Reading out loud: an app can do it too

Apps are not just fun for children to use; they can also be very useful for language development. Education and Child Studies expert Daisy Smeets did research on the characteristics of picture book apps that help increase the vocabulary of four- and five-year olds without the intervention of a parent or teacher. PhD defence 20 December.

Learning more with video

Picture books play an important role in vocabulary development because the text used is often more varied than in spoken language. Smeets investigated the extent to which different kinds of digital picture books increased children’s vocabulary, and she concluded that so-called living books, also known as video books, are extremely effective. One characteristic of these books is that illustrations have been replaced with moving images. For instance, the camera zooms in on specific details in the illustrations which the text is referring to at that moment. Smeets: ‘This is different from a cartoon; here the animations are explicitly meant to link spoken text and images – or parts of images – and in this way to make the often complex language of picture books concrete. Books with this kind of animations allow toddlers to learn more difficult words than picture books with still illustrations.’

Music and background noise

Smeets also studied the effectiveness of video books on school children in special education with serious language deficits. Toddlers with serious specific language impairment (SLI) were not helped by background music and other additional sound elements meant to clarify words such as ‘banging’ and ‘ringing’ or to focus the attention on the emotions in the story. On the contrary, in cases where language development is problematic, such additions only make it more difficult to learn new words. The voice telling the story is sufficient, with as little white noise as possible. If picture book apps are to be used widely, it is important to make sure that the background sounds and music can be switched off.

Assigning meaning yourself is more effective

There are also interactive picture book apps: by touching certain elements in the illustration you activate an animation or sound. Smeets: ‘My research shows that additional explanations of difficult words (‘here little bear is shy, his face is turning red’) can be a good way to deal with these kinds of hotspots. Children can learn more difficult words if the computer provides the additional information, just as they learn more when the parent or teacher explains difficult words while reading.’ However, the way in which this happens is crucial. The impact on learning is limited if the additional explanation follows automatically when clicking on or touching a detail, but learning is greatly facilitated when children are required to answer a multiple-choice question by choosing the picture that best fits a word (‘on which picture is little bear shy?’). Assigning meaning to a word yourself apparently works better than being given an explanation. This research has been funded with an NWO subsidy awarded to Smeets’ thesis supervisor, Professor Adriana G. Bus.

(17 December 2012)

PhD defence

Ms D.J.H. Smeets
Storybook Apps as a Tool for Early Literacy Development

Date   20 December 2012
Time   12:30 hrs
Faculty   Social and Behavioural Sciences
Location   Academy Building
  Rapenburg 73
  2311 GJ Leiden

Supervisor Professor A.G. Bus

Studying in Leiden


Child and Education Sciences


Last Modified: 03-01-2013