Using Online Storybooks to Build Comprehension

By Lacina, Jan; Mathews, Sarah | Childhood Education, May-June 2012 | Go to article overview

Using Online Storybooks to Build Comprehension

Lacina, Jan, Mathews, Sarah, Childhood Education

If we teach today as we taught yesterday, then we rob our children of tomorrow.

(Dewey, 1916)

John Dewey's words are still relevant today as educators across the world consider how to best connect the print-based literacies of the past to the technologically based literacies of the present. Dewey's advice of re-envisioning how to best teach children is especially applicable as teachers consider the technologies that engage children Dalton & Grisham, 2011), and the pervasiveness of technology in schools. Virtually every school in the United States has Internet access (Dalton & Grisham, 2011; Gray, Thomas, & Lewis, 2010; Wells & Lewis, 2006). The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of excellent online storybooks and technology resources that have the potential for connecting children with text, while also noting strategies that help children's comprehension.

Online Storybooks

For more than a decade, researchers have documented ways in which technology helped students improve reading comprehension and motivation to read through the use of electronic storybooks (Doty, Popplewell, & Byers, 2001; Mathew, 1997), noting the importance of children receiving immediate decoding feedback through these electronic texts (deJong & Bus, 2002; Dory et al., 2001; Labbo & Kuhn, 1998). Online storybooks are appropriate for children as young as 3, and high-quality online stories allow for interactivity among children, the online story, and the computer (Lacina, 2007; Shanahan, 2005). Researchers (Block, Gambrell, & Pressley, 2004) explain the significance of exposing young children to numerous high-quality books, since such books motivate children to read and bond with a text. Similarly, researchers find that online storybooks lead to higher comprehension scores as children benefit from the narration and online dictionary components (Grimshaw, Dungworth, McKnight, & Morris, 2007). With online storybooks, readers can focus on meaning, instead of struggling with word pronunciation, narration, and vocabulary (Grimshaw et al., 2007; Mathew, 1997). Most importantly, when children have the opportunity to choose their own online reading stories, they take ownership of their reading (Lacina, 2007; McKenna, Labbo, & Reinking, 2003).

Comprehension Instruction

Comprehension is one of the five major reading components in K-3 schools in the United States (Block & Lacina, 2008; National Reading Panel, 2000; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). In comprehending a text, effective readers navigate and make sense of the text using numerous strategies, many of which are used simultaneously. The ability to decode words automatically is necessary in order for children to build fluency (Block & Lacina, 2008; Lacina, 2008); however, comprehending a complex text involves more than decoding. Effective readers typically have a rich vocabulary knowledge and the ability to problem-solve to determine word meanings while they read (Baumann, 2009). Researchers have identified experiences that are helpful in developing vocabulary knowledge: reading aloud to students (Adams, 1990; Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985); independent reading by students (Baumann, 2009; Krashen, 2004; Smith, 1976); and teaching word learning strategies (Baumann, 2009; Graves, 2006).

Affective skills also influence children's success in comprehending text, including children's engagement with a story (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) and connection to their background knowledge, or their home language and culture. Researchers note that learning to read in one's native language can lead to high achievement (Legarreta, 1979; Ramirez, Yuen, & Ramey, 1991; Snow et al., 1998).


Comprehending text is a complex process. Although we provide an overview of this process, many other factors contribute to the ability to effectively comprehend text. Here, the authors have provided an overview of research, websites for excellent online storybooks, and practical strategies for classroom practice, beginning with the benefits of online storybooks and examples of these storybooks.

Develop Decoding Skills and Automaticity To Focus on Meaning (Block & Lacina, 2008; Hasbrouck & Tindal, 1992; LaBerge & Samuels, 1974; Samuels & Flor, 1997). Word pronunciation, narration, sound effects, and animation all help children focus on meaning and make decoding text more effortless than reading a paper-based text. Animated pictures integrate the meaning of the text and also add to the ease of comprehension. Many online storybooks highlight each phrase while the text is narrated online, contributing to decoding skills (see Figure 1).

Online storybooks (e.g., those on support decoding and the process for developing automaticity, which is reading words fluently without having to say each individual word. Most importantly, young children find these online storybooks to be fun and engaging. Teachers can use these stories in small or whole-class groups to demonstrate early reading skills. provides games and interactive storybooks organized by reading level, starting with "let's get ready to read," then moving to "learning to read," "reading is fun," and "I'm reading." Decoding skills are built as individual words are highlighted on the screen, and the interactive games develop automaticity as children progress through the beginning level reading activities to more complex stories.

