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Expanding the Boundaries of Kindergartners’ E-book Reading: Metacognitive Guidance for E-book Support Among Young Children at Risk for Learning Disabilities

by Adina Shamir - 2017

The increasing range and number of electronic books (e-books) available in the children’s book market has motivated educators and researchers to investigate how well these platforms can contribute to advancing emergent literacy. Such research has nonetheless been conducted on a much smaller scale in the area of self-regulated learning (SRL) with e-books targeted at young children at risk for learning disabilities. The article discusses recent research conducted with kindergartners 4.5 to 7.0 years old. In the research reported, the 78 participants were randomly divided into three groups of equal size: experimental (educational e-book with metacognitive guidance), experimental (educational e-book without metacognitive guidance), and control (the regular kindergarten program). The findings indicated that the metacognitive guidance embedded in the educational e-book supported phonological awareness (rhyming) but not vocabulary acquisition.

With the steadily increasing range and number of electronic books (e-books) accessible in the children’s book market has come the recognition that this platform can help further literacy among young children, including children with diverse academic needs (e.g., “E-book users read 60% more books,” 2012; Shamir, Korat, & Fellah, 2012; Smeets & Bus, 2012; Zucker, Moody, & McKenna, 2009). Research on whether, how, and in which circumstances e-books fulfill their educational potential for the diverse populations using them has nevertheless not kept pace with events. One area sorely in need of such research is that of self-regulated learning (SRL), especially in connection with the outcomes of embedding metacognitive guidance for SRL in e-books aimed at supporting emergent literacy among kindergartners at risk for learning disabilities (ALD).


To properly access the benefits of SRL, metacognitive guidance and educational e-book use among at young children at risk for learning disabilities (ALD), we should first precisely characterize the type of children we are referring to. The term learning disabilities (LD), as defined by the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities in the United States (NJCLD, 2006), is quite general in its reference to a group of diverse disorders, presumably neurological in origin. Children with LD are so characterized because they often exhibit neurologically based developmental delays in perception and memory, delays reflected in lower levels of literacy (Swanson, Harris, & Graham, 2003). An updated version of this definition was published in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) in 2013 (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013). The new definition differs from previous versions with respect to its referents, specifically the removal of dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia as symptoms. Learning disabilities, as a category, currently relates to difficulties in three general academic domains: reading, writing, and math (Tannock, 2014), with symptoms appearing during the initial stages of formal schooling irrespective of problematic teaching or inadequate learning opportunities. Statistically, children with LD represent a sizeable segment of the special needs community.

Children with learning disabilities often find it difficult to acquire basic learning skills, the most obvious ones being spoken language and the primary ingredients of language. Because of their developmental character, these disorders and their manifestation are observable as early as preschool (Hutinger, Bell, Daytner, & Johanson, 2005) but continue into adulthood. Preschoolers exhibiting developmental delays in language and literacy acquisition as well as a lack of metacognitive skills are considered, by definition, to be at risk for LD until they enter formal schooling environments, when the presence (or absence) of the respective skills is used to predict later success in school (Aram & Levin, 2002; Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2001).

For early childhood educators, the appearance of developmental difficulties in language and emergent literacy signals the need for some sort of intervention aimed at addressing these same difficulties. This reality has thus prompted educators, together with researchers, to search for and construct new tools to help young children overcome their difficulties (APA, 2013; NJCLD, 2006). One product of this research is the recognition of the e-book’s potential to support emerging literacy, thanks to its to multisensory learning (visual, auditory, and sensory) platform, mediated by learning tools such as e-books (Hetzroni, 2004; Lipka, Lesaux, & Siegel, 2006).  

This article therefore refers to one such study, aimed at providing metacognitive guidance to ALD kindergartners by means of an educational e-book.


From the perspective of most researchers, e-book use will never fully replace joint adult–child reading of books, events that continue to provide children with their first and most engaging literacy experiences (Bus, van Ijzendoorn, & Pellegrini, 1995). The advent of readily available electronic storybooks (commonly referred to as “e-books,” “living books,” “talking books,” or “CD-ROM storybooks”), the digital versions of children’s books that are often simultaneously available in print formats, has made it possible for parents to employ the same pedagogic tools used by educators (Bus et al., 1995; Sénéchal, 2001). The sheer popularity of this form of reading device has heightened the urgency of research examining the e-book’s effectiveness in the development of emergent literacy skills, in addition to the types of children to benefit from them (see, for example, Zucker et al., 2009).

