Category Archives: Book Apps for Early Readers

Will avatars improve learning how to read?

What’s the future of reading?

Kindle pronunciation and definition pop-up

Already available on the Kindle, readers just touch unfamiliar words and a definition pop-up appears. (shown is an excerpt from “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett) CLICK on the picture for a link to the pronunciation.

A student who knows she has trouble reading long words creates an avatar—say an owl—to help her.  Then whenever she is reading online, the avatar would appear before every long word.  The avatar will help her to figure out long words–three and four syllable words.

The student could skip the avatar if she thinks she knows the word.  But if she  needs help, she could click on the owl and the owl might segment the word into syllables, making the word easier to deconstruct.  “Conversation” might show in a tiny screen as “con-ver-SA-tion.”

If the word does not follow the rules of phonics, the word might be shown as it is pronounced.  “Business” might appear as “BIZZ-ness.”

An option for the avatar to pronounce a word might also exist.  If a student can figure out “discreet” but not “discretion,” the avatar might pronounce the latter word.

With technology, we have the ability to personalize reading instruction, offering individual help for students.  Fast learners could have an avatar which acts as a high speed dictionary and thesaurus, allowing students to read difficult words without a word search.  Slower learners’ avatars could offer private tutoring help, allowing students to progress at their own slower pace with no one the wiser.  ESL students could get help with pronunciation.

Even older students reading advanced text books could use this help with the avatar segmenting the word, perhaps showing its root, pronouncing it, and defining it.  It could refer to previous pages in the book where the word is used the way an index does—all at the click of an avatar.

Sound farfetched?

With Google’s Alexa, some of this technology already exists.  If a student is stumped by a word, the student can spell the word and ask how to say it or what it means, and Alexa, after a split-second of “thinking.” would respond.

It’s only a matter of time before this kind of technology will be custom fit to meet individual students’ reading needs.

How digital ebooks—including picture books—are evolving

Is your young child using a laptop computer, a notebook or a tablet in the classroom?  One in three students are, according to a survey by Project Tomorrow based in Irvine, CA.

Young girl 's reading choices include a print book and an eBook.Young girl 's reading choices include a print book and an eBook.Until now, most of the ebook material available has been at too high a reading level for beginning readers, but that is rapidly changing.  (For example, Mrs. A and I created five ebook stories for children learning short vowel sounds.)

The narrative or story ebooks (picture books) that would attract grades preK-2 are becoming more sophisticated as publishers experiment with the features these ebooks can offer.

  • The first such ebooks were scanned versions of picture books in their original form—same cover, same font size, same everything except that these ebooks were available on a digital platform. Some features of picture books were lost, such as the tiny size of board books or the large size of some illustrations, but other features were gained, such as the fun of using a computer or phone to read a picture book.
  • Later ebooks took the Reading Rainbow approach—a voice reading the book aloud, and pictures zooming in or out as if to show action. Instead of the child being in charge of the reading, and moving through the book at his own pace, the film director decided what was important, what words to emphasize and how much time to spend on any one illustration.
  • The next step in the evolution of ebook picture books was interactive ebooks. The design of the print version was altered to take advantage of features like “Read to me” (the child presses a button and a voice reads the book), music, sound effects and animation.
  • More recently, tablets and smart phones allow children to move characters about so that the reader becomes part of the story. The child reader can “help” a character by performing certain actions, or at the end of the story, complete puzzles, word games and coloring activities related to and enriching the story or the child’s reading skills.  Many of these new picture books begin life as ebooks, bypassing the printed stage altogether.

What’s next?  I suspect ebooks will become personalized, with the child able to change the name of a character to a name of his choice, and to change the outcome of the story to fit his mood.  He might be able to change the color scheme or to select more advanced vocabulary as his reading skills improve.  Look to video games, to wii and x-box 360 for technology that will eventually work its way into ebooks.

What would Dr. Seuss think?

What’s a graphic novel?

One of the biggest trends in children’s literature in the past ten years is the rise of graphic novels.  Not sure what I mean?  Think Captain Underpants and The Wimpy Kid.  Graphic novels are

  • Two boys reading a book entitled "Graphic Novel."comic-strip-like stories with a beginning, middle and end (not a continuing saga).
  • fiction and nonfiction stories told as much in colorful drawings as in words.
  • a hybrid form of action literature that appeals to 12 to 18-year-olds but now is working its way to much younger readers.
  • a newly recognized form of literature by the Young Adult Library Services Association, part of the American Library Association, which has been selecting the best graphic novels for teens since 2007.
  • a form of children’s literature reviewed in respected journals such as School Library Journal.

Graphic novels, like all novels, cover many themes such as romance, sci-fi, fantasy, super heroes, and modern warfare.  Not all graphic novels are novels.  Recent nonfiction titles include Pride and Prejudice, a biography of Thomas Jefferson, Poseidon, landing on the moon and the great apes of Africa.

When graphic novels started appearing, said Mary Tyner, a media specialist from Peachtree Elementary School in Peachtree Corners, Georgia, they were inferior literature and she did not buy them for her school library.  But as they improved and as they were reviewed by respected journals, she began buying, and now she can’t keep the 153 titles on her library’s shelves.

