 2.5% of their time looking in regions of print. In print salient books, this only increased slightly: 7% of fixations focused on print and 6% of time was spent in print zones. Therefore, young children are not naturally inclined to focus on print, thus highlighting even more the importance of embedding print within pictures.

However, it is important to note that shared reading experiences with adults can increase children’s attention to print. For example, Justice et al., (2008) found that when adults provide verbal and nonverbal references to print, pre-schoolers attention to print increased significantly. Within digital texts, this can be done automatically; words can be highlighted (e.g., by changing colour), thus potentially increasing children’s attention to print.

2. Narrator

Digital texts potentially allow children to independently access more cognitively advanced books, as the feature of a narrator can provide a helpful aid to support children with new/unfamiliar words.  However, heavy reliance on a narrator is not ideal.  Many digital books only have a “read to me” option, rather than a “read by myself” option, or an option for children to only highlight specific words they cannot read themselves.  It is important to note that when the narrator is reading, the text essentially becomes redundant; in multi-media learning, this is known as the ‘redundancy effect’ (Mayer and Moreno, 2003).  If the text becomes redundant, children will arguably spend less time looking at it, thus reducing opportunities to develop their word reading skills. 

3. Coherence

A common error often made in the design of digital books is checking the level of coherence between the text and the picture/dynamic images/interaction points.  Take for example a screen shot, where the text reads: “The boat sailed out to sea” and children have the option to click on the boat.  If the boat starts sailing into the distance, this is supportive of children’s language and comprehension skills.  Indeed, dynamic images are a very useful feature of digital texts as they visually illustrate the time course of events and therefore can support children’s story understanding.  If, however, after clicking on the boat, a monkey starts jumping up and down on the deck; this undermines an opportunity to develop/support children’s language and comprehension skills and could, importantly, impede them.  As a result, it is a good idea to check whether the dynamic images/interaction points within digital books are supportive of children’s learning (i.e., coherent with the story or text) or an unhelpful distraction. 

4. Opportunities for interaction 

Positive effects of shared book reading on children’s vocabulary growth result when adults do not just read a story but also pause and pose additional questions.  For example, children learn 10 - 18% more words when their reading experiences include extra questions (Smeets & Bus, 2012).  However, do computer generated questions produce similar benefits for language skills?
Smeets and Bus (2012) recently contrasted the effects of questions (multiple choice questions posed by the computer – ‘computer pal’) interspersed throughout the story with questions posed at the end (after the entire story had been read without interruptions).  They found that multiple choice questions significantly contributed to children’s vocabulary.  While children learned approximately 15% of the target words (i.e., words of interest) with no additional instruction, multiple choice questions added another 18% gain to vocabulary (amounting to an average gain of 33%) which is comparable to the reported additive value of adult questions during adult–child book. 



De Jong, M. T., & Bus, A. G.  (2002).  Quality of book-reading matters for emergent readers: An experiment with the same book in a regular or electronic format.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 145-155. doi: 10.1037//0022-0663.94.1.145

Justice, L. M., Skibbe, L., Canning, A., & Lankford, C.  (2005).  Pre-schoolers, print and storybooks: an observational study using eye movement analysis.  Journal of Research in Reading, 28, 229-243.

Justice, L. M., Pullen, P. C., & Pence, K.  (2008).  Influence of verbal and nonverbal references to print on preschoolers’ visual attention to print during storybook reading.  Developmental Psychology, 44, 855-866.  doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.44.3.855

Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R.  (2003).  Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multi-media learning.  Educational Psychologist, 38, 43-52. 

Smeets, D. J. H., & Bus, A. G.  (2012).  Interactive electronic storybooks for kindergartners to promote vocabulary growth.  Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 112, 36-55. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2011.12.003


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