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Posted by Nosy Crow, March 3, 2015

Can apps enhance learning?

Today’s blog post is by Rachel Stohler, mother of Meghan and a publishing MA student at Kingston University.

I bought the Nosy Crow Cinderella app for my five-year-old daughter, Meghan, last fall. We read through it once together and after that, she would look at it on her own every so often. She possessively called it “my app” and enjoyed the “Read and Play” setting.

Last week, I bought the physical version of the book—not for Meghan, but for my MA dissertation. (I am studying Publishing at Kingston University.) Meghan happened to see the book on my desk, and her reaction to it was fascinating.

Before I explain Meghan’s response, I should mention that I’ve become very interested in the development of children’s picture book apps that encourage literacy—apps in which enhancements (interactive elements that move, speak, change color, etc) actually enhance learning. I really want to know if picture book apps can be created to increase engagement, build emotional connections with characters and foster comprehension.

Without my intending it to happen, my daughter provided me with my first observational evidence that carefully designed picture book apps can actually aid literacy development.

When Meghan opened to the first page of the physical Cinderella book, she saw a smiling Cinderella and remarked, “She shouldn’t be smiling. She has to work hard.” She quickly turned more pages and then stopped at the section in which Cinderella is helping the sisters get dressed for the ball. She touched the pile of ribbons and baubles in Cinderella’s arms and grinned conspiratorially. I could tell she felt very clever because of her secret knowledge (that when she touched that picture on the app, the ribbons would move).

Meghan laughed. Then she said, “Can I have my app?”

“Do you want to compare it?” I asked. She nodded.

When I gave her the iPad, Meghan confirmed that on the first “page” of the app, Cinderella sweeps the floor glumly. She is not smiling. She says, her voice exhausted, “Another busy day for me.”

By holding the app and the book side by side, I could see that Meghan was right; Cinderella should not have been smiling. From her experience with the app, Meghan had made enough of an emotional connection with Cinderella that she could articulate the character’s feelings and evaluate how well an illustration conveyed them.

As Meghan continued to compare the physical book and the app, I began to wonder if a carefully developed app could actually enhance a young reader’s emotional connection to a text? Just last weekend I read Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2008) in which Maryanne Wolf explains: “…emotional engagement is often the tipping point between leaping into the reading life or remaining in a childhood bog where reading is endured only as a means to other ends.” Clearly, emotional engagement plays an important role in the development of what Wolf calls a “fluent, comprehending reader.”

Meghan’s desire to compare two formats of the same book is a fascinating demonstration of engagement with, connection to and comprehension of a text. Research by Warren Buckleiter (2006) suggests that children respond best to interactive media with which they can engage, and in Screen Time (2007), author Lisa Guernsey suggests that “…the strength of electronic books—whether in a child’s lap or on a screen that they allow children to engage with a book on their own terms.”

My observations of Meghan suggest that apps may have the potential of being more engaging to early readers than physical books. Of course, this is a problem if the apps are just games in the guise of books, but if the apps are actually carefully designed to scaffold learning and enhance the story, it’s possible they may be the most engaging entry into the magical world of stories.

Thank you very much, Rachel! If you’ve not yet tried our Cinderella app (or read the print book!) you can watch a trailer for the app and take a look inside the book below – and if you’d like to stay up to date with all of our app news, you can sign up to our apps newsletter here.

Buy the book online.

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