Repeat Reading To Build Fluency (Downhower, 1987; Kostewicz & Kubina, 2010; Rasinski, Samuels, Hiebert, Petscher, & Feller, 2011). Repetition helps build reading fluency--which, in turn, strengthens children's reading comprehension. Many of the online storybooks highlighted in this article offer repeated text and graphic capabilities; readers can have sentences or individual words read again. Thus, online storybooks provide children with the opportunity to comprehend text, thereby reinforcing fluency.

The online storybook website Between the Lions ( is an additional resource for building fluency. The online stories are read aloud while sound effects are played in the background. As the narrator reads the story, individual words and phrases are highlighted; a child can follow along while reading independently. The stories can be repeated, and teachers may have children echo read with the narrator to continue to build fluency. Echo reading means that the children repeat the words after the narrator speaks them, which is an effective strategy for building young children's fluency and confidence while reading.

Another benefit of using technology to build comprehension is the privacy of "failure." When children need to repeat a sentence or word, such requests for help are kept private and so there is no risk of being judged for "failing" (Grimshaw et al., 2007). In summary, repeated readings using online texts help comprehension emerge since children build their sight word recognition and decoding skills. In turn, they are better able to understand what they are reading.


Learn New Vocabulary To Foster Comprehension (Adams, 1990; Anderson et al., 1985; Baumann & Kame'enui, 2004). Students need direct and explicit vocabulary instruction in order to understand the relationships between words (Baumann & Kame'enui, 2004). A number of excellent websites include visual displays of word relationships within text, and can help children understand important vocabulary, leading to better story comprehension. For example, in the online stories featured on Story Time for Me (, children may click on a word within the story to see its visual representation (see Figure 2). This particular technology tool aids in vocabulary acquisition, since children can immediately see a visual representation of the word, hear the word read to them online, and see a picture of the story at the same time.

Explicitly teaching words is also important. Two websites that do a good job teaching words are and, both of which feature ways to visualize words. In Texas, studying facts about state history is part of the 1st-grade curriculum. Prior to reading a book about Texas history, teachers can design a word cloud (see Figure 3), as a strategy to show the relationship between words (Dalton & Grisham, 2011) and to discuss words children may already know or need to learn. Using this tool is fun for children; in the process, they better understand word relationships while developing a richer vocabulary.


Motivate Readers Through Online Narration (Boling, Castek, Zawilinski, Barton, & Nierlich, 2008; Snow et al., 1998). Motivation to read also contributes to the comprehension process. Certain websites are useful for building motivation. For example, Book Pals ( is a program of streaming videos created by the Screen Actors Guild Foundation in which actors read children's books aloud. The books include Harry the Dirty Dog, A Bad Case of Stripes, The Polar Express, Stellaluna, and many other favorites. In addition to the stories, the website also provides activities and questions to foster comprehension strategies and critical thinking.

Many online storybook websites include the online story as well as some online narration. The storybooks on Magic Keys ( books/), for example, display text and pictures, and students are responsible for turning the pages. In some stories, the text is read aloud, and the variety of topics is sure to capture the interests of a broad spectrum of learners. In summary, young children find hearing a well-known actor or sports figure read a beautifully illustrated and interactive storybook to be inspiring and exciting, and it may encourage them to read more often.

Encourage Language Flexibility (Legarreta, 1979; Ramirez et al., 1991; Snow et al., 1998). Learning to read in one's native language can lead to high achievement. A number of websites include online stories in more than one language. For example, the Clifford the Big Red Dog Interactive Storybooks site ( cliffordl/) features interactive storybooks in both Spanish and English, complete with text reading and colorful illustrations. Additionally, children can play word and phonics games that will help with their language and reading development.


The International Children's Digital Library ( won the American Library Association President's 2010 Award for International Library Innovation. This digital library also was named one of 25 Best Websites for Teaching and Learning by the American Association of School Librarians. Fifty-four languages are represented through the online storybooks on this website, and the books are also accessible through iPad applications (ICDL for iPad is the specific application). The Adventure of Ahmad and the Clock ( hmadan_00390073&lang=English&ilang=English) is one book featured on this site. The book, which won several Iranian book awards, is colorfully illustrated and attractive to children (see Figure 4). Teachers can search for books on this website by country, author, or illustrator, or by award-winning books.

