Interactive eBooks and Reading Comprehension – I’ll Meet You There

Sheila Frye

Sheila Frye

Editor’s Note: Our next author, Sheila Frye (@sheila_frye), wears many hats: she is an educator with fifteen years’ experience, a reading specialist, a literacy innovation researcher, and a doctoral candidate studying the design of learning environments. Her research focuses on the crossroads between interactive eBooks and reading comprehension.  She has teaching certifications in reading, special education, and educational supervision, and blogs at We are honored to feature her insights – and, as you will see, her wonderful exuberance – in this month’s theme on ethnography in education.

I have joyful data.

Yes, you read that correctly.


You see, for the past nine months I have been entrenched in my dissertation fieldwork, giddily collecting data on second graders’ responses to reading interactive eBooks on the iPad. Using a repeated measure design, I sat with thirty participants individually for two thirty-minute sessions each and observed what they did while reading the two chosen eBooks in either a “Read-to-Me” or “Read-and-Play” mode. After reading, the participants engaged in several performance tasks to assess their understanding of the stories and to gather information on their personal views of reading interactive eBooks.

In most children’s stories, the reader takes on a more passive role. But I wanted to study what happens when readers become active participants in a story. Luckily, Nosy Crow developed these awesome eBook apps that contain digital enhancements to transform the reading experience into one that requires the user to manipulate and interact with the characters, words, and other textual elements to traverse the plot.  Consequently, users have the option to become active participants in the narratives themselves. You know the Three Little Pigs? Well, users can help the pigs build their houses with the tap of a finger and, diabolically so, blow on the iPad to assist the wolf in huffing and puffing and blowing their houses down. Think Cinderella needs to upstage her mean stepsisters? Users can put the glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot so she can gloat until her heart’s content.

Cinderella Slipper

Genius, right?

Think about it: Children are naturally curious and practically beg to be involved in the environment that surrounds them. Drawing upon this to design eBooks that allow young readers to become part of the story?

Simply brilliant.

My research takes an intimate look at “interactive eBooks,” software applications that provide users with a multimedia literary experience designed especially for a touch screen device. Interactive eBooks go beyond traditional eBooks because they have “hotspots” embedded within the software that allow readers to become actively involved in the experience of reading and, subsequently, may provide learners with new ways to make meaning and increase text comprehension. As you may know, reading comprehension is the ability to make meaning and construct knowledge, an act that stems from the interaction between the reader and the text. In order to comprehend a text successfully, readers must actively reflect on and decode the printed word, combine this with their own prior knowledge, attend to unwritten nuances and inferred purposes of the author, and finally synthesize this information to make new meaning.


Because of this complexity, the notion of active reading is crucial. Readers have to consciously make sense of what they are reading and not just sit back and passively receive information. Successful comprehension requires readers to be able to think about their reading – an act of metacognition that leads readers to build connections, make inferences, synthesize, determine what is important, visualize, and generate questions. It goes to say that from a reading and cognitive processing standpoint, the more involved readers are with stories, the more likely it is that they will comprehend.

I have noticed some very interesting trends in my research thus far. For one, many of my seven and eight-year-old participants – although they may already be familiar with The Three Little Pigs and Cinderella stories – often cite specific scenes or details in our discussions germane to the Nosy Crow eBooks. For instance, in Nosy Crow’s adaptation of Cinderella, the king sits behind a raised desk filling out invitations to the royal ball while his son, the prince, stands to the side playing paddle ball, idly watching his dad do all the work. When probed to share his favorite part of the Cinderella story, one participant illustrated this exact scene, clearly linking to the multimedia embedded within this particular eBook.

When asked to retell the story in her own words, another participant included acute details found in Nosy Crow’s version of The Three Little Pigs . She added information such as, “[The pigs] went to their mom and dad’s house. They told them not to go near the wolf and the wolf is behind the window and he said, ‘Don’t tell them I’m here.’” This critical scene shows that the wolf is eavesdropping on the little pigs, a point that is not explicitly stated in most retellings of The Three Little Pigs. Attentive readers can then draw a conclusion about how the wolf knows that the young pigs will soon be out on their own, thus, making them easy targets for lunch. Later, this same participant retold the end of the story and shared that “all the other pigs got brick houses,” (something that is not verbalized in the story’s narration but can be seen in the background on the last page).  This scene allows readers to infer that the first two pigs learned some helpful life lessons and construction tips from their wise little brother.

