How to Develop Appy Readers

How to Develop Appy Readers

There is something so magical that comes with being enveloped in a good book. Reading is not only foundational for writing and vocabulary, the creative benefits are enormous. Our children are inquisitive creatures, who constantly ask questions and reading is a wonderful outlet for their imaginations to thrive.  

So how to do we strike the right balance between traditional reading and digital app books, as we raise our little ones in an increasing digitally driven world?

Dr Kristy Goodwin, our children’s technology, learning and development expert has dropped by the blog to help guide us in the right direction.


As modern parents navigating the digital terrain with our kids, there are so many ‘digital decisions’ we’re constantly making. It’s confusing as we have no frame of reference. Most of us spent our childhoods staring at the sky and not at screens.

How much time should my child spend with screens? Is it okay to watch TV before bed? What apps are okay for them to use?

And when it comes to reading with our kids, we’re not immune to making even more digital decisions.

Are book apps okay to use with my child? Do I still need to read traditional, print books with my child? What’s better, digital (book apps) or printed books?

Reading with our kids is a special (and important) daily activity. Not only is it a wonderful time for us to bond with our kids, but it also has been shown to have incredible academic advantages for our kids (it develops concepts of print, phonemic awareness skills and enhances their vocabulary).

But in the modern world, we’re bombarded with an incredible range of book apps designed specifically for young children. As parents, we’re left wondering whether these are appropriate to use with our kids, especially when we know that we should limit our children’s screen-time and be mindful of when they use screens (see more about this in the section below on sleep).

Reading book apps as compared to traditional books is a qualitatively different reading experience. Book apps, by their design, are often very different to traditional books where we turn the pages and it’s usually a very calming and relaxing activity to do with our kids.  Depending on the design of the book app, there could be sound effects, animations, videos, funny voices and interactive activities to process and engage in. For some children, these types of digital reading activities offer too many sensory seductions and actually excite and distract them.

However, this doesn’t mean that we should ignore or avoid using book apps altogether. When carefully selected books apps are read, at the right times with our kids, they can offer engaging and exciting and completely new reading experiences. They can be a wonderful complement to more traditional book experiences.

For example, our kids can become part of the story (as they can in the very clever Nosy Crow apps Jack and the Beanstalk, where readers enter the giant’s castle and have to help Jack repair a shattered mirror which appears as a jig-saw puzzle on the screen and uses the device’s camera so the reader’s face and environment actually appear on the shattered mirror). Using Wheelbarrow book apps children can narrate the story by simply pressing a microphone button. Or you can combine traditional printed books with augmented reality apps, to bring books to life using the app. These are totally different reading experiences, as compared to a traditional book experience.


What’s better: book apps or traditional books?

There are benefits to reading both traditional and book apps. It really depends on when they’re used and what content you select.

There are a few things parents and educators need to know when selecting book apps:

// Look for simple design – while many app developers are keen to show you their amazing technical skills and try to embellish apps with lots of bells and whistles (sounds effects and animations), research tells us that these can be distracting. In the research done with book apps so far, it’s become apparent that if there are too many digital distractions in the book app, it will compromise our kids’ attention and impede their comprehension. They won’t recall the details of the plot, but will instead dedicate their attention to all of the superficial inclusions (i.e. the funny music in the background, or the dancing character).

So when it comes to book apps, less really is more. Simple app design is important, especially for preschoolers, whose attention can easily be distracted. Look for book apps that don’t contain too many animations, or distracting interactive games and puzzles. Select book apps that use sound effects and background music sparingly. Even better, use book apps that allow you to mute or control the background music. Look for book apps where the child has to activate the animations by tapping or swiping the screen (as distinct from animations that automatically launch when the page is turned). Avoid book apps that are more like a movie, than a book experience.

// Keep interacting with your child when they read book apps – research has shown that the parent-child dynamic changes when reading book apps, as compared to printed books. Parents tend to take on the role of digital moderator, “Don’t swipe there. No, don’t press that button.” This is distinctly different to when we snuggle up with a traditional, printed book and engage in discussion about the book, “How do you think the little boy would feel? How would you solve the problem?” This is called dialogic reading and it’s vital for developing kids’ comprehension and language skills. It’s how they begin to make meaning from what’s read. However, this dialogic reading gets displaced with book apps if parents have to assume the role of technical controller.

// Avoid rapid-fire, action book apps before nap or sleep time – the research has found that backlit devices, like tablets and smartphones should be avoided in the 90 minutes before nap or sleep-time. The research has shown that back-lit devices emit blue light and this can suppress the body’s production of melatonin which your child requires to fall asleep quickly and easily. Without sufficient melatonin the onset of sleep may be delayed in children and it can also impact the quality of their sleep.

Given that reading books is often part of the pre-sleep ritual in many families, parents are often wondering if they should avoid book apps at this time of the day. It depends on two factors:
(i) your child, as all children will respond differently and have different tipping points and
(ii) the content of the story (if it’s scary or exciting it can have an arousal affect, or cause sleep disturbances from nightmares).

Bonus Tech Tips

// If you do choose to use book apps near sleep or nap time, dim the brightness of the screen using the device’s settings, so that your child doesn’t absorb as much blue light.

// Use Guided Access (iOS devices) or Sure Lock (Android devices) when reading book apps so that your child isn’t tempted to jump in and out of other apps and get distracted whilst reading. It’s vital that we develop their comprehension and attention skills when reading.

It’s important that our digital natives experience both traditional and book apps. They both offer unique and important reading experiences, so long as we’re interacting and engaging with them whilst they’re reading (don’t be duped into thinking book apps are a parental-replacement tool, even if they do narrate the story).

Dr Kristy’s Recommended Book Apps for Children Under Five

  • Goodnight Safari – Develop bedtime routines by helping the animals prepare to sleep.
  • Imag-no-tron – this app accompanies the physical book ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ and brings the book to life.
  • Jack and the Beanstalk – the traditional fairytale brought to life. In fact, check out all of the Nosy Crow book apps.
  • The Wrong Book – an Australian-accent narrates this simple story with basic animations.
  • The Going to Bed Book – is a simple story that uses calming interactions to prime your child for sleep. In fact, check out the author’s other book apps.

Dr Kristy Goodwin is a leading children’s technology, learning and development expert, speaker and author (and mum who also experiences techno-tantrums with her kids!).  She arms parents and educators with research-based information about what today’s digital kids really need to thrive online and offline. Kristy takes the guesswork and guilt out of raising kids in the digital age. She translates the latest research into practical and digestible information, tips, and tricks for parents and educators so that they can feel confident and assured that they’re raising healthy, happy and balanced kids in the digital age. Her book Raising Your Child in a Digital World arms parents with essential research-based information and healthy and helpful ways to use technology, so you can ditch your techno-guilt for good.

Author: G8 Education

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