Strategies for Building Comprehension

Donald Leu, one of the most well-known researchers studying online reading comprehension, explains that online reading comprehension includes a problem-based inquiry process involving new skills and strategies necessary to navigate online text (Leu et al., 2008). In the process of comprehending online texts, children may use some of the same strategies they use for print-based text, but they also use new strategies. Three reading strategies are successful in creating active thinkers during the reading process. Print-based reading strategies certainly should not be abandoned, but in order to prepare children for both print-based and online reading, we must explicitly teach them new strategies. Instruction for reading online texts can be modeled during the reading block of classroom instructional time and/or during computer instructional time. Each of the strategies noted below is similar, in that students must critically evaluate what they are reading, synthesize the information, and communicate the information they read online (Lee, Grigg, & Donahue, 2007).

Making Connections. One strategy for helping children better connect with a book's character is teaching students to make text-to-self, text-to-text, or text-to-world connections (Lacina & Silva, 2010). Researchers suggest that teachers need to model how to make these connections while reading a book. When reading the book, teachers should show their students how they make their own personal connections to text (Lenski, Ehlers-Zavala, Daniel, & Sun-Irminger, 2006). This particular strategy is also helpful in building online comprehension. The following steps encourage comprehension of online storybooks, using text-to-self connections:

1. Model how to read an online text. Choose an online story featuring characters to which you and your students can make personal connections.

2. Before reading the online storybook to the children, select parts of the online story that you have already made connections to.

3. As you read the text, note on a T-chart what type of self-to-self connections you made while reading the online text.

4. End the lesson by asking students if they can make connections between the story and their own lives.

As an extension of this reading strategy, demonstrate how one can make text-to-text and text-to-world connections. Repeat the same steps above, by connecting to text and world. The cue card attached may be used as small groups of children read an online story book, and they can jot down on a sticky note the types of connections they made while reading online.

Text Coding. Understanding children's thinking process while they are reading online text is important. Harvey and Goudvis (2007) suggest coding text when reading traditional paper-based books. They explain that children should leave tracks of their thinking directly on the text or in a notebook. When children participate in text coding of paper-based texts, they jot down questions, confusions, and important information. Children may circle unfamiliar words, or star something to remember. This process can work for online texts, as well. Figure 5 illustrates how to complete text coding with an online text. In summary, children need to be actively engaged in thinking about what they are reading, whether it is an online or print-based text, and text coding is one strategy to encourage this practice.

Reciprocal Teaching, Reciprocal teaching improves students' comprehension of text (Brown & Palinscar, 1989; Palinscar & Brown, 1984), and is a strategy that is appropriate for children from 2nd-grade fluent readers and older. The strategy uses a dialogue between teachers and students regarding sections of a text. Leu et al. (2008) documented how this strategy can effectively aid children in comprehending online texts. The steps below summarize ways in which a classroom teacher can use reciprocal teaching when students are reading online text.


1. First, the teacher needs to model the strategy by explaining her thinking in the process. The teacher reads an online text while the students observe her reading. After reading for three minutes, the teacher stops and summarizes what she has just read. Then, she demonstrates the other roles while the students observe.

2. Once the students have a clear understanding of each role, place them in groups of three.

3. Distribute one role card to each group member to identify each child's role:

a. Summarizer

b. Clarifier/Questioner

c. Predictor.

4. Have students read the online text in their groups. Encourage them to jot down brief notes to help prepare for their role in the discussion.

5. To encourage students for discussion, set a timer that is visible to the entire class, and have the students stop every 3 to 5 minutes while reading the online text. By consistently stopping and discussing the story, students have time to ask questions, clarify details, summarize the story elements, and predict what will occur next.

After the group completes their online reading and discussion, have them present what they learned to the rest of the class.

Reciprocal teaching involves collaboration among peers and literature discussion. This strategy can build comprehension of an online text and help children engage in important discussions with their classmates about what they are reading.


Reading online storybooks offers some advantages. The online narration, animated pictures, and sound effects help young readers easily decode words (deJong & Bus, 2002; Doty et al., 2001; Grimshaw et al., 2007; Labbo & Kuhn, 1998) and engage them in the reading process. The immediate access to word definitions makes vocabulary acquisition less intimidating (Grimshaw et al., 2007); just as important, online storybooks and websites can effectively teach word learning strategies (Baumann, 2009; Dalton & Grisham, 2011; Graves, 2006). Children often are motivated and engaged to read online storybooks, thus building their reading comprehension (Snow et al., 1998). This is particularly true with the many books that connect to the students' home languages and cultures (Legarreta, 1979; Ramirez et al., 1991; Snow et al., 1998).

Comprehending text is a complex process; using online storybooks and technology resources has the potential to improve children's comprehension. Most importantly, teaching children to read using the technologies of today prepares them for tomorrow.


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Jan Lacina is Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, College of Education, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas. Sarah Mathews is a Pre-K Teacher, The Lamplighter School, Dallas, Texas.

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