Supporting early language development and interest in reading with digital personalised books

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Learning and Leadership


The ubiquity of handheld digital technologies and dramatic rise in digital book reading in England and USA have led to a heightened commercial interest in personalised tablet and smartphone digital books (DPBs) for 3 to 5-year-old children. However, the educational value of many of these resources is questionable. There is a lack of developmentally-appropriate DPBs to enhance children's early reading experience, and a lack of knowledge regarding how parents and educators can best support children's learning with digital media. The proposed research responds to these issues by investigating how children's language development and reading experience can be enhanced by using digital personalised books. It will also identify effective strategies for parents and early educators to support children's early reading with digital technology.

The study will begin by developing a system for identifying and rating the personalisation features of children's digital books that are potentially effective for enhancing children's early language and literacy development. Parents, early years teachers and app designers will be interviewed to gain their perspectives on the possibilities and challenges of personalisation in children's digital books. Observations will be made of naturally-occurring parent-child reading practices with DPBs in five UK homes, over a 6-month period. These will be followed by rigorous experimental evaluation of thirty children's immediate and enduring language development and reading interest through reading DPBs. The resultant dataset will be scrutinised to clarify the potential of personalisation features in digital software for promoting children's language development and independent reading, and to identify effective strategies for motivating children's co-reading with their parents at home and with early educators.

Throughout the project, international experts in early language and literacy will support the development of 1) theoretical understanding of the under-researched yet educationally potent area of personalisation features in children's digital books 2) an innovative, interdisciplinary and rigorous methodological framework, with original qualitative and quantitative datasets for supporting parent-child and early educator-child co-reading with DPBs, and 3) a bank of recommendations and resources for supporting children's language and early literacy learning through DPBs for parents, teachers, policy-makers, and digital book and app producers.

Outcomes from the project will include international knowledge exchange between early reading experts at UCL IOE, University of Waikato, Cardiff University and Harvard Graduate School. This combined expertise will be used to benefit young children by informing parents, early years practitioners, and digital book designers about effective personalisation features in children's digital books, and effective strategies for supporting young children's language development and interest in reading with a range of digital media. The findings will be disseminated via a series of workshops for US and UK teachers, app designers and digital book publishers. Four magazine articles will be written for early years professionals, and regular parent- and teacher-oriented blogs will provide a forum for discussion for teachers and parents interested in the use of digital books with their children. The project website will provide multi-media guidance (video and interactive tips) for parents and teachers on effective reading practices with digital books that promote early co-reading at home and independent reading in school. Four academic publications and three conference papers on digital reading and personalisation will be submitted to high-impact academic journals and international conferences.

Planned Impact

This project aims to make societal and economic impact by enhancing the effectiveness of children's digital book reading, and ways to support it, with a specific focus on personalisation in children's digital reading materials. The research offers particular potential for impact upon the use of children's digital books at home and school, generating crucial information and guidance for parents and teachers into new forms of book reading. The primary beneficiaries are:
CHILDREN - The potential for the study to impact on children's learning arises from:
1) enhancing parents' recognition of the key personalisation features embedded in commercially available digital books and how these might impact upon their children's language learning and interest in reading;
2) enhancing teachers' recognition of the ways in which young children experience digital books at home, and ways DPBs could be used in classroom to promote learning;
3) improving digital book design, notably developing books/apps for young children that are not only entertaining but also beneficial for children's language and literacy development, and are based in empirical evidence supported by robust theorisation.
PARENTS - The findings from this research will increase parents' awareness of the potentials and constraints of digital book reading and will clarify how specific reading strategies may support or hinder children's language development and reading interest. The research will share examples of effective strategies for digital book reading with their children at home, and disseminate this knowledge through diverse popular media to other parents interested in using digital books with their children, and to practitioners interested in linking the use of digital books at school to children's home experiences.
EARLY YEARS PROFESSIONALS: The study involves focus groups with UK teachers and workshops with US and UK teachers. The findings from these activities will have benefit beyond practitioners in the UK and US, as digital book reading is a worldwide phenomenon and interest in the topic is evident from the success of several international practitioner-oriented conferences focused on digital book reading with young children (e.g., The Digital Literacy for Pre-schoolers conference held in Montreal, 2015).
SCHOOLS AND EDUCATIONAL POLICY MAKERS - The project will be of direct relevance to US and UK policy-makers, including the Department for Education in the UK, Boston Public Schools (a school district serving the city of Boston, Massachusetts, US) and other bodies involved in the policy concerning children's early education and engagement with new technologies.
CHILDREN'S DIGITAL INDUSTRY - It is anticipated that the detailed empirical research would improve understanding of digital book designers/publishers of how digital books are used in home and school contexts. The findings will have significance beyond the specific software currently used, as they synthesise the key features of digital personalised software available for young children and draw on practices from various families and learning contexts. Together with the theoretically founded insights developed in Phase 2, findings from Phase3 and discussion between practitioners and parents facilitated by knowledge exchange activities in Phase4, the project will support the conceptualising and designing of new children's digital books.
OTHER STAKEHOLDERS- This research will support literacy coordinators, ICT coordinators, librarians, literacy charities and other stakeholders who make decisions about investing funds in children's digital books. In this way, the project also addresses the RCUK Digital Economy Theme, researching and realising the transformational impact of digital technologies on aspects of society and the economy.


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