John Higgins

Electronic books for preschoolers jazz up their stories with videos, animations and games that make Goodnight Moon look like something chiseled in the Stone Age.

Such books can help children learn the early skills they need for reading, but not if the special features distract them from the story on the page.

That’s what University of Akron researchers discovered during a three-year, federally funded project at four local Head Start sites that ended this spring.

The project, called Akron Ready Steps, tested whether focusing on early literacy skills throughout the preschool day would improve children’s readiness for kindergarten. Researchers also explored the learning potential of e-books, which can be read on mobile touchscreen devices such as iPads.

The researchers worked with Akron Summit Community Action, the local Head Start agency for low-income children, in 16 preschool classrooms. Children were divided into two groups — one that participated in the Akron Ready Steps program and another that received regular Head Start instruction — and compared their progress.

Both groups started the year last fall scoring about the same on various tests of skills that lead to reading, according to the Southwest Institute for Families and Children, which evaluated the program. Children in both groups scored “at the lower end of average” on those tests.

By the spring, children in the Akron Ready Steps classrooms had learned more letters and more words and had a better awareness of the sounds letters make than the kids in the comparison group did, according to Karen Burstein, director of the Southwest Institute.

Learning the ABCs is nothing new in preschool, but what Akron Ready Steps did was make literacy the focus of every activity, said Lisa Lenhart, the project’s principal investigator and director of the Center for Literacy in UA’s College of Education

Typically, a day in preschool might include a 25- or 30-minute story time. Much of the rest of the day is consumed by making transitions between activities and with free time at different play centers.

The researchers hired four coaches to show teachers how to find opportunities throughout the day for children to learn new words, identify letters, hear the sounds of letters and practice having extended conversations with teachers.

“Some kids honestly just knew one or two letters, so alphabet knowledge was really important, and there was a big, big focus on that,” Lenhart said. “We really worked with them on transitions and how to do rhyming activities during transitions from brushing your teeth to going to the carpet.”

If the class was learning about wheels, then the children would use art time to make signs for a pretend bike shop. When play time came, kids would operate the bike shop.

“We’re just talking about that open classroom time when you could do whatever you wanted,” Lenhart said. “The play was around a topic. It wasn’t just housekeeping every single day. How imaginative is that? Some of the little girls do that every single day.”

Teachers also learned how to squeeze in some rhyming practice during the usually wasteful minutes the class spends shifting from one activity to the next.

Personal library

Over the three years, kids received a personal library of 30 to 40 books they could take home and keep.

They also learned how to read e-books using iPads, iPods and other technology paid with the grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

“There was a separate research initiative around the e-books because that’s something that’s relatively new right now,” said Jeremy Brueck, co-director of Akron Ready Steps and a doctoral student at UA.

They began with figuring out what makes a good e-book for preschoolers. For example, it should tell a good story with a beginning, middle and end.

“Sometimes you might have a story that they make into an e-book just because they want to say it’s an e-book and it isn’t a good, cohesive story,” Brueck said.

Narration can pause

E-books often have a narrator read the book to the child, but a good e-book allows the user to pause the narration and start it again.

That way, teachers can draw children’s attention to something going on in the story without having to start over, Brueck said.

Some books have toggles that switch between English and Spanish or Mandarin Chinese. Some let children touch a highlighted word or letter and hear how it’s pronounced. Those kinds of features are helpful, but sometimes e-books have distracting features.

Some have animations, for example, that show a character in the story doing something unrelated to the action of the story, unlike illustrations in a traditional print book that give children a picture of the action they’re reading about.

Little puzzles and games embedded in the story can help if they draw attention to the text of the story or distract if they don’t.

“Sometimes people would think that e-books have all these bells and whistles and they should be better, but what we found was that that’s not necessarily true,” Brueck said. “Just because it’s electronic and it’s on the iPad doesn’t mean necessarily that it’s a better resource than a book you already have in your classroom.”

Once researchers decided what kind of e-books to use, they worked with teachers to develop an “e-book nook” that would integrate the computer gadgets naturally with the print books in a reading area free of distractions.

Researchers then videotaped teachers and students working with the e-books and reviewed the tapes, recording how long the students’ attention was focused on the e-books compared with traditional picture books.

“We stopped every 15 seconds and tracked each student,” Brueck said. The results, which Brueck expects to be published soon, showed that children looked at the e-books longer than they looked at the print books.

“Kids focused their attention longer on an e-book for longer periods of time than they did for a traditional book,” Brueck said. “We found that kids who have behavioral issues attended an even longer period on average than the kids who don’t have behavioral issues.”

The next step is to delve deeper into what’s going on in children’s brains when they spend more time looking at an e-book.

“We will have published some baseline studies that set the stage for things such as that,” Brueck said. “We feel like we’ve done some pioneering research and work in this area through this particular program. We’re proud of that and hoping to build off of it.”