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HGSE Faculty Ready New App Targeting Children’s Literacy Skills

Small Wonders features learning games based on everyday activities
Small Wonders App handheld tablet
Small Wonders App Display

Parents play an important role in fostering their children’s literacy skills, but they often aren’t aware of all the ways to support those skills. As part of a five-year project to help children thrive and succeed as readers — across schools, homes, and communities — HGSE’s Reach Every Reader initiative has created a learning app called Small Wonders, which encourages fun and engaging conversations between parents and children that research shows are crucial to children’s learning.

“Small Wonders helps with many of the things parents may not know are important for the cultivation of early literacy or that parents do not necessarily think of in everyday situations,” says Senior Lecturer Joe Blatt, who developed the app along with HGSE Professor Paola Uccelli, Lecturer David Dockterman, and advanced doctoral candidate Rosa Guzman-Turco. The researchers are all members of the Reach Every Reader team, which combines expertise in cognitive science, reading, learning technologies, and evaluation.

“The ultimate goal is to provide ideas that parents can adapt flexibly to their family routines to support learning through conversation while doing fun things, like cooking together,” Uccelli says. “These back-and-forth conversations are precisely the types of conversations that prepare kids for school reading.”

How Conversation Spurs Reading Skills

Part of what makes Small Wonders unique is how it encourages parents to take the conversations off the couch and into the world. The games featured in Small Wonders, which the team developed with digital producers at WGBH, revolve around conversations that happen during everyday activities like shopping, riding the bus, or taking a walk in the neighborhood. While the child gets to play and interact in the different scenarios on screen, parents get fun suggestions on how to stimulate conversation at the same time. Through the app activities, parents help children identify and talk about emotions, learn new vocabulary and understand how the world works, remember what happened or plan what will happen, and engage in imaginary play.

While many parents know the significance of reading to their child, Uccelli stresses the importance of back-and-forth conversations to prepare children for school reading.

“One of the hardest parts of becoming a skilled reader involves understanding the language of texts. By engaging in these conversations, children are also learning how to use language to discuss ideas, processes, perspectives, and events, which is precisely what texts do,” Uccelli says. “Later, when they go to school, children will have had much practice with using language in these ways and this practice will support their understanding of texts.”

Parents may find it challenging to sustain a conversation with a young child, so Small Wonders provides prompts that help parents lead the conversation through different activities and topics.

Research-Informed Educational Apps

Blatt emphasizes that unlike some apps out there, Small Wonders is not a “hand-off” app — it’s expressly designed for parent and child to use together. That approach is based on strong research data, corroborated by Uccelli and by Professor Meredith Rowe, about developing literacy skills and followed up by careful testing with families across the country.

Often adults view digital devices solely as toys, says Uccelli, so creating true educational apps may seem an “impossible task.”

“We believe a profound shift in how apps are designed is urgently needed and promising,” Uccelli says. “These devices need to be repurposed to closely connect children and parents, and in so doing, support parents in their goals to offer the best learning environments for their kids.”

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, such as the inability to conduct user testing in person, Blatt and the team were determined to keep moving the app through the formative testing process to assure its effectiveness. This summer, working with an experienced online research firm, the app will be tested remotely with 60 families.

“I really saw it as important to keep moving on this [testing] despite all the obstacles,” Blatt says, anticipating that Small Wonders will be available sometime this fall. “We don’t want to release this without that summer test. Some companies make something and put it out knowing that it’s not there yet and continue to update and provide new releases. As Harvard, we think it’s important to have the research evidence before making the app available.”


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