Designing e-books to model real-time ideas for parents reading with their child

Riveting Research in Early Childhood: A monthly blog series that gives a succinct summary of a new study that is compelling in both design and implications.

April 2022

By guest author: Dr. Rebecca Dore

Research citation: Stuckelman, Z. D., Strouse, G. A., & Troseth, G. L. (2021). Value Added: Digital Modeling of Dialogic Questioning Promotes Positive Parenting During Shared Reading. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/fam0000932

A brief look at the study’s background

Time and time again, research shows the importance of reading with young children to support and develop their early literacy and language skills. In particular, dialogic reading is a style where adults respond to children’s interests and use discussion prompts and questions to talk about the story. This style is proven effective at supporting early literacy development. We also know that parents often use reading as quality time to bond with their child.

However, there is a gap in our knowledge around whether different styles of reading can promote positive and warm interactions the same way it promotes literacy.

Studying this link requires us to single out the dialogic reading style in order to teach parents how to use it when reading with their child. Because in-person programming that helps parents practice dialogic reading is time- and resource-intensive for both trainers and families, it can be difficult to reach all of the families and children who might benefit.

A new study by Stuckelman and colleagues looked at whether e-books could be used as a potential solution to this challenge.

While most e-books are simply screen-based version of a traditional print book, mobile phones and tablets allow for more interactive features. Previous research has shown that interactive features that distract from the story’s plot can reduce children’s comprehension and learning, but thoughtfully designed features that align with the book content can be beneficial. For caregivers, e-books offer the potential for digital modeling, in which the e-book itself provides examples of how to engage in dialogic reading practices.

How the study was designed and what it found

Stuckelman and colleagues’ study was part of a larger project in which researchers developed an e-book based on a PBS KIDS show, “Peg + Cat.” In the e-book, a character popped up after the story narration and provided questions and prompts related to the content, such as “Who’s the tallest in your family?” or “You could talk about what it’s like to ride on someone’s shoulders.” In an easy version of the e-book, the character asked simple questions on each page. In an advanced version, he gave more complex prompts on about half of the pages, with the idea that parents could come up with their own questions on the other pages.

This study was an experiment in which families with preschoolers were randomly assigned to one of three groups: dialogic modeling e-book, control e-book (without dialogic modeling), or choice (where families received both versions of the e-book). Experiments are the gold-standard for causal evidence, or evidence that a single factor (in this case a dialogic modeling intervention) causes an outcome. Randomly assigning participants to different groups ensures that there are no systematic differences between the groups other than the type of e-book(s) they received. If participants chose which group to join, there could still be unintentional differences that could skew results. For example, families who chose a dialogic modeling e-book might already be more talkative. Randomization means any differences are assumed to be because of the different types of e-books.

Caregivers and children in all three groups (dialogic modeling, control, and choice) first read a book together in the lab while being videorecorded. They were then given a tablet with their assigned e-book(s) and asked to read it ten times at home over two weeks. Then they came back to the lab and read a different e-book and a different print book while again being videorecorded. The researchers watched the video recordings and rated them on different aspects of parent-child interaction. Examples of what the researchers looked for were how often both the parent and child responded to the other person’s questions, comments, and behaviors; how often they smiled and laughed; and how much they focused on the book without getting distracted.

Stuckelman and colleagues found that between the two lab visits, families who received digital modeling improved on all outcomes. Families in the control group (without modeling) looked similar at both visits. Families who chose which e-book to read chose the dialogic modeling e-book about 60% of the time. These families improved only on some measures and only when reading the print book in the lab.

Why this study matters

In addition to supporting early literacy skills, having warm and positive interactions while reading can influence children’s attitudes towards books and reading as they grow up.

This study shows that we can capitalize on existing technology that is already in many homes to support parents in developing these positive reading behaviors. Parents in this study didn’t get explicit training, but instead, the e-book modeled the behavior and parents picked it up themselves.

Content creators might be able to design other technologies, like apps, to support parents in creating optimal environments for child development and learning.

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