Technology and Learning How to Read

Children in the early elementary grades are asked to read regularly outside of school. There are reading logs sent home on which a child writes on a daily basis the title and author of a book read. Even in a karate class, a student can earn an attitude stripe by reading thirty minutes each day for about four weeks. Given the length of a school year, the books really add up. Thus, the internet serves as an additional resource and technology can provide more than just scanned images of a book.

With a digitized version, additional elements can be added to a book. Since technology can add so many things, it is useful to divide online books into two classes: multimedia and interactive.

Sound or music can be provided. Pages can become animated. Stories can be made multimedia. The additional element can be as simple as someone narrating the story. An example is shown below from Storyline Online:

I can definitely see the advantage of listening to a voice actress such as Mindy Sterling read a story. The background music also helps in setting the proper mood. Adding a roar likewise does not hurt. These extra nonverbal pieces of information may in fact aid a child's reading comprehension.

Technology, however, may add even more. Stories can be made interactive. An example shown here is a page from Scholastic's Clifford Interactive StoryBooks:

With the above, a child can actually choose how a story goes. By choosing "log", for example, a log shows up beside the big red dog Clifford:

If a child clicks on "box" instead, then a box shows up beside Clifford:

Technology can indeed add quite a lot to a book. It does seem that technology can make reading more inviting. However, an important question remains: Does technology truly help a child learn to read? Answering this question specifically with the two types of online books in mind is likewise informative since this can guide what add-ons from technology helps a child learn to read.

A meta-analysis of published research addressing this issue is already available. In Benefits and Pitfalls of Multimedia and Interactive Features in Technology-Enhanced Storybooks: A Meta-Analysis by Takacs and coworkers, multimedia seem beneficial while interactive add-ons are detrimental. In the studies covered by this meta-analysis, the learning outcomes often measured to weigh the advantages or disadvantages of technology in storybooks are story comprehension, expressive and receptive vocabulary, code-related literacy skills, and engagement. The findings on story comprehension are summarized in the following graph:

Above copied from Zsofia K. Takacs, Elise K. Swart, and Adriana G. Bus
Benefits and Pitfalls of Multimedia and Interactive Features in Technology-Enhanced Storybooks: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research 0034654314566989, first published on January 27, 2015 doi:10.3102/0034654314566989

Online books that are interactive are of course multimedia so the effect alone of adding an interactive feature on a storybook cannot be observed. Nevertheless, it is clear that whatever advantage multimedia has over a book in print disappears or even negated when interactive features are added. The effects also seem larger with disadvantaged children (low socio-economic status).

There are smaller effects on expressive vocabulary but technology (neither multimedia nor multimedia plus interactive) actually offers no advantage on receptive vocabulary, code-related literacy skills, and engagement. The authors conclude that the addition of nonverbal information to story-telling may be allowing children to match verbal and nonverbal cues which help in story comprehension. On the other hand, interactive features may be adding considerable cognitive load which then prevents a child's mind to focus and understand the story. Thus, we are reminded of an old adage, Less is more....