Mrs Mo Reviews: Disney Digital Books

This morning after breakfast, Maddy sat still in her booster-seat, pointing with excitement and saying "dao" to all the birds flying around the pages of Disney's Bambi. When the page turned and she spotted Thumper, her face lit up and out came another resounding "dao!" This was a unique experience for two reasons: 1) the computer was reading Bambi and turning the pages online and 2) Maddy actually sat still and listened to more than 2 pages of a book!

Even though Maddy is only a year and a half, reading is already a challenge as a joint activity. And it's not because she doesn't like it. It's just the contrary: she loves turning the pages- forwards and backwards-but after less than a minute on my lap, she usually hops (or slides) off, taking the book with her. So much for story time.

But not so fast!

Last week I had an opportunity to preview and learn about a new online reading experience by Disney Worldwide Publishing called Disney Digital Books. The subscription-based website features over 500 Disney titles for early readers through junior high (I made SURE Sleeping Beauty was in there!) and has graphics and an interface that gives as realistic a reading experience as possible. Below is an image of one of the Toy Story books available.

The Disney Digital Books are set up in 3 formats:

  • "Look and Listen"(shown above) for the early or struggling readers to "watch" the book online as a narrator guides the reader with highlighted words and automatic turning pages.

  • Self-Guided: This time the child is in control. Using the highlight-wand to click and hear the word aloud, your child can read at his/her own pace, go back to a word and hear it again and even click on a Dictionary icon to learn the meaning.

  • Story Builder: Readers are given templates of their favorite stories where they can modify the text of the book by choosing words from a bank. They can move characters around like digital colorforms and then print the story when they're finished.
In theory and in practice, the format of Disney Digital Books includes great tools for kids to either develop, strengthen and improve their reading skills, but it does not aim to replace the product that has made Disney the largest publisher of children's books and magazines in the U.S.

"We don't want to take away experience of reading with a kid on the lap," said Disney Worldwide president Russell Hampton. "This is an additive. Most studies show, parents want kids to read more so we're trying to give kids a virtual library ."

And let's be honest about what the current generation of kids and future generations are doing in their free time at home (or when they should be doing homework): they are likely on the computer or playing a video game. Disney is bringing a new option to the table for parents to consider, especially if they have a resistant or struggling reader at home.

"Nothing turns off kids more to reading than an obstacle," said educational consultant Gail Lovely who was also at the event. "This is our ability to help them in a way that's non-judgemental. It's like a coach who doesn't make them feel bad for not knowing a word."

This point hit close to home for me.
When I was in 7th grade, I struggled with Integers in Math. I wasn't comfortable admitting my struggle to the teacher, even though my grades showed it, and I was obviously exhibiting my frustration at home. One day, my mom came home with an Integers CD-Rom and suggested that I try it out after dinner. And I can honestly say, that because I was on my own and playing an Integers game at my own speed, I finally grasped the concept and was able to move on from that major obstacle. When I taught Math to the same age group and saw the same frustration over Integers with my students, I always suggested to them and their parents to go online to a pre-selected website that offered drills and games to get the extra practice (key word EXTRA). While daily drills, homework, classwork and assessments are all part of the learning process, so are enrichment and educational games.

Final verdict: I do recommend Disney Digital Books to parents, as long as they understand that it is NOT replacement for reading real books, but should act as fun enrichment and independent practice. For $7.95 a month of $79.95 for a year, think of the money you would save on tutors and CD-Roms just by giving your son or daughter a fun and easy way to get some extra reading practice. And parents still have control at a distance, because the program has a feature for parents to track and monitor their child's progress. Disney hopes to bring the Disney Digital Books to schools and libraries as well.

Helpful Extras:
  • Story trivia and point tracking for kids to beat their personal best or compete against friends and/or siblings
  • Print your custom story and share with friends and family
  • Search for books based on reading level
  • Your kids can connect with their other friends on the site
  • Personal information used for registration of parents and kids is self-contained on the site and does not leak onto the Web and is not searchable through Google, Bing, etc.

For extra fun, link up your laptop to your flat screen TV and let your kids or the family "read" together (see below at the large screen from the blogger screening room)

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