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Children’s Reading On Screen is an RSA Catalyst project that builds on Natalia Kucirkova's research on storytelling in early childhood. The project brought together Edlab students from Manchester Metropolitan University, RSA Fellows and parents and children (some of whom appear in the final video) in Manchester.

Watch the Children's Reading on Screen video:

Many parents worry that screen time will replace bedtime and we will grow an ‘appy generation’ reaching out for Talking Tom Cat rather than mummy’s warm hand at reading time. When it comes to advising parents, we need to draw on research rather than ideological guidance. There are layers of decision-making related to the content and context of reading digital books with young children. 

As part of their assignment, Edlab students developed a series of questions about digital reading for parents (which the parents answered in a questionnaire) and for researchers (which I partially answer in the video). In this blog, I highlight some of the questions and answers we discussed as part of this project.

Do e-books count as part of children’s screen time? Are there downsides to using digital books?

Screen time is a problematic concept because it tends to be interpreted in negative terms although it can refer to many possible activities. The content and purpose of an activity are often more important than the actual format in which they happen. Therefore, when it comes to digital books, it is important to think of them in terms of their potential to offer children a story experience that complements or is over and above a traditional book reading experience.  It follows that the downside occurs if low-quality digital books replace high-quality printed books.

High-quality digital books hybridise several media into one, but they do not privilege video material over written text and quality illustrations. In their design, they leave space for the parent and child to create their own story worlds which can include intertextual connections to personal or fictional stories.

How can we know what is a good quality digital book?

Digital books can be accessed and purchased from the App store (compatible with iOS devices) or Google Play store (compatible with Android devices). Typically, digital books are presented as ‘apps’ which might be confusing as apps fulfil various roles, and are often associated with non-text-based games rather than reading. Remember that there are many reading devices (kindle, tablets, iphones, ipads, android phones), so you need to check whether your chosen book is compatible with your, or your child’s device.

In terms of the actual title choice, you can do a few “quality control checks” before downloading or purchasing the digital book. These include:

  • In addition to the book’s star ratings and short descriptions of its developers, check the users’ reviews
  • Check whether the book has received an independent award. In the UK, we have the UKLA Children’s digital book award. International awards include the KAPI awards or Bologna children’s digital book award.
  • Once you download the book “sift through” the pages and look at the content as you would with a printed book (for example, check the quality of illustrations, age-appropriate content, the story’s moral message, good use of words and grammar).
  • Check that the multimedia features (music, voice-overs, short videos) do not disrupt the child’s reading or your reading with the child.
  • Check that the book has no inbuilt ads or purchasing options. 

Where to find good digital books for children?

In addition to the publications shown in the video, there are some websites where parents/caregivers and teachers/professionals can find studies or reviews of children’s apps and digital books. There are review websites curated by parents or teachers' communities as well as literacy charities and experts. Check out: Common Sense Media, Literacy Apps, Children’s Technology Review.

Tablets are often reduced to a portable television, but they can be also used for reading and interacting with stories. Good digital books combine the key assets of tablets (they are multimedia and customisable) and support authoring and sharing of user-generated content. Such digital books can, just like print books, bring about some positive parent-child story exchanges and teach the child several literacy and language skills.

What's next?

If you are interested in contributing to a bank of video examples showcasing positive learning experiences with children’s digital books, please contact me: natalia.kucirkova@open.ac.uk. We are especially keen to hear from fathers given their underrepresentation in our final video.

More information about my research: Story Telling in Early Childhood.

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