Parents dearly hope their children learn to read well. They also hope their children learn to read quickly and easily, so that they're ready for the demands put on them by school and the world.
Kids want to learn how to read, but they also crave entertainment, whether it's quiet and passive or dynamic and interactive. The aims of the Story Reader line of electronic books are to entertain children and to introduce them to the process of learning how to read in a gentle and enjoyable way. In this article, we'll show you how Story Reader works and if it accomplishes that goal.
Story Reader is a compact, roughly 12-inch-by-12-inch plastic case (with a carrying handle) that opens to reveal an actual book that fits snugly into the Reader itself. Story Reader's core feature is that it "reads" the book aloud to a child as he follows along. The child turns the pages when prompted by the Story Reader or at his own pace.
Books have both text and illustrations. The electronic book responds to the child's wishes. The Story Reader speaks the text for the current page. If the child turns back a few pages, the Reader recognizes that page and reads it again. Kids react well to this interactivity because it instills a sense of control over the story.
There are three Story Reader products:
The basic Story Reader, introduced in 2003, is as described above and is intended for kids three years of age and older. Each book has a small companion cartridge that slides into a port on the case and contains the audio encoded into its memory for the story.
The device has a volume control but no on/off switch -- a deliberate choice so kids can simply open it up and begin reading. It takes four AAA batteries (or operates on household current with an optional adaptor) and retails for around $20. Find out more information about the more than 60 titles at the end of this article or at the Story Reader website.
Early in 2006, Publications International, Ltd. -- Story Reader's publisher -- introduced My First Story Reader, designed for newborns to kids up to age three. As with the original, a narrator reads the story aloud, this time from a 12-page book made from a heavier paperstock that includes sound effects and music to enliven the experience.
My First Story Reader features two play modes, one with narration, the other that asks questions about the images on each page. The child can press any of three buttons to answer basic questions about shapes and colors. The last two pages of each My First Story Reader book features a sing-along rhyming melody. My First Story Reader retails for about $20.
Late in 2006, Publications International introduced a video version of Story Reader called Story Reader Video Plus for kids up to the age of seven. Retailing for about $35, it combines a stand-alone Story Reader with an "Animated Story Mode" that plays through your television and includes a "Learning Game Mode."
The Animated Story Mode works just as it sounds -- when you connect it to your television through color-coded cables, the story appears on screen and changes as your child turns the pages. Kids get to the Learning Game Mode by turning to the last page of the book. There, they can choose from five educational games. While it depends on the story, generally there are pattern games, memory games, and platform games. Similar to Nintendo games like Super Mario Brothers, in a platform game the child uses the included controller to guide him through the environment and conquer obstacles.
Story Reader Video Plus isn't a video game, technically, and Publications International bills the Story Reader line more as electronic books than toys. This reassures many parents, and it's why Story Reader is sold in bookstores and in the book section of major retailers.
What about the educational underpinnings of Story Reader? In the next section, we'll study its virtues.
Kids naturally emulate the adults in their lives, and seeing their parents and other family members enjoy reading is a powerful motivator. Establishing and keeping a Read-At-Home Night helps families spend time together and helps form lifelong reading habits in children.
Here's how you do it:
- Set aside one night a week in your household and call it "Read-At-Home Hour" -- or anything you prefer. Establish a time allotment that works for your family; for example, 30 minutes or an hour.
- Minimize interruptions from the TV, computer, and video games -- and turn on the telephone answering machine.
- Choose one book for the entire family to read aloud together, or encourage individual family members to choose their own books to read quietly. Electronic books can work in this context, as well.
- Finally, sit down, relax, and read.
Story Reader's Educational ValuesStory Reader shares characteristics with many toys, but at its core it's an electronic book. The difference is important, according to Ann Taylor, vice president of children's electronics at Lincolnwood, Illinois-based Publications International, which exclusively publishes the Story Reader line. "Story Reader allows the child to hear the book read aloud and to view the text, which is known to be a way to help a child learn to read," she says.
"A lot of learning toys are sort of fancy electronic versions of drills, so they ask questions and have kids practice drills with them. I'm not implying there's anything wrong with that -- and our Story Reader Video Plus does feature learning games, too -- but that our approach is perhaps a little more subtle. We try to be light on the education per se, but strong on the principles behind education," says Taylor.
For example, on the Story Reader Video Plus platform, at the end of the Alphabet Adventure book, there's a game called Antarctic Adventures. Your child plays as the hero, Alphaboy, and spells out the entire alphabet by catching letters. It asks Alphaboy to take a sled, jump up, and crawl through an igloo while chasing the letters.
Story Reader Video Plus features many learning games, like this one.
Even though it isn't a toy, Story Reader has earned the respect of toy critics by winning dozens of American and Canadian awards. It won the National Parenting Center's Seal of Approval in 2003 and the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award in 2005.
