Designing Building Blocks for Open-Ended Early Literacy Software

Ivan Sysoev, James H. Gray, Susan Fine, Deb Roy

English has a convoluted relationship between its pronunciation and spelling, which obscures its phonological structure for early literacy learners. This convoluted relationship has implications for early literacy software, particularly for open-ended, child-driven designs. A tempting way to bypass this issue is to use manipulables (blocks) that are directly tied to phonemes. However, creating phoneme-based blocks leads to two design challenges: (a) how to represent phonemes visually in a child-accessible way and (b) how to account for context-dependent spelling. In the present work, we approached these challenges by developing a set of animated, onomatopoeia-based mnemonic characters, one per phoneme, that can take the shape of different graphemes.We applied the characters to a construction-based literacy app to simplify independent word-building for literacy beginners. We tested the app during a 13-week-long period with 4- to 5-year-olds in kindergarten classrooms. Children showed visible interest in the characters and properly grasped the principles of their functioning. However, the blocks were not sufficient to scaffold independent word building, leading children to rely on other scaffolding mechanisms. To test the characters' efficiency as mnemonics, we evaluated their effect on the speed and accuracy of finding phonemes on a keyboard. The results suggest that there were both children who benefitted from the characters in this task and those who performed better without them. The factors that differentiated these two categories are currently unclear. To help further research on phonetic mnemonics in literacy learning software, we are making the characters available to the research community.

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