Wanderful recently brought the original Living Books to life in its tablet and smart phone interactive storybooks. The books integrate reading tools, music, animation, touch interaction, and more to engage students in reading. Today, Lucinda Ray and Mark Schlichting of Wanderful share with us the early motivation, design, teaching tools, and enhancements of the interactive storybooks. 

SC: When creating Wanderful Interactive Storybooks, what key decisions drove the development of the interactive pieces in the reading?

Mark Schlichting: Foremost was to create an environment that rewarded and encouraged repeated interaction with words and the story. We tested early prototypes with groups of children of different ages to understand what held their attention best and what made them feel more empowered to explore further. When we saw what worked, we made more of that, and tested again.

It is no mistake that every word of every book in every language is painstakingly recorded twice, once as part of the story telling, and then again as individual words. We found in testing that emerging readers would build the sentences word-by-word in sequence, page after page, but “readers” would pick individual words making up their own silly sentences (the sillier the better). It was amazing to watch, especially since their age difference might only be one or two years sometimes. The amount of extended word play from offering individual words to play with is significant.

We also allowed the words to be interruptible, so kids could play with the beginning sounds of each word in a rapid fire way, i.e. Baa-baa-baa-baby.  They can (and do) play with this simple feature as another form of language exploration.

We explored other ways of playing with words as well. In Arthur’s Teacher Trouble the story is focused around a 3rd grade Spelling Bee, so we added 3 pages of interactive 3rd grade spelling words. In The Tortoise and the Hare we added two pages of story related words that when tapped animate the meaning of the words, and in Jack Prelutsky’s The New Kid on The Block, we pushed that idea further allowing the text to drive most of the interactive animation. When tapped (or clicked) all the nouns highlight and identify themselves in one way or another, and all the verbs do their actions, making it kind of like a “living dictionary.” We continued to explore new ways to expand word interaction through out the entire series.

And finally, we pushed to have multiple languages easily available as a way to explore further. With Wanderful we have added dynamic language switching, so it’s simple and easy to change languages from any page expanding the opportunity for cross language play.

SC: What was the primary goal in making the storybooks interactive?

MS: To allow the natural draw and deep interest children have with technological interaction (previously mostly seen in games) to be a driving force in allowing children the ability to explore and learn through discovery at their own pace. We knew we had achieved our goals when we began getting wonderful letters back from parents and teachers, and especially the impact these titles had in the lives of children in autism community.

As a child (Mark speaking here) I was often inspired to (imaginatively) dive into the pages of picture books and explore. I was especially inspired by Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who, as I really wanted to go inside the houses of Whoville and play with all the weird and fantastical instruments and contraptions. The design of Living Books, now Wanderful interactive storybooks, is a way to let other children have that same experience.

SC: What kind of learning or behavioral psychology went into the creation of the interactive storybooks?

MS: We employed a variety of techniques to give the best user (child) experience we could. We wanted it to “feel” right, and we also learned from the kids (child-informed design) as we moved forward.

First was ease-of-use. We designed the interface so that even the youngest children could start and use it by themselves. We also incorporated feedback from classroom teachers who told me “I don’t have time to be the technologist, I need to be able to say ‘You and you, go play with Living Books,’ and they can go do that on their own, and I can give my attention to this child over here who really needs me right now.” So we designed Living Books to have no install (revolutionary for the time) and made them simply play when started.

We used direct address to have the main character, at the beginning before the story, introduce him or herself, tell the child how to play, and then invite them to participate. (I later had Montessori teachers tell me this was one of their methodologies, although I have to admit I didn’t know that at the time – it just seemed right.)

We created some fun hot spots that only happen occasionally, adding surprise, and intermittent reinforcement that encouraged further exploration.

We reinforced their exploration by making everything that looked clickable to actually be clickable (or tap-able), often to their surprise and delight. The pages are quite of full of things to be explored. Over time we heard back that having an environment where the kids felt so much in control and supported in their decisions (they felt they “made” the animation happen) actually helped some kids (especially those who are autistic or with special needs) to map that feeling onto the real world where they then felt more in control.

SC: Nearly everything on the storybook pages is clickable with animation, sound and other touch feedback mechanisms. What role does discovery play in tech learning today?

Lucinda Ray: Wanderful interactive storybooks are excellent vehicles for discovery learning. Some of the hallmarks of discovery learning are that it:

  • Encourages active engagement
  • Promotes motivation
  • Promotes autonomy, responsibility, independence
  • Develops creativity and problem solving skills; and
  • Provides a tailored learning experience (http://www.learning-theories.com/discovery-learning-bruner.html).

Each Wanderful interactive storybook invites children to explore and manipulate the text as well as the images on the screen. Every exploration or tap on the page is its own reward. Children may discover a new aspect of one of the characters’ personalities, or a reaction of one of the other characters to an event, or a surprising and delightful sound or action from objects like trees, doorsteps, alarm clocks, or mailboxes. Their interactions motivate them to explore further and to stay engaged in the reading environment. Children can select words to be read aloud and get help with pronunciation independently, without waiting for a teacher or adult. They can even click the words in onscreen text in whatever order they choose, creating meaningful or silly sentences of their own.

