By Kjeld Kjertmann, PhD, associate professor (retired) in Danish language and reading at the Danish Department of Education
The reading crisis in many western countries is the result of a collective cognitive impairment, where we still treat written language as if it was a foreign language in an oral peasant culture. At the time, children could only learn how to read and write by being taught by itinerant ‘candidates’ or at school. But today all adults around a child are able to read and write and the child experiences the written language in all places from morning to night, at home and in the community. Nevertheless, the first steps of learning to read continue to be perceived as a matter for the school, so family members and early educators do not feel the same responsibility in involving the child in the daily use of written language, as they do in teaching the child how to get dressed, brush its teeth and cross the street correctly, where they teach in a relaxed and informal manner. Learning to read in the modern IT society has not long ago become a universal childhood issue, it is not least due to the exaggerated “scientification” of learning how to read, as an array of reading experts create the image of the school as a necessary condition for learning how to read and write. On the other hand, the research that demonstrates how an informal use-and-learn approach will teach children how to read before they even start school (eg Kjertmann 2002 and Söderbergh 2012) has very little impact.
Empirical study of the app
With some of the new electronic gadgets, the written language is now entering the interaction between children and parents outside the society’s official paths of learning how to read. The various reading apps so far has been of quite unreliable quality, and many of those “can best be described as outdated ‘ass to bench’ training added batteries and wrapped in beautiful graphics”, as teacher and developer of educational materials, Janus Madsen, puts it in a sales article about his new app WriteReader. This iPad app has been developed and empirically studied in collaboration with current and former employees at the Department of Education in the project “Writing for Reading” led by Associate Professor Jeppe Bundsgaard. The WriteReader app is aimed at children aged 4-8 years old and their parents but the families who tested it agreed that it could be used by children both younger and older than the target audience. WriteReader is primarily intended for use in informal situations and not as a teaching medium in schools.
Meaningful and educational book production
The WriteReader app enables the child to write a book based on something that is interesting and meaningful to the child. Both adult and child can produce images and text, photos and drawings and on the same page in the book children and adults write in each of their separate text box. The uncertain early writer may choose to record the story, see the adult type it into the adult box and then choose to either ‘read’ the adult text, transcribe it in the child box or just listen to the recorded story. The beginner can also choose to start writing a text immediately. The keyboard can be set to speak either the name of the letter, the sound of the letter or nothing, when pressing the keys. It is possible to insert speech and thought bubbles in the pictures. When a page is finished, you can add another page until the book is finished. When starting the book, it is placed in the ‘Library’. From there it can be retrieved and expanded upon or it can be read in a special ‘reading mode’, which looks like the page of a book where both the child and adult writing can be seen.
Inspiring and activating
The involvement of the test families has been crucial in the product development. They pointed out some challenges and explained about the children’s use of the app in the time that went between the video interviews. The interviews were analyzed by the project group who could see how the 5-year old, who was the youngest, eagerly observed the others speak, write and read, whereas the oldest of seven and eight years old worked more independently and enjoyed writing and reading together, even without adult involvement. The conclusions of the parents left no doubt that WriteReader app is both inspiring and activating. They were actually excited. They noticed several advantages in this app in relation to the various ages of their kids. It had created an interest in the written language among the youngest in the target audience and contributed to their learning of both writing and reading, while among the older children it had created an opportunity to further develop their writing and reading. In one of the families it was discovered to be the active parental involvement that was the best thing about the app. One mother wrote that electronic writing has the advantage of having your books at your fingertips and that, because of this, her children had taken them out and read them over and over again, both their own and each other’s. The ability to play recorded stories was a definite advantage. Now the written language has certainly been brought into the family.