We know some about how ebooks impact reading and learning to read, but not so much about how they impact teaching children to read—that is their role in reading instruction at school.
Our research addresses this gap, asking questions about ebook pedagogy—that is the ebook as a curriculum resource in the hands of teachers. What does teaching with ebooks look like in early childhood classrooms? What are the approaches and techniques that realize the ‘magic’ of ebooks. Put differently, how do we harness the electronic energy of ebooks to the wider goal of teaching all children to read?
Our research group started with a 4-part model of ebook pedagogy that reflects what we know about quality early literacy instruction in general: good books; supportive physical environment; engaging activity; and explicit instruction.
And we began to consider these components anew using a theory of affordances originally proposed by JJ Gibson—namely that what the environment can do for you must be ‘seen’ (perceived) by you if its contribution is to be realized in meaningful action. Affordances of things, in short, interact with abilities of persons to support activity.
Specific to ebooks (as objects) the basic idea is this: that the affordances of electronic books—the screen interfaces--must be retrievable, interpretable and discoverable by its users (their abilities) to support interactions that are relevant to reading.
Our research circulates around this core theory. We want to learn about how the affordances of ebooks are realized by users in the instructional setting. How they help make teachers and kids smart(er) about reading.
Our journey of inquiry so far consists of several field-based studies on the 4-part model conducted “in the wild” of real, everyday early childhood classrooms—mainly Head Start classrooms (which, as we know from experience, can be unpredictable places).
We started by examining the ebook as a new material resource for instruction. We created an eBook Quality Rating Tool (EQRT) that described across-the-counter ebooks and applied it to a representative collection. The graphic summarizes a major chunk of what we learned: (a) that we have lots of ebooks with less interactivity (screen interfaces) & (b) fewer with more interactivity (although that is rapidly changing). More with less; less with more. Not all ebooks, in sum, are alike as to their affordances (e.g., supporting digital reading skills), and this has BIG implications for instruction, not to mention teacher education. Which ebook at which time for which kids, for example, requires making good decisions that promote reading skills for the future.
We next explored the ebook as a new device for reading in the classroom, observing the logistics of location, operation, acoustics, appeal and safety. We envisioned a supportive, pleasing physical environment that ensured access and mobility with devices (table top touch screens; tablets; iPads; iPods), and that also integrated ebook reading with traditional storybook reading. It turned out to be harder than we thought. Practicalities of the physical environment often trumped principles of classroom design. Lack of power outlets, lack of space, lack of storage, lack of this and lack of that were limiting factors. Following a modest ‘engineering’ of classroom space based on our design principles, some physical environments turned out to be pretty good, some okay and some were just a mess. Considerable research is needed for evidence-based guidelines on how to easily create ebook friendly environments in classrooms of all shapes and sizes that encourage ebook reading, support instruction—and, dare I say, look inviting and beautiful.
Engagement is the start point of perceiving the affordances of eBooks that contribute to literacy experience, development and skills. Our group conducted two studies of children’s engagement with ebooks on different devices: the tabletop computer; iPad; iPod. The first helped us to do two things: (1) develop a typology for observing children’s engagement and (2) gather some preliminary evidence about children’s engagement behaviors in settings commonly used for reading in preschool.
Among other interesting observations, we found children’s listen-look-touch behaviors increased as they gained control of devices and their move-gesture behaviors decreased. Teacher-led reading limited some engagement behaviors & child-led (e.g., book browsing) recruited more of them. Children with higher levels of behavioral regulation engaged faster than peers with lower levels—beat them to the punch by about 8-10 seconds—except with the smallest device (the iPod) where less regulated kids engaged more quickly.
We were intrigued, so we conducted a secondary analysis on the data set. Here we more closely observed the role of device (tabletop computer; iPad; iPod) on attentional capture. Devices, we saw, differentially afford the critical multisensory behaviors of look-touch-gesture-move, which capture attention that initiates engagement. Smaller devices afford more of these behaviors than larger devices. Listening did not appear to be impacted by device type … but then we might expect this because we have tried all manner of ways to get kids to listen and have not found a superior one yet. Theoretically we propose that touching in combination with looking and listening is key to engagement in early childhood ebook reading. On a practical level, we also improved the typology for future research purposes.
Now to the heart of the matter: teaching with ebooks. After no small amount of coaxing, we convinced several Head Start teachers to substitute ebooks for print books into their shared book routine. And we observed what happened for about 8 weeks, keeping a close eye on children’s learning of target vocabulary words as a marker variable of effective instruction.
Thankfully, the children learned on average one new target word per week based on pre/post test data—so no harm done there.
A few descriptive observations about the teacher’s teaching, though. The good news is that they readily applied their known shared book teaching practices to the ebook reading environment and the bad news is that they readily applied them. In other words, in applying the known with print books to the new with ebooks, powerful affordances of the ebooks were missed…they were not perceived by the teachers and thus not realized in instruction. One prime example was the lack of attention to hotspots as sources of word meaning that children can be taught to use on their own. This is unfortunate in a digital age. So…We need much more research to better understand the affordance-ability interaction between ebooks and teachers to identify new best practices for early reading instruction—and teach them to teachers.
What’s our ‘take away’ so far from researching our 4-part model in the wild? Each technology for teaching reading has its pedagogy. The hornbook called for teaching techniques that emphasized pronouncing words correctly and clearly (lots of drill there). The basal system led to a host of oral and silent reading teaching techniques – collapsed into the directed reading lesson with its multiple steps (and multiple sets of materials for practice). The Big Book introduced the idea of shared reading – summed in the Read To, Read With, You Try procedure and innovations on text. Today (and tomorrow) we have ebooks … and the pedagogy of this technology for reading and learning to read is just emerging.
So ‘heads up’ move over Mrs. Wishy Washy & make room for …