Improving Children's Literature in Digital Spaces

How do we know if a digital book is of a quality to support children's literacy development? An answer to this question must be constructed by all who contribute to a child's growth as a literate person.
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We all know that the increasing number of new publishing platforms are challenging the traditional models of publishing. There is a growing interest and enthusiasm for the capacity of anyone to publish and create, but is there equal interest on the impact of quality or value of these texts to the reader? Currently, publishing in digital spaces emphasizes producers, rather than consumers. This unbalanced focus has the potential to impact children's reading experiences in negative, as well as positive ways, and is already having a significant impact on the world of children's literature.

The Problem -- Diversity of Quality
In our own exploration of children's ebooks and digital stories we have identified a wide variety of quality, not just in design, but also in key areas of spelling, grammar and punctuation. Traditional gateways through which stories and literature for children have been produced are no longer applied to all texts, especially digital ones. An app developer can write an original story, design some images and upload it to the Android or iOS App Stores, only needing to meet specific technical design requirements. There are no requirements in this process for editors or proofreaders to help shape and craft a story and an overall book that meets the interests and learning needs of children. While anyone can write a children's book, it takes a team with a level of expertise to help create a quality story for children.

Traditionally, publishers of children's literature have played the role of selecting quality stories, editing and drafting and supporting children's authors through the process to create children's books. This function does not exist in the digital space, so we set out to develop a tool for exploring the quality and value of content provided in a digital book, while also addressing issues of spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Publishers are still using their mechanism and re-publishing print books as ebooks, or considering how their process needs to be adapted to digital spaces. Other traditional publishers have set up their own digital publishing companies like Rick Richter at Ruckus Media Group and Kate Wilson at Nosy Crow. These publishers require less scrutiny because they realize the value and importance of having editors and a team to proofread, to consider design and how illustrations and interactivity match the text. Other companies without these processes can deliver ebooks for children that are very much "hit and miss" where quality is concerned.

All designers of digital books should be aware of issues surrounding digital book design in relation to the promotion of literacy skills in children. Do digital book authors and publishers have a responsibility to create books which enhance the digital reading experience? This question becomes even more important to explore given the initial findings of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center Quick Report titled "Print Books vs E-Books" which explored co-reading habits on digital devices. The report is part of a larger initiative, "The New Co-viewing Initiative: Investigating and Designing for Joint Media Engagement", which reports a potentially significant finding:

The enhanced e-book was less effective than the print and basic e-book in supporting the benefits of co-reading because it prompted more non-content related interactions. In other words, the enhanced design features of an e-book may actually detract from the valuable verbal interactions which may occur when an adult and child are reading together. For example, when adults prompt children with questions pertaining to the text, label objects, and encourage them to discuss the book contents in terms of their own experiences and curiosities, this elicits increased verbalization by the child and can lead to improved vocabulary and overall language development.

Based on this finding, designers and developers need to think carefully about the development of interactivity, prompts and interface because, as this initial report suggests, these prompts do not necessarily enhance the reading experience for children and parents in co-reading situations. The digital book design has an influence on literacy development and needs to be assessed accordingly.

Checking for Quality: Developing an Assessment Tool
Our aim was to build a preliminary assessment tool for exploring the quality of digital books in a way that is useful to parents and children's ebook app publishers, as well as teachers, librarians and children's literature academics. The tool relies on a series of questions, beginning with general ebook information and moving to progressively more specific layers of quality.

Identifying Data: These are simply categorization questions that have allowed us to identify the different types of ebooks, genres and age groups. This information can be useful in identifying the various types of digital books available, intended audiences, prolific authors, and digital publishers. One categorization system developed by Daniel Donahoo has been further explained in this post.

Basics: These questions ask whether the books follows standard rules for spelling and grammar, whether the illustrations match the text and considers elements such as the size of the text and whether in-app advertising is included in the ebook.

Design: The design domain considers the interactivity and book presentation qualities which make for an enhanced reading experience for the child.

Quality Rubric: To assess the quality of literary elements, a rubric has been developed to evaluate the use of descriptive language, appealing illustrations, cultural authenticity among fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

The tool has since been used by students of children's literature, teachers and librarians to test the value and explore the potential of such a tool to inform our understanding of digital children's literature. This evaluation tool has the potential to build a shared language about what digital books mean for the development of children's literacy and how the process of interacting with digital texts influences children's experiences with literature. The tool is meant to be a catalyst for conversation, rather than end point. By asking about the importance of quality, the evaluation tool prompts consideration of what fosters reading habits in children and whether digital children's literature needs to be presented in particular ways.

Insights from Educators
Educators using the digital book evaluation tool provided insights which led to the following findings:
  • Thousands of free books are available for downloading onto mobile devices, but the quality of some digital books is questionable.Digital books published by an individual, rather than a traditional or digital publishing company, are more likely to have errors or questionable content.Teachers appear to be unaware of the depth and breadth of children's digital books and their interactive features.A set of established evaluation criteria gives teachers, librarians, and caregivers a place to begin when selecting digital books and sparks interesting discussions about the changing nature of books.

The fledgling field of digital publishing represents the unknown to those who have long lived in the traditional book world. Teachers expressed shock and dismay that a digital book could be published without passing through the traditional editorial filters. Once this concept was understood, educators quickly realized the ramifications of removing these filters and saw the need for those who select books for children to serve as the gatekeepers.

Continuing the Conversation
It is our hope that the digital book evaluation tool sparks a continuing conversation about the following question: How do we know if a digital book is of a quality to support children's literacy development? An answer to this question must be constructed by all who contribute to a child's growth as a literate person. Anyone who sits down with a child on their lap, at their feet, or in a classroom to read a digital book must consider issues of quality when selecting digital texts. Just because a story is in digital book form does not mean it is going to be supportive of our children's literacy, especially in an environment where stories may not be even proofread.

This post was co-authored with Beth Dobler.

Elizabeth Dobler, Professor of Reading and Language Arts, Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas. Elizabeth teaches courses in children's literature and language arts, along with supervising student interns at the Topeka Professional Development schools.

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