As part of my research, participants were invited to share a design feature that they favored or felt helped them to better understand the stories. What was one of the most popular responses? That fantastic speech bubble that appears when you tap on a character.

Pigs Speech Bubbles

Get this: In these two interactive eBooks, readers can tap on a character, prompting a speech bubble to pop up that voices audio not found in the initial narration. For example, near the end of The Three Little Pigs, the wolf is determined to have pork chops and climbs up the chimney of the sturdy brick house. Alas, the third little pig knows the wolf’s M.O. and strategizes. Readers see the brick-building pig standing next to the stove under the chimney; the pig is planning to surprise big ol’ wolfie with a scalding pot of water. When readers tap on the third pig, he throws another log in the wood-burning stove and exclaims, “Let’s get this water nice and hot!” My little readers, with their widened eyes fixated on the pot and white-knuckled hands firmly gripping the iPad, quietly wait for the unsuspecting wolf to descend into the vat of boiling water. Tense music plays in the app’s background until the wolf comes down, burns “his bottom very badly,” and goes howling down the road, presumably off to find a vegetarian meal. When asked how the speech bubbles may impact her understanding of the story, one participant replied, “When I tap on the character, it told me more things. It gave me more information about the story. Then I understood it more.”

Be still, my ethnographic heart!

But there’s a potential downside to all of these bells and whistles. Past multimedia studies have shown that embedded interactive features could easily distract users and, ultimately, detract from meaning making. Thus, my study explores both the affordances and constraints of this new technology and how they may affect comprehension.

For instance, a constraint that hindered one participant’s experience was one of the interactive games in the “Read-and-Play” mode of Cinderella.  In this part of the eBook, the fairy godmother asks Cinderella to bring her specific items from the garden to magically prepare Cinderella for the royal ball.  The interactive game requires the reader to use a finger to explore the garden and literally take control of the search.  I silently observed as this particular participant spent about ten minutes searching the garden for all the items that the fairy godmother asked her to get, including three mice, a wheelbarrow, garden hose, pumpkin, and flowerpots. The participant dutifully moved around the extended screen with her finger, searching high and low for these items. Sometimes she would find the an item and drag it to the fairy godmother, only to not land in the right spot, sending the item automatically back to its original place. Adding insult to injury? The fairy godmother would ask for different items mid-search, breaking the student’s concentration (“Fetch me that watering hose.” “Bring me three mice.”). Research has shown that spending an extended time amount of time on interactive games could break a story’s narrative and interfere with the cohesiveness of a story, thus causing a breakdown in comprehension.

When I later inquired as to why she spent so long on this task, the determined participant expressed her compulsion to help Cinderella find all of the garden items needed to transform Cinderella from dirty to flirty.  She added, “…the fairy godmother wanted…everything to make Cinderella into a beautiful princess” and that she was doing everything because “the fairy godmother told me.” The participant went on to say that she got annoyed when she was looking for all of the requested items and wished she could have finished the task quicker.

(Note: The software is designed so that the user could press an arrow to advance to the next page without finding all the items, but who am I to squash a girl on a mission?)

In essence, the multimodal nature of interactive eBooks has been brought into the educational spotlight, particularly since they require literacy skills that extend beyond those needed for static, print-only texts.  Due to the relatively new development of interactive eBook applications, there is a shortage of empirical studies examining the pedagogical effects of this form of multimodal learning.  It is still to be determined if interactive eBooks support readers in the area of comprehension.  Consequently, there is a strong need for researchers AND designers to better understand how interactive eBooks could serve as cognitive tools to impact reading comprehension and knowledge building, and explore how particular features of an interactive eBook may serve as digital tools for higher-level literacy learning. It is my hope that my exploratory study will provide insight into how readers use interactive eBooks to make meaning in an increasingly multimodal world.

Soon I will be moving into coding and analyzing my findings. Although other doctoral students may dread this part of the dissertation phase, I will not be looking for a magic wand to speed up the process.

After all, who needs Cinderella’s fairy godmother when you have awesomely lovely and joyful data?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. July 2013: Ethnography in Education | Ethnography Matters - July 28, 2013

    […] in the month, Sheila Frye (@sheila_frye) will tell us about her research on interactive eBooks, which promote active reading habits – a crucial part of literacy – to children who may […]

Leave a Reply