Several studies on how e-books can promote a range of educational goals have already been conducted. These include research with children of different ages (Lefever-Davis & Pearman, 2005; Underwood & Underwood, 1998) as well as varying educational needs (Segers, Nooijen, & de Moor, 2006; Shamir, Korat, & Barbi, 2008; Shamir et al., 2012; Shamir & Shlafer, 2011; Verhallen, Bus, & de Jong, 2006). Whereas research has shown the e-book’s efficiency in promoting emergent literacy among young children with typical development  (de Jong & Bus, 2003; Korat, Shamir, & Arbiv, 2011; Shamir & Korat, 2007; Shamir et al., 2008) prior to their exposure to formal learning, similar research regarding young children with special needs has only just begun (Zucker et al., 2009). One such study has demonstrated how an educational e-book can contribute to vocabulary acquisition and phonological awareness (Shamir, Korat, & Shlafer, 2011).

Among the keys to the e-book’s promise is its capacity to synchronize the text highlighting with text narration, a feature that helps children keep track of the written text and, by doing so, promotes their understanding of how print is connected with reading (Labbo & Kuhn, 2000). Another lies in the e-book’s interactive and multisensory features; in an educational context, this means coordinating pedagogic functions with story reading/listening for the purpose of keeping children engaged in the task, features qualifying e-books as members of what Underwood and Underwood (1998) called the edutainment family of technologies. For similar reasons, well-planned educational e-books appear to facilitate learning among young ALD children because of their difficulties with focusing on and retaining the material being taught (Breznitz, 1997). Follow-up as well as exploratory research should remain high on the educational agenda if these preliminary findings are to be conclusively validated and applied to a broader range of educational goals and target populations, especially those with special needs (Zucker et al., 2009).   

One crucial area to be investigated is the e-book’s contribution to fostering metacognitive skills among ALD children. Metacognition has been defined as knowledge about how to think but also about how to regulate one’s own thinking (Flavell, 1979). Metacognitive abilities consequently affect the facility with which children learn basic academic skills such as reading  (Veenman, Van Hout-Wolters, & Afflerbach, 2006), together with the capacity to take advantage of computer-assisted independent SRL (Azevedo, 2005). Some researchers have become convinced that shortfalls in these abilities are powerful predictors of learning disabilities (Garrett, Mazzocco, & Baker, 2006; Sideridis, Morgan, Botsas, Padeliadu, & Fuchs, 2006). Others have generated a relatively large amount of research indicating the correlation of metacognitive abilities with success in school (Dignath, Buettner, & Langfeldt, 2008; Kramarski, Weiss, & Kololshi-Minsker, 2010; Mevarech, Terkieltaub, Vinberger, & Nevet, 2010; Veenman et al., 2006). In the area of emergent literacy, for example, it was found that weak readers or readers with ALD knew less about the nature of reading tasks, were less able to monitor or regulate their own learning during reading exercises, and applied less effective strategies for overcoming reading comprehension difficulties.

Despite these findings, scant research has been devoted to the direct study of metacognitive abilities among young children. Still less is known about whether, and how much, young ALD children can benefit from the introduction of metacognitive guidance into computer-assisted learning environments. In attempting to offset this trend, a study was conducted to examine the possible contribution of e-book activities incorporating metacognitive guidance (pretask planning and postperformance evaluation) into the development of two selected emergent literacy skills—vocabulary acquisition and phonological awareness—among ALD children 4.5 to 7.0 years old.  


Given the lack of e-books suitable for the purposes of the research, the researcher who conducted the study reported here devised an educational e-book specially designed to support emergent literacy that included metacognitive guidance. Two versions were prepared: one with metacognitive guidance, and the other without such guidance. Both versions contained activations related to the story’s content, with the activations programmed to provide children with additional exposure to the selected basic emergent literacy skills (vocabulary and phonological awareness). The e-book’s activations were based on previous experience of educational e-book design (Shamir et al., 2011).  

The selected book, Grandfather’s Minibus, was written to arouse children’s reading motivation and curiosity. The plot revolves around an amiable grandfather who takes his young grandson to school by riding on a minibus, a situation with characters relevant to young children’s experiences in contemporary society. The hotspot activations were programmed to enhance emergent literacy. Activity with the e-book was organized according to three modes:  read story only (without hotspots), read with possible dictionary activation, and read with rhyming activations. Sound effects were introduced to enhance the e-book’s attention-sustaining potential. To support individualized vocabulary acquisition, young readers could click the hotspots and access the respective screens as often as they wished in the second of the two modes (the dictionary mode). Finally, to avoid the distractive effects of excessive interactivity, the hotspots could be activated only after the child had read or heard the entire text, page by page.