SC: In your beta and pilot testing of the apps with students, did you notice any key psychological or behavioral interactions with the storybooks from the students?

LR: As Mark mentioned earlier, early testing and subsequent use of the books revealed that our interactive storybooks seemed to be significant for several children. Some autistic children, for example seemed to be remapping the real world to be more like the safe and in-control world of the storybooks. There were many more examples, but they were often with specific kids on specific titles, and harder to generalize about.

I (Lucinda Ray) worked with several companies that adapted the original Living Books for use on special keyboards designed for children who had problems using a standard mouse to interact with the stories (cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, autism, learning delays). I know that these books were extremely successful learning opportunities for these children. Because Wanderful is republishing these storybooks, they will once again be available for children who benefit by directly touching the page, as well as for children who require extra time for reading and learning.

All learners, however, not just those with special needs, benefit from self-paced interaction and repetition. The ability to click a particular word 30 times in a row is like having an infinitely patient, ever-available teacher or parent who has the time and willingness to sit by a child’s side and provide that reinforcement.

SC: Do you think that touch technology on smartphone and tablets introduced increased learning value for students that wasn’t available on technology before (i.e. kinesthetic learning, etc.)?

LR: Children have been using computer technology for twenty years. As most adults know, kids are better at it than many adults are, so convincing children to learn via technology has never been a problem. Smart phones and tablets are important because they make learning content available via technology easily accessible. The magic of content on tablets and smart phones is that it is more personal, tangible, and portable. Kids don’t have to wait in line to have a chance to use the mouse. Just a fingertip will do.

While touch screens and alternative keyboards have also been available for decades, the easy availability of a tablet or smartphone puts the technology within reach of many more children who respond eagerly to things they can touch and manipulate. For children who respond best to kinesthetic and/or auditory learning, Wanderful interactive storybooks are an excellent way to read and develop comprehension skills.

Of course, the quality of the content on a tablet or other mobile device is also a critical factor. This is another way Wanderful interactive storybooks excel. The titles are good children’s literature, already identified by years of success and acceptance among teachers, parents, and publishers. The authors are recognized as good writers of children’s literature. Delivering high quality stories with engaging sounds and interactivity, and then making them available on a tablet you can take anywhere is a winning combination.

SC: Do you believe that reading and learning on tablets will be a necessary skill for the future?

LR: Absolutely. Clearly children have already adopted hand held devices for games and music. Content that is available on mobile devices is content that is part of their experience of the world. The portability and ease of use of tablets is something adults have to learn and adjust to. Kids just get it.

It is, however, important that the content available on tablets is a good learning experience. Wanderful interactive storybooks is providing exemplary reading experiences for young readers.

SC: What sort of supplemental instruction do you recommend for the storybooks?

LR: Classroom Activities are available for each of the storybooks. They provide between 15 and 20 well-designed lessons, activities, and materials in a variety of subject areas. The activities use the story as a springboard for further reading, writing about the story, dramatic play with puppets of story characters, suggested thematic units of additional books and activities (fables, friendship, poetry, birthdays), vocabulary development, math and science activities inspired by parts of the story, and much more.

They also include printable pages of puppets, activity sheets, and images from the stories. Each of the activities has been aligned with the Common Core State Standards so that teachers and parents can select those activities that provide reinforcement with learning objectives of individual children.

While the Classroom Activities have been designed for school settings, they can just as easily be used in after school programs or by parents. The Overview for the Classroom Activities, also available for each title, provides even more ideas for extending the storybooks themselves into learning units that teachers may already have as part of the curriculum.

Because the Classroom Activities are ready to use, a teacher, parent, tutor, or grandparent can provide additional learning experiences related to the storybook without needing special training or skills or advanced technical training.  

SC: How can the storybooks be used effectively in a blended learning environment?

LR: The technology inherent in Wanderful interactive storybooks matches well with a blended learning environment, which typically combines both face-to-face and distance learning facilitated by technology of some type. Because the storybooks are available on mobile devices, such as tablets and phones, as well as desktop computers and laptops, children can access them anywhere. They can be used in the back seats of cars, in the hammock outside, in the doctor’s waiting room, on a bus, or in learning centers in a school classroom.

Wanderful interactive storybooks invite children to engage directly with the text, the story, and the story environment. Having good books available in their hands and responding to their fingers provides immediate and direct support for reading development and exploration. Students can read and explore the text and pictures at their own pace, getting reinforcement by hearing the text read aloud, rereading the text themselves, and selecting individual words to hear over and over. They also discover additional story elements in the interactive illustrations. Because the books are portable, these experiences are available both inside a school and anywhere else children go.

The storybooks are an inviting way for parents to provide reading encouragement and support at home, or for afterschool programs to provide enrichment activities. Because children can use them at their own pace, they provide excellent reinforcement for those who may need extra time to develop reading fluency.

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