It’s been a little less than three months since I started creating a reading game for the iPhone. I had enough done to show the game to what I thought would be a harsh critic, Eleanor. Eleanor is my four year old great-niece. She will be starting Kindergarten next Fall.
Earlier that day, I sat next to Eleanor while she worked extremely hard to read a Disney Princess book with her mom. She struggled to pronounce a few words and then sat back in what appeared to be exhaustion. I was reminded once again how difficult it is to learn to read.
If creativity expressed through technology can get people to walk the stairs as seen in this video:
Then how hard can it be to plant a seed that grows into a lifelong love of reading shaped by creativity and technology?.
My hope is the game I am creating will give our earliest readers (mostly pre-K and Kindergarten children) a chance to have a happy and positive experience engaged with words and sentences. Ultimately, I hope to ship many interactive experiences for our children that weave into a positive learning experience.
The available devices have never been better to realize this dream. Touch enabled Smart Phones have many attributes that make it a positive and approachable “learn to read” device.
Interacting on the iPhone is a 1:1 experience on a fairly small screen. This means adults can’t look over Eleanor’s shoulder. This is in stark contrast to the reading practice I witnessed earlier that day. I can only imagine the stress Eleanor was under as she struggled to impress her mom and great-aunt. I’m betting if Eleanor were to practice reading on an iPhone, there would be no performance anxiety and she would be in control.
Another major advantage is the iPhone reading software can provide audio help. No longer does the child have to ask his parent…”…what does THIS say?” No one has to know she asked for help.
The software is always available to interact with. It doesn’t get tired or grumpy or busy. In fact, the developer HOPES the child spends as much time as possible with the interactive experience they provide.
The parent isn’t buying a specialized device that the child has to carry around, which also means the parent must remember to bring it and make sure it is charged. If a parent has a Smart Phone, the chances are highly likely that wherever they go the Smart Phone is available.
The experience relies on touch, gestures, an accelerometer and/or a camera. These are far more intuitive input and output devices for our earliest readers than a keyboard and mouse. I don’t have the experience yet to say for sure, but given what I have learned about children and keyboards, I am betting we can engage children earlier than we can with a Qwerty keyboard and mouse. There is nothing wrong with a keyboard and mouse. I am using a keyboard to type this post. In fact, I can’t imagine typing this post on an iPhone. Keyboards and mice are excellent input peripherals when we need to be productive. However, in Eleanor’s case the motivation is to engage here with text. To get her to consume the content, not create it. I want to show her that words and reading are powerful tools that will help her throughout her life. It’s hard to beat the positive interactive experience touch provides when we need to break down the mountain of intimidation that learning to read can grow into.
The game has two modes. Based on what I learned from ItzaBitza and ItzaZoo, I feel it is important to strengthen children’s ability to pick out sight words while also providing a mode in which children interact with sentences. My goal is the player/reader is getting familiar with the meaning of a sentence through interaction with concepts of the sentence. Too often I see children’s educational games where the interactivity is somewhat gratuitous. Kids tap on something and it moves or it boings. But it has nothing to do with becoming less intimidated with what is written on the page. In fact, many times these experiences require parent intervention. Don’t get me wrong, parents interacting with their children as they learn to read, parents who read alot and discuss what they are reading is the best way for children to excel in reading. However, there are times such as ordering food at a restaurant or going someplace in a car where the child would actually benefit from a 1:1 experience if there was true learning involved rather than only engagement which is what more traditional entertainment is about.
Eleanor chooses Ed’s Word Challenge. She surprises her mom and me with how well she did. She has a basic understanding of sounding out words. The words are shown to her in a way that compliments her basic word sounding ability. The game is designed to emphasize positive feedback over competition – which I see as better for older kids or kids that have more domain expertise. There should be no sense of failure or panic – but rather a feeling of forward progress with enough challenge to make the interactivity enticing Every time she gets the word right the game pauses and acknowledges this major achievement adding the “win” to the ability to get to the next reputation level. Like me, Eleanor would much rather be ranked an Extreme Frogger than a Tadpole.
I was relieved when Eleanor asked her mom if they had this game at home. I also got some great feedback from her mom on how I could improve the design. While I hope many kids enjoy these simple reading games, I know some won’t. But what is important is the opportunity to plant a seed of a lifelong love of reading in a kid.