“They are an extremely motivating literature that encourages children to read,” Tyner said.  Over time, she has seen the reading level of graphic novels press downward, but there are few for beginning readers, perhaps because it is hard to have a meaningful story line in beginning reading books, said Tyner.

Another advantage of graphic novels is that they teach synthesizing skills, said Deb Schiano, media specialist at Loundsberry Hollow Middle School in Vernon, New Jersey.  “In our society children must be aware how to read images,” said Schiano, and how to combine the images with words to form meaning.  She compares graphic novels to storyboards from which the student can pick up story arcs by reading the drawings.  Combining the pictures with the words creates more complex meaning.

Graphic novels also attract disabled students, said Schiano.  “For the dyslexic student who can’t decipher words, graphic novels are another way to learn.” In her school last year one teacher used them consistently with learning disabled students.

Both media specialists said graphic novels also encourage children to write and illustrate their own stories, sometimes using online sites.

What has all this to do with beginning readers?

  • Young children will see their older siblings reading graphic novels, and will enjoy paging through them to study the drawings.  The joy that that the older child shows might encourage the younger child to want to read.
  • With time, graphic novels will probably reach down into first grade reading levels and attract younger and younger readers.
  • As a child’s reading ability improves, he might want to buy these books or to borrow them from the library.  Parents unfamiliar with this genre might scorn graphic novels as inferior, but it is worth remembering they have advantages over text-only books.  For reluctant readers, or disabled readers, or boys, they can be a way to motivate the child to read.
  • Graphic novels can also be found on iPhones and Android phones.  Expect your young children to be intrigued when they find them online, and eventually, to want to buy them this way.

Is reading from an electronic screen just as good as reading from a paper book for my child?

Have you seen the You Tube videoAngry child thinking a book is a tablet app. in which a one-year-old child swipes the family iPad screen to make it work? Then she does the same to a magazine but it doesn’t “work.” She pinches the magazine and swipes back and forth across the picture but the image on the page does not change. In frustration she presses hard with her index finger, still with no results, and then just to be sure, she presses her finger against her leg to see if her finger is working.

Even at one-year-old, children are using electronic devices to learn. It’s a given. Does it help? Does it harm? Most of the research comparing electronic reading with old-fashioned book reading uses older children or college students as subjects, so it is difficult to apply the results precisely to younger children. Even so, here is what some of the research shows.

  • A book has a physical presence that an electronic device does not. The reader knows intuitively how big the book is, how hefty the book is, and how many pages have been turned or still need to be turned. A little child can figure this out quickly even before he can talk.
  • An ebook’s physical size, by contrast, is difficult to gauge. Is it 24 pages or 48 pages long? All ebooks books “weigh” the same. If you are at location 304-6 out of 4020, what does that mean? A bar across the bottom helps to show that 7% of the book has been read, but since you can’t “see” the turned pages, what does 7% mean? Most books for little children are not more than a couple dozen pages, but can children tell that? Do they have any sense that they are halfway done?
  • Old-fashioned books allow an intuitive navigation of the text. You read an idea on page 33 that reminds you of something you read a few pages earlier, on the top of a left-handed page.Indian girl on the floor reading a book. You can easily go back to just the left handed pages and reread the tops while holding your finger or a bookmark in the place where you left off. If a child suddenly notices a tiny frog on page ten, he can go back quickly to find out if there is a frog several pages back by flipping pages.
  • Ebooks also allow you to go back, but you need to check every page since there are no left and right-handed pages. Ebooks don’t allow for flipping back without skipping pages, or for scanning ahead. And if you forget how to go to the beginning of the book, or to chapter 2, you need to stop and go to the electronic device’s directions. Little children can’t do that. Ebooks do not allow for easy highlighting or jotting down notes, though this is not important for young children.
  • Research shows that reading from old-fashioned books leads to more serious and focused reading and more retention. Because of books’ easy navigability, older students approach handheld books seriously, and they absorb more.Boy on floor reading an ebook on his tablet.
  • Reading ebooks, on the other hand, is a more casual experience. Kids browse, scan through a document, look up keywords and tap a hyperlink before finishing a document. They often read information once without rereading it. Do little kids see this distinction between old-fashioned books and ebooks? It’s hard to say without more research.
  • Books with tiny type faces or books read in inappropriate lighting can strain eyesight and even lead to wearing glasses in young children.
  • Onscreen books’ typefaces can be increased in size, and most ebooks come with an internal light to create sharp contrast for easy reading—both real advantages. But the screens can also cause glare leading to headaches and blurred vision. Time in front of a screen needs to be monitored.

Nooks, iPads, smart phones, notepads and other electronic devices have been around for only a few years, so much more research will be done on them, including research on young children. Also, manufacturers are improving the technology to meet the shortcomings of past versions, so a newer version might be more kid-friendly than an older version. My Kindle purchased just four years ago seems like a reading machine compared to the latest Kindle Fire which downloads apps, plays games, lights up internally—and allows me to read books.

