Over half of American children are not proficient readers by the end of third grade, a year that represents a significant benchmark for a child’s educational trajectory. And researchers know that early literacy lays the groundwork for later success; a student who is unable to read adequately in first grade has a 90% chance of reading poorly in fourth grade, and a 75% chance of reading poorly in high school.
As part of its work to provide comprehensive early literacy solutions through research in education, developmental psychology, and technology, the Reach Every Reader initiative — a collaboration between the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Integrated Learning Initiative, and Florida State University — is expanding access to its pioneering Small Wonders app.
In partnership with GBH, the leading multiplatform creator for public media that jointly developed Small Wonders, Reach Every Reader is now releasing a free Spanish translation, Vaivén de Palabras, to enable Spanish-speaking families to engage in the kind of conversational back-and-forth and play- or curiosity-based exchanges that are key to fueling early literacy.
The English-language version of Small Wonders was released in spring 2021 as part of Reach Every Reader’s innovative approach to making early literacy widely accessible in new formats — in this case, via interactive, educational games and activities designed for children and their parents, available for free as apps for mobile devices. Small Wonders was one of three pre-literacy apps that HGSE released at the time, along with Animal Antics and Photo Play. Since then, the apps have garnered nearly 30,000 downloads, and Animal Antics and Small Wonders were selected for the Notable Children's Digital Media List by the Association for Library Service to Children.
Now, the team behind Small Wonders — which includes app developers from GBH and researchers from Reach Every Reader — is expanding that reach with Vaivén de Palabras.
HGSE Senior Lecturer Joe Blatt, a faculty co-chair of the Learning Design, Innovation, and Technology master’s program at HGSE, developed the Small Wonders app in collaboration with HGSE Professor Paola Uccelli, Lecturer David Dockterman, and researcher Rosa Turco, then a doctoral candidate who has since earned her Ph.D. from Harvard.
“We know that parents want to support their children’s readiness to learn how to read and write. We created the Reach Every Reader pre-literacy apps to help families do this, by providing fun games and activities that incorporate parent-friendly prompts for sustained conversation and vocabulary growth,” says Blatt. “By sharing these apps for free, we hope to make a difference for all children — so we are delighted that the Small Wonders approach to literacy is now even more accessible to Spanish-speaking families. We hope that Vaivén de Palabras brings joyful interaction and preparation for reading to an even broader audience of parents and children.”
GBH’s Senior Executive Producer and Director of Digital Partnerships Bill Shribman led the production team that developed the app with HGSE. “We were delighted to be able to bring GBH’s expertise in creating educationally-based and intergeneration games in partnership with HGSE to encourage early literacy,” says Shribman. “Now with a fully translated version of our Small Wonders app, including Spanish versions of many videos and catchy songs, we are excited that Vaivén de Palabras can reach a whole new Spanish-speaking audience."
From the Reach Every Reader team, Uccelli and Turco led the research behind the app’s translated edition, ensuring that conversational interplay stayed at the center. Unlike other apps, which may tend to create distance between parents and children, Small Wonders/Vaivén de Palabras focuses on relationship building and talking as a pathway to learning. “Vaivén de Palabras was designed to bring parents and children closer by providing ideas for fun conversations that support young children’s literacy development and overall learning,” says Uccelli.
The app “promotes back-and-forth conversations for Spanish-speaking families, so that parents can engage their young children in the language they know best,” she continues. “Sharing personal anecdotes, creating imaginary stories, planning future events, and explaining and discussing emotions are all examples of back-and-forth conversations that parents and children can enjoy while using the app, but also beyond the app. What children learn while talking to their parents in Spanish will offer them a foundation for literacy not only in Spanish but also in English.”
Indeed, research shows that children with a strong foundation in their first language have a significantly easier time learning English, and it is beneficial for parents to talk to their children in their own first language. Vaivén de Palabras has the potential to expand pre-literacy support for millions of children and their families.