Digital storybooks and reading ‘apps’, such as might be read on a computer, or through a tablet computer like an iPad, are increasingly being designed and marketed towards children. However, very little is known about how children’s reading of digital texts differs from when they are reading from more ‘traditional’ physical sources, such as printed storybooks.
Arguably, some of these new types of digital media aimed specifically at young children present novel and innovative means of engaging young readers with written text in ways that printed books cannot. Storybook and reading apps often incorporate interactive elements intended to enliven the reading process. These may include changes in text colour, the inclusion of ‘clickable’ interactive elements within the story’s illustrations, or audio, such as a narrator’s voice.
Such digital embellishments may seem appealing, but how do they influence a child’s visual attention towards text during story reading?
In some ways, these features could be said to mimic many aspects of traditional shared reading between children and adults. Grownups often read the words aloud to their children during storytelling, or draw attention to a book’s text by pointing and even running their finger along the line of text accompanying their speech. This is quite similar to how many digital storybooks might have a narrator’s voice accompanied by highlighting of the text currently being spoken in order to direct attention towards specific words.
This study was intended to explore precisely how audio narration and text highlighting in digital storytelling influences how and where children direct their visual attention to both text and illustrations.
Children aged between six to eight years, and some adults, were invited to read along with storybooks presented on a computer screen. As they read, their eye movements were recorded using a TOBII eye-tracker. About half the story was accompanied by audio narration, and the rest was not. For some of those narrated sections, the text was also highlighted in time with the words being spoken. The data are very preliminary as we didn’t recruit a large number of children. However what the pattern seemed to show was that the children looked at the text most when there was no narration or highlighting. In other words, including an audio track meant that they looked more at the images instead of the words.
It is hoped that we can build on the findings of this study to shed more light on how children read and engage with digital texts, and in particular how certain multimedia features within digital texts can capture and direct visual attention during the storytelling process. Multisensory or interactive digital elements may offer an exciting alternative to printed media, but whether they help to improve children’s engagement with text, or merely distract young readers, remains to be determined.