Unlike us, little children today are growing up using old-fashioned paper books and electronic screens at the same time, much like a bilingual child uses two languages interchangeably. An engaging storybook with a good story and excellent illustrations might be just as attractive as an online book if read and shared enthusiastically by Mom.

We shouldn’t fear the new technology but rather search out what it can do better than the old-fashioned book. Can it read a story aloud to a child? Can it allow the child to match rhymes with a swipe of his finger? Can it allow the child to email his voice reading a book to Grandma?

So should you encourage your child to read from a screen? Sometimes, especially if you are guiding him. Are onscreen materials just as good as old-fashioned books? Some are, some are not. Each offers real advantages.  –Mrs. K

First anniversary

A little over a year ago, Mrs. K and I sat at my dining room table and made plans for a blog and a series of books for early readers. A month ago, December, 17, marked the first year anniversary of our blog. During the past year:

  • We have received more than 10,000 views of our website.
  • Two topics have tied for the most read blogs:
    • how not to mix up b and d, and
    • the meaning of CVC.
  • The third most-read blog was about teaching vowel sounds.
  • Many other well-read blogs concern methods of teaching reading and information about our book apps and funny pages.
  • More than half the views come from U.S. readers.
  • Yet viewers from the U.K, Canada, Australia, the Philippines, India, New Zealand and South Korea also read our blog often.
  • Viewers come from every continent except Antarctica.
Countries of comicphonics.com blog viewers of the past year

Click on the chart to enlarge it.

This information is useful in planning blogs for 2014. We thank you, our readers, for reading our blog, for leaving comments and for making suggestions for future blogs. Our goal is to continue to provide useful information for teaching little children how to read.

Are you running into problems teaching your child to read? Have you come across a new book that your child loves to read? Have you found web sites or apps that your child uses to learn to read? Let us know so we can pass along information to your fellow parents and teachers.

— Mrs. A

Mrs. K and Mrs. A publish fifth book, “Not Yet, Baby”

Our fifth book for children learning to read was published this past week as an app on Apple products.  Not Yet, Baby is the story of a big brother and the family baby.  The little one wants to do whatever the big brother does.

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If big brother swims, baby wants to swim.  If big brother eats a hot dog, baby wants to eat a hot dog.  If big brother kick-boxes, baby wants to kick box.  Often in danger, the baby is dragged away just in time by two arms.

Like our other books, Not Yet, Baby illustrates typical yet humorous situations that a four, five, or six-year old would understand.  The book uses mostly one syllable, short vowel words appropriate for beginning readers.  Interactive activity pages follow—word searches, matching rhyming words, filling in the correct vowel and answering yes and no questions.

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The idea came to me as I was traveling through national parks in Utah and Arizona last summer.  Occasionally I would get a text or a picture from my son, Tom, the dad of two little boys.  The younger one was walking and following his three-year-old brother everywhere.  Whatever the older boy had, the baby wanted.  Whatever the older boy was doing, the baby was underfoot.

I reminded Tom that he too, had been a younger brother and had been a pain in the neck to his big brother, Lou.  Lou would build elaborate corrals with wooden blocks, enclosing a dinosaur in "Not Yet, Baby" sketch bookeach compartment.  Tom would totter across the rug, destroying the entire habitat.  On the tour bus in the Rockies, as I remembered spending hours restraining the rambunctious Tom, the ideas flowed, and within a few days I had a book full of sketches!

As you read Not Yet, Baby, you may remember being the older child trying to understand the limitations of a younger one.

Page 13 of "Not Yet, Baby"

Here’s page 13 of “Not Yet, Baby” from the sketch book idea.

Or maybe you can relate to a baby trying to keep up, or the adult who works tirelessly to keep one child safe and another one happy.  Maybe the story will lead to talks with your child about your childhood or his.  There’s so much to talk about in Not Yet, Baby.  You can find the “Not Yet, Baby” iTunes app at http://goo.gl/CVTFZx.

Mrs. A

Reading Rainbow app attracts young readers

Do you remember watching Reading Rainbow as a child?  It’s the American PBS television series encouraging young children to read.  It was broadcast for 23 years, from 1983 to 2006, winning 26 Emmy Awards for “Outstanding Children’s Series.”  Today it is still watched on video in schools around the country and is available for sale.

Well, times change.  A year ago the Reading Rainbow app was released with new books reviewed, new toddler reading iPad miniadventures for host LeVar Burton and updated music.  Within 36 hours of its release, it became the number one educational app.  The Reading Rainbow app has been viewed 2.5 million times since then, with 50,000 digital books a week going into homes of subscribers.

Burton, who owns the rights to Reading Rainbow and has developed the app, says he has proven that kids will read on electronic devices.  The app contains a combination of animated characters, video field trips, music and of course, books—hundreds and hundreds of books.

The cost to subscribe is about $10 monthly.  The app is available on Apple operating systems of 5.0 or later.  Like the TV series, the app targets elementary school-aged children.

How about you?  Has your child tried this app?  Do you recommend it?  Or do you recommend another app to encourage reading for young children?  Please take a minute to let our blog readers know.