In the read story only mode, computerized animations, music, and sound effects meant to dramatize the scenes accompany the narrator as he reads the story aloud. The text is highlighted at the word level, in synchronization with the narrator’s progress. No hotspots can be activated in this mode, a step taken to avoid the child’s distraction from the story’s content (de Jong & Bus, 2003).

In the dictionary mode, the narrator’s vocal reading of the e-book’s text is accompanied by explanations for the difficult words, found in hotspots the child can independently activate. The dictionary mode combines visual and vocal support: After the narrator completes reading a page, a bubble automatically appears on the page with a picture of an open book and the word dictionary. The word to be looked up appears in an enlarged format on the right-hand page of the dictionary, together with a drawing illustrating the word’s meaning. Immediately after the word appears, the dictionary bubble disappears, with the word to be explained remaining, highlighted in red. The word’s explanation is heard each time the child presses on the word.

The read and play while rhyming mode was designed to enhance phonological awareness (rhyming). This mode contains 12 paired words taken from the e-book’s text, together with visual and vocal supports. After reading/listening to the text appearing per screen, hotspots situated on selected pictures, together with selected words, begin flickering to attract the child’s attention. Once the child clicks on a hotspot, a highlighted, animated and colorful frame appears on the screen, with the selected word shown in enlarged letters. The narrator then clearly pronounces the entire word, followed by a rhymed word pair (e.g., the narrator states that chavut rhymes with keeshut).

In the e-book version that includes metacognitive guidance, instructions are activated automatically at the page’s conclusion (per screen). Prior to the activity’s initiation, the narrator states, “Say to yourself: ‘I am planning, listening, and observing.’” The narration is accompanied by simultaneous visual and vocal supports (e.g., the symbol “stop” and the sound of a gong). After concluding each activity, the child presses on an icon that enables movement to the next screen. However, just before the screen changes, metacognitive guidance automatically appears in the form of instructions spoken by the narrator: “Ask yourself: Did I understand? If I did, I can go on to the next page. If I did not, I will return to the current page.” Here as well, verbal guidance is supported visually (e.g., the symbol “Stop”) and vocally (the sound of a gong). At this stage, the child can choose to reactivate the hotspot and listen to the explanation once more (a conversation between characters, voices, and sounds) or go on to the e-book’s next page.


The study was designed to answer two main questions: (a) Does reading an e-book, with and without metacognitive guidance, promote emergent literacy in the areas of vocabulary acquisition and phonological awareness (recognition of rhymed word pairs)? (b) What, if any, is the unique contribution of the metacognitive guidance incorporated in an educational e-book to the acquisition of vocabulary and rhyming skills of kindergarten-age ALD children?

The participants (78 ALD children with low verbal ability, 4.5 to 7.0 years old) were randomly divided into three groups: the first experienced the activity with the educational e-book embedded with metacognitive guidance (n = 26), the second experienced the activity with the version lacking metacognitive guidance (n = 26), and the third (control) experienced the regular kindergarten program (n = 26). The children’s verbal and nonverbal cognitive levels were assessed preintervention, with vocabulary and phonological awareness levels evaluated again postintervention.

The phonological awareness (rhyming) tool was specially constructed for the research. In this test, the children were asked to listen to word pairs spoken by the test administrator and then decide whether the words rhymed. The test contained 24 word pairs, organized into two sets: 12 word pairs taken from the e-book. Each set contained 7 pairs of rhymed words and 5 pairs of unrhymed words. One point was earned for each correct answer, with scores ranging between 0 and 24 (α = 0.80).

Vocabulary level was measured with the Word Meaning Test, an instrument developed by Shamir et al. (2011), adapted to contain words found in the e-book used in the current study. The test asks children to recognize a target word’s meaning from among four pictures, with distracters belonging to the same semantic field as the target word but shown in a different context; for instance, a picture illustrating the target word “shed” was presented with the distracters tent, house, and library building. Participants were told, “Every time I say a word, point to where [the picture] you see what I am saying.” Correct recognitions were scored 1 and incorrect recognitions scored 0, with scores ranging from 0 to 24 (α = 0.80) (Shamir et al., 2011).

