By Natalia Kucirkova (Manchester Metropolitan University) and Teresa Cremin (The Open University), UK
Children’s apps started as a Digital Wild West, with minimal guidance on how to develop, choose and use them. Thousands were advertised as ‘educational’ and often the most popular ones focused on children’s literacy development from a skills based perspective.
Recently, The UK National Literacy Trust launched “Literacy Apps”, an online guide for teachers and parents looking for the best children’s apps that support reading for pleasure. The guide is for children aged 0-5 years and is the only online guide in the UK that is research-based. The Literacy Apps guide complements US app curation sites such as Common Sense Media and Children’s Technology review and guides based on parents’ and teachers’ own reviews and ratings (Moms with Apps and Teachers with Apps). It targets reading for pleasure and invites feedback and ratings submitted from the user community, this means it is both expert- led and community-led.
The criteria for evaluating the apps were adopted from a Knowledge Transfer Partnership project between the Open University and BookTrust in 2015 and a related research study, which identified six key features of digital books that support children’s reading for pleasure, namely: affective, shared, sustained, creative, personalised and interactive engagement. These six critical forms of engagement form the criteria which are also used by UK teachers who participate in the judging process of the UK Literacy Association’s Children’s Digital Book Award, the only app award judged entirely by the profession for the profession.
Three of these features- affective, creative and personalised- are particularly salient for teachers who are keen to support reading for pleasure in their classrooms. Such reading is in essence child-chosen and child-directed, intrinsically motivated and choice-led. It involves young people in making meaning and offers sufficient satisfaction to prompt them to return for more. The meaning and pleasure children find in this process was explored in a project led by Cremin and documented in the recently published, award-winning book Researching Literacy Lives. The project explored how teachers can develop their knowledge of children’s everyday literacy practices in order to build on their practices and preferences in the classroom.
The project found that initially teachers were often ‘digitally blind’ in that they had to be helped to notice the presence of digital media in children’s homes and to see these not as home distractions but as part of literacy. It may have been that the teachers’ own conceptions of literacy were book-bound and print related, so for example when a five year old was texting on their mother’s phone, or an older child was searching online for ‘cheats’ for a computer game, their engagement and the skills they used in these contexts were not recognised as being ‘valid’ or relevant to literacy in school. Over time, however, as they shared the data gathered in children’s homes, the teachers’ conceptions of 21st century literacy widened and they began to value the marked digital competencies of the young. They came to recognise the power in children’s personal, affective and creative engagement in texts, and that textual diversity in school is key.
The Literacy Apps guide taps into ongoing conversations with teachers about the value of digital books for children’s emerging literacy and with the general public about the importance of digital reading in children’s lives. Through conversations around digital books, teachers and parents can scaffold children’s personal responses to them, enabling children to make critical life-to text and text-to life connections.