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Book Apps: Bad or Brilliant?

A recent study revealed that 54% of US children aged 2 to 13years are reading e-books of some description (on iPads, iPhones, Kindles, Android tablets). It is likely that similar statistics would be found here in Australia too. As parents are increasingly using their iDevices with their children, we need to stop and consider what impact this is having on their learning and development.

As a relatively new technology, I am sad to report that we actually know very little about the impact of e-books (or ‘book apps’ as they are sometimes referred) on young children and their reading skills and habits. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center have conducted some small-scale studies examining e-books and young children, but it is not yet possible to draw conclusions from such small studies. Instead, I offer some insights into book apps and make some inferences about their possible impact.

Features of Book Apps:

  • Book apps offer new levels of interactivity, not possible with traditional print books. For example, in ‘The Wrong Book’, users can touch animals on the screen and they make their corresponding animal sound. In ‘Pop Out: The Tale of Peter Rabbit’, children can help Peter crawl underneath the fence as he tries to escape Mr McGregor’s garden. In phenomenal levels of interactivity, the ‘Imag-n-o-tron’ app can be used with a real paperback version of ‘The Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore’. The book literally comes to life on the iPad, where musical notes and books swirl around and become part of the user’s world, as shown in the photo below.
Priming daughter
  • Book apps can be highly engaging with their sound effects and screen embellishments (such as animated characters). In this sense, book apps can entice reluctant readers who may be otherwise dis-interested in reading. This is often the case with boys as they approach Year 3- 4 and reading suddenly becomes a lot less enticing than other activities.
  • Self-pacing and independent reading is possible for slightly older children. With most book apps, children can elect to read the book themselves or have it read to them. If they choose to read it themselves, they can tap on any unknown words and have the words read to them. This allows children to concentrate on understanding what they are reading instead of focusing solely on de-coding the word. This is a great way for emerging readers to consolidate their skills.
  • Individual word highlighting can also teach young readers about the concept of a word (it may sound menial but an important pre-requisite for learning how to read is actually understanding that a word consists of a group of letters). Word highlighting also develops children’s tracking skills (i.e we read from left to right and return-sweep from one line to the next).

What We Need to be Wary of With Book Apps:

  • Too many distracting features (like sound effects that cannot be muted or turned down) can impact on a child’s ability to focus and understand the story. There are lots of book apps where the animations are launched automatically when the page is entered and are not activated by the user. These ‘bells and whistles’ can really distract young children and those students with additional learning needs. In a study completed by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, it was found that children who read ‘enhanced’ e-books could recall fewer details than the children who had read ‘basic’ e-books or ‘print’ books. Whilst only a small scale study this suggests that book apps with too many inclusions may adversely impact on a child’s comprehension.
  • Some literacy experts have suggested that book apps (or e-books) are more like movies than books. Their criticism hinges on the fact that with many book apps, the story is presented to the reader and there is little imagination and creativity required on their behalf. This is in stark contrast to the high levels of imagination that are often required when traditional books are read.
  • The QuickStudy conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center also found that parent interactions were different when using different books. Parents engaged in fewer ‘content-related’ discussions with children when they used ‘enhanced’ e-books, suggesting that they were focused more on the technical aspects of navigating and managing the device.

Basically, in moderation and when used in conjunction with print books, book apps can be effective and an alternative to traditional books. These types of media will not be un-invented so we need to teach children how to use them and manage them effectively.  In our next blog post we will provide parents with 5 simple tips for using book apps with their children.


I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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