The procedure consisted of four stages: (1) The verbal and nonverbal cognitive levels of all the participants were individually tested to determine the children’s suitability for the research. (2) During preintervention testing, participants were administered the vocabulary and rhyming tests. (3) Children in the experimental group (an e-book with and an e-book without metacognitive guidance) experienced six independent sessions with the e-book, each lasting about 20 minutes for each of the three modes: read story only, read with dictionary activation, and read and play while rhyming. (4) During the postintervention stage, participants were individually administered the same assessment tests delivered in the preintervention stage.

The control group children continued with the regular kindergarten program comprising activities aimed at preparing them for formal instruction in reading, which commences in Israel upon entry into first grade. As part of their preparation, kindergarten children are read to from storybooks and encouraged to browse through books at will. At least one computer, sometimes containing e-books, is found in the majority of kindergarten classrooms. Children also frequently participate in games focusing on syllabic segmentation and rhyming. Children with special needs receive additional, individualized instruction designed to meet their specific needs. Most kindergarten children learn to visually recognize their names and are able to write them.


Various statistical tests were conducted to ascertain the effectiveness of metacognitive guidance within the framework of the two main research questions. The findings indeed indicated significant improvement in the two emergent literacy skills tested by the two experimental groups working with either version of the e-book when compared with the control group, although improvements in rhyming exceeded those in vocabulary acquisition, as follows.

The greatest improvement in phonological awareness (rhyming) was observed in the group exposed to the e-book version containing embedded metacognitive guidance. To test for the effects of the e-book activity on this skill while controlling for preintervention differences between the groups, an analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) was conducted using the preintervention scores as the covariate. The ANCOVA revealed significant differences between the three groups, F(2,72)=3.83, p < .05, η² = 0.10 as well as significant differences between the two e-book groups, F(2,72) = 3.83, p < .05, η² = 0.10. Group pre- and postintervention means and standard deviations for rhyming are presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Identification of Rhymed Words by the Experimental and Control Groups, Pre- and Postintervention









Exp. with metacognitive guidance (n = 26)





Exp. without metacognitive guidance (n = 26)





Control (n = 26)





As can be seen from Table 1, the greatest improvement in rhyming was observed in the group using the e-book with embedded metacognitive guidance, F(1, 25) = 10.90 p < .005, η² = 0.30 .The group using the e-book without metacognitive guidance exhibited minor improvement. As to the control group, the improvement observed was even smaller than those obtained by the experimental group that had been exposed to the e-book but had not received metacognitive guidance. We can therefore conclude that although working with a specially designed e-book can improve learning, that learning is much more effective when metacognitive guidance is added to the e-book’s program.

A simple effects analysis, conducted to examine the differences in results between the two research groups using the e-book, revealed a significant difference between the groups, F(1,47) = 8.30, p < .01, η² = 0.15. A significant difference was found between the group exposed to metacognitive guidance and the control group, F(1,48) = 4.56, p < .05, η² = 0.09. No significant difference was found between the experimental group that had not received metacognitive guidance and the control group, F(1,47) = 1.47, p > .05.

Analysis of the intervention’s effect on vocabulary acquisition was conducted with respect to the two sets of word pairs, one taken from the e-book, and the other from different sources. A significant interaction of group × time was found, but only with respect to the words taken from the e-book, F(2,74) = 3.95, η² = .10., p < .05. Group pre- and postintervention means and standard deviations for vocabulary from the e-book are presented in Table 2.

Table 2. Means and Standard Deviations Regarding E-book Vocabulary Acquisition by Group, Pre- and Postintervention (Scores: 1–12)









Exp. with metacognitive guidance (n = 26)





Exp. without metacognitive guidance (n = 26)





Control (n = 26)





A simple effects test was conducted for each group independently to compare the pre- and postintervention vocabulary results. A significant difference was found between the two measurements taken of the group that had experienced the e-book with metacognitive guidance, F(1,25) = 26.76, η² = .52, p < .001, and the group that had experienced the e-book without metacognitive guidance, F(1,24) = 35.19, η² = .59, p < .001. No significant difference in the pre- and postmeasurements was found for the control group, F(1,25) = 1.58, p < .05.

We should repeat that differences in vocabulary between the two experimental groups using the e-book and the control group were observed only with respect to the words taken from the story itself. No significant difference in improvement was found between the group exposed to metacognitive guidance and the groups not exposed to such guidance.