Stephanie Oppenheim, founder of ToyPortfolio.com, says: "Story Reader won an award because its books are based on real literature. Every time we go to toy showrooms, we say, 'This would be fabulous if you used real books.' There is no reason but economics for this not to happen."
Oppenheim is referring to the widespread use of licensed characters -- often from current cartoons -- in children's reading toys, and she notes that Story Reader has dozens of them, too. "Our policy is to look under the license and see if there's value to the product itself. And Story Reader has a platform that's easy to use, with no touching or stylus needed, which is great. A lot of times if a product is too complicated, it's not really useful."
To promote reading, Story Reader creator Publications International instituted the National Preschool Teacher of the Year Award, first awarded in the fall of 2006. An independent panel of leading academics in early childhood education chose four winners from hundreds of applications. The criteria included use of creative teaching techniques, how effective a teacher is in generating excitement about learning, and his or her ability to evaluate and address individual students' needs with insight and creativity.
The four winners, on their teaching philosophies:
- Wendy Butler-Boyesen of the EWEB Child Development Center; Eugene, Oregon: "Let children experience things. Let them do for themselves and follow their own interests, which means if a child really wants to put the wrong shoes on the wrong feet, let him do it and experience it and decide for himself if it's uncomfortable."
Geralyn Dunckelman of Oakshire Elementary School; Houma, Louisiana: "I realize that a lot of parents work, but be a parent to your child and make the most of every minute, because you may never have this chance again."
- Lisa Frank of McCloskey Elementary School; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: "I try to read four stories a day to kids while they are with me in the classroom, and I always ask parents to read to their kids at least twice a day."
- Karla Lyles of Our Lady of the Gardens; Chicago, Illinois. "Please, just read to your child, even if it's just a cereal box. At the preschool stage, they're so eager because they want to learn, and they can grasp it."
Those are the underpinnings of Story Reader, the product's basis in educational concepts, and the ways Publications International gets its message to the public.
In the next section, we'll consider how Story Reader works technologically, and how Story Reader books are created.
Story Reader: The Technological and Creative AspectsStory Reader creator Publications International describes the technology behind the three products as being "pretty sophisticated." With the exception of Story Reader Video Plus, each cartridge can hold up to three separate books. According to Ann Taylor, Publications International's vice president of children's electronics, the digital information for the books is coded onto a computer chip. Each chip contains the programming code and the ROM so that it can run.
With roughly two million units sold since 2003, Publications International has had plenty of opportunity to refine the technology and the creative process. Taylor's staff, of about 50 people, creates the Story Reader books. The staff includes writers, sound engineers, and animators -- the latter a large group of creative professionals recruited from the Savannah (Georgia) College of Art and Design.
If your child is taking in a story about Elmo, SpongeBob, Scooby-Doo, or Thomas the Tank Engine, the text has been produced in Lincolnwood, Illinois, through a licensing agreement with the group that owns the rights to that children's character. Each book featuring a licensed character goes though an extensive back-and-forth process with the licensor.
Before a Story Reader title can be created, Publications International
must pitch the idea to the licensor.
"Their responsibility is to make sure that everything we produce is appropriate to that character group and brand. Ours is to make good products for our market. Theirs is to be brand-forward," says Taylor. "It's a true partnership that's not well understood by people outside of the business. [Consumers] see Mickey Mouse and assume [the book] is made by Disney, so it's important for Disney to make sure that licensed products in no way diminish their brand."
Once the idea is approved, a team of an editor, an art director, a sound designer, and a project manager meets to discuss how to make it work. The staff editor develops the script and writing for the book, except in the case of a Disney film, in which the movie's story would be retold. The art director would either create illustrations or choose from the art pool supplied by the licensor.
Next, the creative team auditions actors to voice the narration. For characters such as Elmo, Dora, and Cookie Monster, the original actors record their voices and send the recording into Publications International. The sound designer then composes the music, edits the voices, and adds sound effects, putting it together "like a radio play, if people still remember what that is," says Taylor, jokingly.
The art, copy, and audio are then placed, and the Story Reader goes through a regular book-making process. Film is shot, the cartridge is processed, the book set is manufactured, and then it is sold in stores. The process takes roughly six months.
To make Story Reader Video Plus, the process starts the same way as the Story Reader, but the team adds an animator. They work together on every aspect: the story, the games, the sound, and the animation.
The project animator sketches out a storyboard, using the book's illustration, and going through the action of the narration. This way, the animation on screen complements the illustration on the book's page.
A project animator sketches out a storyboard for a Story Reader Video Plus title.
Concurrently, the team writes up a documentation book that typically measures an inch and a half thick, explaining how everything should work. This includes how the characters interact with objects, how the gaming should make choices, the flow charts, and possibility tables so that the video and the games function as planned. Then everything is sent to a programming house in Taiwan.
When it returns from Taiwan, the company tests. "We bring in professional game testers, to not only play the game, but to also play the game wrong," says Taylor. "For example, if you're supposed to hit left to go left, they'll hit the right button. They play it and play it according to our testing protocols to make sure that the game works."
