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MIT Technology Review

How iPads might actually help kids learn to read

girl with rainbow headband reading tablet kindlegirl with rainbow headband reading tablet kindle

A study out today in the journal Developmental Psychology suggests that animated text could make e-books superior to physical books.

The study: Thirty-five children between three and five years old participated in a series of three experiments using two popular kids’ books: Cat’s Pajamas and Zoom City, both by author Thacher Hurd. The first experiment tested comprehension and recall after one group of children read a paper version of the books, comparing the results with those from children who read on an iPad while the e-books “listened” to kids sound out words and animated them when a child said them correctly. The second experiment compared a “static” e-book (like a Kindle) with the animated version. And the third experiment delved into whether animation at the beginning of the page helped more with recall than animation when a reader said the right word.

Animation helps kids read better. In the study, children who read a traditional paper book recalled 47% of what they read. The digital version of the book with vocabulary that danced to life when pronounced correctly boosted reading recall level to 60%. The second and third experiments both had the animated book winning out as well.

Why it works: Erik Thiessen, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon and a coauthor on the paper, uses the example of the word “cat.” The brain of a more experienced reader who sees that word will automatically associate it with a series of feline images. A younger reader doesn’t have that experience, and might get caught up in figuring out what “cat” is rather than understanding the cat’s role in the story. There’s also the reward: a cute cat cartoon makes reading fun.

So, e-books are great for new readers? Not necessarily. Earlier this year, research suggested that tablets designed for children often led to a turf war between parents and kids, and that children and their caregivers were better off reading books. Thiessen backed this up. “My guess is that while our e-book is helpful, it’s probably less helpful than interacting with a human,” he says.

The issue goes beyond reading. Learning in many different subjects appears to be complicated, and in many cased compromised, by the rise of educational technology in classrooms.

E-book innovation is going to be huge. In a society where it’s harder for adults to devote stretches of one-on-one time to such activities, and kids have ever more access to technology, e-books will be increasingly important. “Our goal in this research was to see if the same facilitation would occur if a child was interacting with a non-human partner,” Thiessen says.

But they still have a long way to go. Animation “[tends] to be instantiated in such a way that they end up being a bit distracting, like mini-games or pop-up buttons, rather than being deployed [to] become an integral part of the story,” Thiessen says. He stressed that families who have access to plenty of books and time to spend with their kids often give rise to stronger readers. That said, e-book and tablet prices are falling, and developing animated e-books that reinforce reading skills could be helpful for disadvantaged kids.