Regarding children at risk for LD, the point to be stressed is the relevance of metacognitive guidance for the acquisition of emergent literacy skills, in this case, phonological awareness and vocabulary acquisition, as indicated by the research results. Despite disadvantages in verbal ability (Swanson et al., 2003), the ALD children participating in the current study were clearly capable of developing rhyming and vocabulary acquisition skills when using educational e-books of the type designed for the study. The findings of the research discussed here provide additional evidence of the benefits to be gained when integrating metacognitive guidance in educational e-book activities directed at improving rhyming skills as well as vocabulary acquisition.

Further research is nonetheless needed to confirm these findings but also to probe the reason why the metacognitive guidance was more effective in improving performance in rhyming rather than in vocabulary acquisition. Stated differently, why was metacognitive guidance ineffective in improving vocabulary acquisition for words not taken from the e-book, words to which the children had not been exposed proximate to the time of the testing?

One possible answer to this question may lie in the implications of physiological damage to defined areas of the brain. Such physiological impairments can interfere with basic cognitive functioning, including perception, automatic processing, and response rate, and consequently explain why young ALD children tend to lack metacognitive skills (Martini & Shore, 2008). To illustrate, the literature indicates that these children exhibit poor working memory (Breznitz, 1997) and are able to process only relatively small amounts of information in given periods of time (see for example Swanson et al., 2003). Relatedly, cognitive load theory suggests that while working memory is limited for all individuals, cognitive overload, which occurs when learning tasks consume resources exceeding than those available in working memory, prevents students from understanding and performing the relevant tasks (Chinnappan & Chandler, 2010).

A task’s complexity is influenced by the level of integration required to connect its elements. When the material to be learned contains single items and the level of integration is low, the cognitive load is low, too. As the number of items increases, the required integration rises, thereby increasing the learner’s working memory load. Prior knowledge also affects cognitive load because it triggers domain-related schema present in the individual’s working memory and waiting to be activated. Subsequent processing of new information in the selected domain is consequently more efficient and less cognitively loaded (Mayer, 2005).

This syndrome may have been meaningful for the research findings obtained. The amount of working memory may not have been adequate for the vocabulary acquisition task when the words encountered were new or not part of the children’s everyday verbal experience. This condition may have negatively influenced their ability to benefit from the metacognitive guidance embedded in the educational e-book. It can also be argued that a larger cognitive load was created by the more complex vocabulary acquisition task than by the rhyming task, irrespective of the metacognitive guidance made available.

Developmental factors may also have impacted on this finding. The ability to recognize a rhyme develops at an earlier stage than does vocabulary acquisition, partially because children are exposed to rhyming at a younger age (Bryant, Bradley, Maclean, & Crossland, 1989). We may therefore assume that the participants in the research were already somewhat familiar with rhyming and could thus more readily take advantage of the metacognitive guidance offered without incurring additional cognitive load—hence, their improved performance in this domain. The same cannot be said of vocabulary acquisition, which relies on quantities of memory that may not have been available to the ALD children tested. Moreover, the need to follow the instructions associated with the metacognitive guidance may simply have induced cognitive overload and thus interfered with learning.

The implications of the current study’s results for ALD youngsters are extremely important. The same syndrome that may interfere with learning by regular children may be especially meaningful for ALD children. If we take the relatively small working memory characterizing ALD children into consideration, we can reasonably conclude that task complexity and meager prior knowledge of emergent literacy skills may negatively influence their ability to benefit from the metacognitive guidance to be embedded into e-books.

These conclusions do not, however, detract from the potential of carefully designed educational e-books as tools in remedial emergent literacy interventions. Longitudinal studies on the durability of learning with educational e-books offering metacognitive guidance in particular is a major avenue to be taken if we are to confirm the research findings presented as well as improve the design of increasingly appropriate tools. This conclusion is reinforced by evidence of the information overload affecting all learning environments in the digital age. The development of SRL models and tools such as e-books within formal learning, in coordination with metacognitive guidance, is therefore essential, especially when speaking of ALD children. The study’s preliminary findings strongly support this direction of research and pedagogic practice.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 13, 2017, p. 1-14
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21944, Date Accessed: 10/28/2021 4:34:03 AM

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About the Author
  • Adina Shamir
    Bar-Ilan University
    E-mail Author
    ADINA SHAMIR currently serves as head of the Special Education Program, School of Education, Bar-Ilan University, Israel. Her research focuses on new technologies for promoting cognitive and metacognitive development among young children at risk. She edited the recent special issue “Technology and Students With Special Educational Needs: New Opportunities and Future Directions,” European Journal of Special Needs Education. As an active member of international organizations, she recently served (2013–2015) as president of IACEP–International Association for Cognitive Education and Psychology.
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