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Sept. 7, 2021

Student view: Unlocking storybook apps

Lori Bruner is a doctoral student in the College of Education. Her research explores early language and literacy development in home and community contexts. She is also the recent recipient of the 2021 Jeanne S. Chall Research Fellowship, given to one doctoral student each year.

Caregivers are exhausted. As we head into the 19th month of the pandemic, with young children tired of their toys, books and games, and our creative juices long-ago run dry, handing our children a tablet is a luring reprieve.

But hidden alongside YouTube and PBS Kids is a little-known option that might boost children’s early language and literacy development — preschool storybook apps. Arguably, one of the most important benefits of listening to stories read aloud is the exposure children gain to new words. Stories provide opportunities for children to expand their vocabularies in ways that are different than other experiences in their lives — such as playing with toys or conversations around the dinner table.

This summer, I studied 70 top-selling preschool storybook apps from three popular app stores: Apple, Google Play and Amazon. My goal was to look closely at the words children might encounter in preschool storybook apps and the specific mechanisms unique to this context that draw attention to word learning experiences on screen.

Here is what I learned: Storybook apps have a lot of new words — 1,380 to be exact, for an average of almost 20 words per story. All 70 apps contained at least one new word and 85% contained five or more. These apps included words such as “briskly,” “setback,” “reassure,” “banish,” and “promising” — introducing children to the types of challenging words they’ll encounter in texts throughout their elementary school years.

Parents and caregivers can rest easy knowing that almost 30% of new words in storybook apps are accompanied by screen-based supports, such as pictures children can tap to see and hear the word, or highlighted words that when tapped, demonstrate the meaning through characters’ actions in the story. To learn more about the benefits of storybook apps, follow me on Twitter.

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