The game testers make bug reports that go back and forth to Taiwan until all of the problems are fixed. Then the Story Reader Video Plus book is manufactured and shipped to stores.
In the final section, we'll consider the full range of Story Reader products and titles. We'll also look at the future of Story Reader on the next page.
Story Reader Products and Titles -- And a Look at the Future of Story ReaderIf you’re interested in Story Reader books, there is a lot to read. With three kinds of Story Reader -- the original Story Reader, Story Reader Video Plus, and My First Story Reader -- dozens of Story Reader titles are available. In this section, we’ll look at the different kinds of Story Reader books.
"Dora's Garden Adventure" is one of the Story Reader titles.
My First Story Reader
|“Discover the Sky”|
|Baby Einstein ||You and your little
one can listen together to rhymes about the sun, moon, clouds, vivid
colors in the world, and musical instruments. Press buttons to add
sounds to the story and songs. In the activity mode, help your child
find the button that is round like the moon, red like the teddy bear’s
nose, or the same color as the duck’s tuba. |
|Sesame Street ||Listen along to rhymes
about Elmo cheering up his friends, making silly sounds, and making a
special snack for his friend, Cookie Monster. Pressing buttons adds
silly sounds. Switch to the activity mode and help your child match
pictures on the page with the big, colorful buttons. |
|Title ||License ||Description |
|Disney / Pixar || Stories of the movies “Monsters, Inc.,” “Cars,” and “The Incredibles.” |
|“Mona’s Favorite Words,”|
“What Do Mommies Do?”
“An Angel Called Hope”
|Kathy Ireland ||
Listen and read along as Kathy Ireland narrates three stories: Sara
learns about friendship, a brother and sister learn about family, and
four-year-old Mona learns about respecting others. |
|“Caught in a Web”|
|Spider-Man ||Read along as Spider-Man battles three foes: Doctor Octopus, Kraven the Hunter, and the Green Goblin. |
|“Dora’s Garden Adventure”|
“Blue’s Perfect Picnic Spot”
“Grand Prize Winner”
|Nickelodeon ||Readers help Blue find his picnic clues, pick a winner for SpongeBob’s nautical game show, and assist Dora in Isa’s garden. |
|“Elmo’s Colorful Adventure”|
“Grover Stays Up Very Late”
“Me Love Cookies”
|Sesame Street ||Elmo
searches for his doll in silly places, Grover stays up way past his
bedtime, and Cookie Monster tries some yummy new foods in these
read-along stories. |
|Become a master chef with Remy; go on an adventure with Woody and Buzz; and visit Boo with Mike and Sully in these read-along stories.|
|Stories of the movies "Aladdin," "Mulan," and "Pocahontas."|
"Mickey Mouse Clubhouse"
|Read along and learn with three stories from Playhouse Disney.|
Story Reader Video Plus
|Title ||License ||Description |
|“Alphabet Adventure” ||PIL ||Alphaboy and Lettergirl must rescue A through Z from Miss Speller. Children read and play along to help save the alphabet. |
|“A to Z Snack Surprise” ||Scooby-Doo ||Shaggy and Scooby use the alphabet to defeat the Ghoulish Gourmet and win the A to Z cooking competition. |
|“Bouncy Ball Adventure” ||Dora the Explorer ||Dora
and Boots rescue the twins’ toys. Readers accompany them through the
Spooky Forest and down Windy River to get to Bouncy Ball Volcano. |
|"Pinkie Pie's Rainbow Surprise" ||My Little Pony ||Rainbow Dash, Royal Bouquet, and Star Catacher cheer up Pinkie Pie in the pink adventure. |
|"Tour de Prawns" ||SpongeBob SquarePants ||SpongeBob SquarePants races against Squidward through Bikini Bottom in a seahorse race. |
|"Count on Thomas" ||Thomas & Friends ||When
Thomas makes a delivery, something always seems to be missing. Count
along with Thomas and his friends Harold and Harvey to figure out what
happens to the missing cargo. |
|"Learn with Elmo" ||Sesame Street ||Elmo
loves pretending to be a preschool teacher. Dance, giggle, and learn
with Elmo as he taches his favorite Doll, Baby David, about patterns,
shapes, counting, and opposites. |
What's in store for the Story Reader brand in the future?
Denise Runge, project manager for multimedia projects at Publications International, gave us a peek behind the curtain at an upcoming Story Reader Video Plus title. Expect stories about "Go! Diego, Go!" in late 2007.
The company has additional plans to expand the Story Reader line as technology grows.
"We're looking at new ways to make books come alive for children, with more audio and video and easy interfaces and connection to television, to phones, to many sorts of output devices," says Ann Taylor, Publications International's vice president of children's electronics. "We hope to continue to build on this wonderful and very educational play platform for kids."