The promise of children's e-books lies mostly unfulfilled. While they can never replace the back and forth that goes on between parent and child when they read a conventional book together, interactive digital books do offer a chance to get a child more involved in how the story is told than a similar board book would. But few do it well, and some even make it harder for parents when they read along with their child.

Researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University hope to change this. They are developing a voice-activated animation system that gives children more control over the story they are reading. The screen might show the word dog and a picture of one. The animation starts when the child says “dog.”

In three separate experiments, children using this type of interactive animated book recalled more than children reading from a typical board book did. The reason? “Children learn best when they are more involved in the learning process,” explained senior author Erik Thiessen, Associate Professor of Psychology. The interactive approach was particularly beneficial for children who have difficulty focusing. It helped keep their attention.

“Children learn best when they are more involved in the learning process.”

In the first experiment, an adult read to the child from either a traditional hardboard book or voice-activated, digital book. Children's recall was better when they read the digital book.

The second experiment compared reading a static digital book to reading an animated one. Recall was better in the animated book, strongly suggesting that animation itself is important.

The third and final experiment compared two animated e-books — one that animated at the start of the page and another that animated upon the child's speech. Children's recall was best from the book where they controlled when the animation started.

In all three experiments, children showed better recall of the story when they had active control over the animations. In each experiment, about 30 young children, three to five years old, were read two books, each 14 pages, by an adult. After the story, the children were asked ten questions to test their recall.

“Digital platforms have exploded in popularity, and a huge proportion of the top-selling apps are educational interfaces for children,” said Thiessen. “Many digital interfaces are poorly suited to children's learning capacities, but if we can make them better, children can learn better.”

There are still a few kinks in the animated e-books used in the study, but the researchers hope to iron them out soon, so be on the lookout. In the meantime, take some time to read to your child, if you don't already. Your child will learn about the world and you'll learn what the world looks like through their eyes. Adults were all children once, and the world they saw was full of wonder. Your child will help bring you back to that world when you read to them.

An article on the study appears in Developmental Psychology.