Sheffield universities team say iPad apps can help children learn to read

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Research conducted by Sheffield’s two universities has shown that iPads and other tablets can help children to develop reading skills from a very early age.

The researchers took iPads into school nurseries to watch how very young children explore storytelling apps.

Dr Dylan Yamada Rice of the University of Shefield, who is speaking at the Sheffield Children's Media Conference

Dr Dylan Yamada Rice of the University of Shefield, who is speaking at the Sheffield Children's Media Conference

Professor Jackie Marsh said the work was a collaboration between the two universities. “A team of us looked at iPads and how useful they are to promote children’s early reading. We worked in two school nurseries with children under three, using Storybook apps on iPads.

“Children are encountering screens from a very young age. We wanted to see whether they are beneficial in promoting their literacy.”

Researcher Dr Dylan Yamada-Rice went to the nursery at Sharrow Primary School, where she gave children iPads to play on.

She said: “We didn’t really say how we wanted the teachers to get the children to interact with them, we just left the children to explore them.”

Jackie Marsh of the University of Sheffield, who is speaking at the Sheffield Children's Media Conference

Jackie Marsh of the University of Sheffield, who is speaking at the Sheffield Children's Media Conference

Dylan said the way that apps are interactive and combine images, sounds and writing help to engage children in the stories.

She added: “They could understand how to use it intuitively. They don’t need to be taught how to use it.”

Apps that the children enjoyed using most did not demand a lot of accuracy on where to touch the screen to make the interactive features work.

She said that often the children ended up clustered around one screen, showing other children what they had discovered and playing with the apps together.

A mother and daughter using a tablet computer

A mother and daughter using a tablet computer

Dylan stressed that the research is not saying that apps should replace real books: “This is another platform to support children’s early reading. It’s not one should replace the other, they can be used alongside one another.”

Jackie added: “Parents often get misled by information about technology in the press about children becoming addicted to the iPad aged five. There’s no doubt that some children spend too long looking at screens but this is a small minority.

“We wouldn’t want that but it’s put off the rest of the parent population.”

Jackie added that sensible use of screens for young children should be promoted and added: “Most children did that themselves. They got bored with screens. The most popular activity was playing with their toys.”

Jackie, the head of the School of Education at the university, and Dylan, a lecturer in early childhood education, are presenting their findings at the Children’s Media Conference taking place in Sheffield this week. The event is Europe’s leading gathering for everyone involved in developing, producing and distributing media content for kids

The academics hope their research will help app designers to understand how children actually use them and design apps with that in mind.

Although iPads are expensive, Jackie said other research she did at Monteney Primary School in Parson Cross showed that 25 per cent of youngsters had access to one.

She said: “If parents can test out some of the apps with their children before they buy them they could find out which ones work best.

“There’s some absolutely brilliant ones. The more open-ended ones allow children to explore a bit more.”

She said that to get the most out of the apps, parents should use them with their children.

The ones the two academics like most include Nosy Crow’s version of The Three Little Pigs. Features include being able to huff and puff the poor old pigs’ houses down by blowing into the iPad’s microphone.

In The Heart and the Bottle for iPad, Oliver Jeffers’ favourite story has lots of interactive features. Youngsters can draw a picture which appears in a frame on the wall in the story or touch stars in the sky to play music.

Other favourites include Peppa Pig, the Giggle Gang for babies and CBeebies apps. Dylan, who is mum to a five-year-old, recommends looking at the top listed free storybook and drawing apps listed in the apps stores.

Jackie’s nine-month-old grandson is already a bit of a whizz on the Brushes drawing app that artist David Hockney has produced some of his latest work on.

n Go to to see a video of Jackie and Dylan demonstrating some of their favourite storybook apps