First Readers in Learn with Homer for iPad

Translate best practices for traditional reading instruction to a self-directed touch interface while recording audio of children’s voices as they read.

A short (and very quickly made) video that I scripted, filmed, recorded audio for, and edited to highlight first readers when we launched them within the app. It is a promotional video, but it demonstrates how children read and record these stories in the app.
Introduction to reading out loud
“Can I read a story out loud? I hope I can! Can you? I know you can! I'll go first!” Nap the kitten introduces the idea of reading out loud in an animated introduction before first readers start.
Nap Practices Reading Out Loud
Nap the kitten, reaching up to tap a word when he is not sure how to pronounce it. The first tap sounds it out, with phonemes separated. /k/ - /i/ - /t/. If he still does not know what word it is, he can tap again to hear the phonemes together (the word itself). Aside: I customized this typeface for the app; for details, see my page about Open Sans Schoolbook.
First Readers - Ready for kids to Read
After Nap the kitten finishes reading his sentence, he moves to the corner, where he offers encouragement.
First Reader: Sliding and recording a sentence
When a child begins sliding the arrow, the color of the bar changes color (matching our button-based recording interface) and the word above the arrow is highlighted in red as the arrow slides across the sentence. Meanwhile, Nap’s ear gets extra big, because he wants to hear his friend reading!
Celebration after Recording a Sentence
Once the child finishes recording a sentence, the sentence plays back, Nap does a little dance in the corner, and a checkmark appears and pulses in size. The child can then record again, listen again, or move on by tapping the checkmark.
Comprehension Question after Finishing the Story
At the end of every story, there is a reading comprehension question. This is from the very first of the first readers. They get harder as children master more phonemes and sight words.
Children can hear their story read back in their own voice
After recording a story, a child can hear it played back in her own voice, and follow along. Likewise, when the child later opens this story from the "Story Time" section, she will have the option of hearing it read in Nap's voice, or her voice.
Option to Create After Reading
The Homer team believes in stimulating learning through creative pursuits, so every story and lesson ends with the opportunity to draw or record audio.
Homer's Draw Board
Homer's draw board. After reading about Kit Caterpillar, kids can draw her (and/or whatever else they'd like) and trace her name.
Recording Interface in Learn with Homer
This is Homer's recording interface. In it, Millie asks a free-form question related to the story or lesson. As children speak, stars fly from behind Millie's ear. I could create an entire section about testing this—the short story, though, is that recording audio is daunting for some children, so we made it as simple and friendly as possible.
Design mock of an older version of First Readers
Here's an early design showing states of the first reader. Our first design visually referenced the normal record interface (previous slide), but in the end it was not clear enough for young children. They needed a more explicit start and end to the slider, as well as clearer guidance that their goal is to move it to the right as they read.

'Project' => 'Work with the amazing Learn with Homer team as product manager and director of user experience to create a simple, easy to use, and low-pressure interface for children to read and record the first stories that they can read using the letter sounds and sight words that they learned in the Learn with Homer app.',

'Challenges' => 'Reading a story for the first time is hard. Really hard. As such, operating a recording interface needed to be a simple process for children, and if possible, the interface needed to make it easier for the them to read.',

'Approach 1: Introduction to Reading' => ' The first tactic we used to make ‘first readers’ (also known as decodable readers or emergent readers) easier for children to tackle was a brief introduction that inserted into the first couple of stories, framed as one of Homer’s friends trying to read the first sentence of the story. Nap the kitten tries to read the first sentence, and in so doing, introduces how to record and how to get reading help. When Nap records his first sentence, he realizes he does not know a word, stops, and taps it to hear it sounded out. ',

'Approach 2: Using Interface to Model Ideal Reading Practice' => ' When I asked Peggy Kaye, Homer's Director of Learning, how she would teach a child to read, she said that she would have a child underline the words with her finger as she sounds them out. As such, we made the recording interface a slider that the child moves across the screen, below each word that s/he reads. This way, the child is pointing at each word while reading, and the left to right motion helps emphasize the left-to-right motion of reading and sounding out words. ',

'Approach 3: Usability Testing' => ' The first thing we learned from testing: the most effective shape for the slider is a chunky rectangle with a big arrow on it (in fact, our testing has proven time and again that young children immediately understand and are drawn to arrows as interaction points), and that the slider needed a clearer destination point. We also added a glint that travels across the slider for additional visual indication that they should move it from left to right. In the image slideshow, you'll see an early mockup of the decodable reader that we tested with kids. Although it visually aligns better with our standard recording interface, it wasn't clear enough for a 3-year-old what the end point should be when sliding. The second lesson: our first readers, as written, had too many sentences, and some of the sentences were too long. Children who struggled with reading could only get through about 5 pages before it seemed like work. As such, we shortened the early stories and took time growing them in length as children move along the reading progression. The third lesson: many children will stop sliding as they hit the final word—before they've finished sliding and speaking! As such, we added a significant tolerance area around the end of the line as well and set the recording for an extra second after the slider is released.',

'Evidence of Learn with Homer’s Efficacy' => ' Blind Study from NYU School of Education: An independent, blind study conducted by Susan Neuman, the former US Assistant Secretary of Education and New York University Professor of Early Childhood and Literacy Education, gave 4- and 5-year-olds access to Learn with Homer for 15 minutes per day, five days per week, for just 6 weeks during the summer of 2014. In that time, the test group progressed through less than a quarter of Homer’s phonics curriculum, but showed statistically significant gains in phonological awareness, print knowledge, and letter sounds in the Test of Preschool Early Literacy (TOPEL). In particular, they showed a 74% increase in phonological awareness, the biggest indicator of later reading success. Meanwhile, the control group (students who did not use Learn with Homer) showed a decline in phonological awareness over the 6-week study. In a USA Today article about the study, Professor Neuman concluded, “I’m now convinced that there are certain skills that can be taught—and taught more efficiently—through technology.”',

'For More on Learn with Homer' => ' See my page about the Learn with Homer app for iPad where I have a sample of how I wireframe and diagram user flows—as well as a list of the many awards the app has received.',       );