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Sesame Workshop: “How to Reach and Teach Preschoolers with Digital Books”

Sesame Workshop was founded in 1968 as a non-profit educational organization and since then their mission has been “to entertain children and help them learn by using whatever media tools are available: television, computers, and now all manner of digital devices.” Apps and ebooks are their latest venture. They operate a Sesame Street eBookstore subscription website and app, and offer a number of titles in conjunction with Callaway Digital Arts, ScrollMotion, and, most recently, Random House Digital, Inc. Their Monster at the End of the Book…Starring Grover! (SW/Callaway) has been a runaway best seller since its release. That app was followed by Another Monster at the End of This Book…Starring Grover & Elmo! (SW/Callaway), and just last week by Elmo’s Big Birthday Bash! (SW/Random), a “Step-Into-Reading” title.

Research and testing have long been part of Sesame Workshop’s mission. At the Children’s Publishing Goes Digital Book World Conference earlier this year, Jennifer Perry, Vice President, Worldwide Publishing, at Sesame Workshop shared the organization’s research findings* on designing digital books for young childrenwhat works, what doesn’t, and what to consider when developing titles for this audience. Ms. Perry has graciously allowed me to summarize those remarks here. Look for the full text of her presentation in the July issue of School Library Journal.

When it comes to apps and ebooks for children age two to six, Sesame Workshop’s research has focused on usability, comprehension, and appeal. Here are some of the key findings and recommendations for the industry in each of those areas:

Usability
-For this audience, access to key features must be easy. Individual pages, settings, operations, “should never be more than one or two taps away.”

-Put the user in control (easy on/off settings, ability to skip intros and instructions if desired).

-Make it fast, make it visual, make it flexible. Apps must load quickly and gameplay items must be clear and “touchable,” and audio sounds should be reinforced with visual clues.

-Design with small fingers in mind.

-A landscape view is easier for young children to hold.

-Icons: simple over sophisticated, make them easy to understand. Positioning icons away from the bottom of the device “minimizes frustration and app fatigue.”

Comprehension
-“Show, don’t tell….minimize talking and maximize visual highlights around icons, pictures, and other hot spot areas.” Provide a demo if possible.

-Layer the learning. Build on the child’s prior knowledge and add to it through “an organic, integrated approach. Assess the child’s progress and increase the level of difficulty accordingly.”

-Focus on the learning objective. “Don’t distract with unrelated special effects.”

-“Errorless learning: provide context for concepts and questioning.”

-Reinforce learning “in a fun game-like way to build confidence and knowledge simultaneously.”

-“Be clear, creative, and catchy.”

-Include audio or visual rewards.

Appeal
For both children and parents appeal increases with:

-“Top-notch storytelling and animation.”

-Narration, “particularly character voice.”

-Interactivity and hands-on activities that reinforce educational objectives.

-Layered learning.

-“Short, specific, integrated, child-friendly parent tips.”

Sesame Workshop’s research into how children use and learn from apps and ebooks is ongoing. Questions currently under consideration include: “What platforms are designed to best support story comprehension? How do parent-child interactions differ when reading a print book vs. a digital book, and which design features prompt more frequent and more positive parent-child interactions?”

*The findings noted above were based on studies managed by Jennifer Kotler, Vice President, Domestic Research, and Mindy Brooks, Director of Education & Research, Sesame Workshop.