Q&A with Natalia Kucirkova

By   Jantien Abma 4 min read

Natalia Kucirkova is a Senior Research Fellow at University College London. Her research concerns innovative ways of supporting children’s book reading, digital literacy and exploring the role of personalisation in early years. Her publications have appeared in Communication Disorders Quarterly, First Language, Computers & Education and the Cambridge Journal of Education.

Natalia Kucirkova 1. You have built your career around discerning new ways to stimulate the minds of children. What was it about children’s relationships with books that led you to specialise in reading in particular?

I was keen to research an activity that is key to children’s education, empathy and identity development. Reading is a quintessentially human practice, allowing us to connect to knowledge, explore others’ views and our own beliefs. Books (or digital texts) provide access to these realms in a different way to oral stories or films. The written text combines ‘the word and the world’, which makes reading a particularly enriching, creative and mind-stimulating activity.

2. You will be presenting a talk on personalised e-reading for children at this year’s London Book and Screen Week. Your own app, Our Story, incorporates personalisation in the form of photos, audio recordings and drawing to allow young children to create and read digital picture books on handheld devices. Personalised reading was popular among children long before e-books came on the scene, the first to come to mind being the Choose Your Own Adventure books, written for older kids in the seventies. Digitisation of picture books clearly allows for an entirely new level of personalisation. In terms of psychological effects, do modern and older versions of personalised reading have anything in common?

Yes, that is absolutely the case – the digital medium offers unprecedented possibilities for personalisation. First, it offers personalisation in multimedia, which means that children can record their own voices, write their own texts and produce new pictures, videos or drawings. Second, unlike with printed personalised books, children can make their choices using flexible sets of templates with potentially unlimited possibilities for combinations. Third, the personalisation is seamless and generates a polished product in a much shorter time frame than in print, giving children a strong sense of agency and ownership. Last, but not least, several digital books offer the possibility for transmedia – they combine various forms and versions of the same story. With the Mr Glue app for example, children can add their own digital drawings to the story and get it printed as a paperback delivered to their door. These new forms of personalisation are generating new forms of authorship; they affect children’s motivation and ownership of reading, as well as their aesthetic appreciation of texts.

3. What would you say were the biggest challenges you had to overcome in researching and developing the Our Story app?

The first version of Our Story was released in 2011, when iPad apps had only just begun to appear on the children’s market. There was not much expertise to draw on and that generated both creative and challenging situations. The issues typical of design-based research, including tensions among different stakeholders, were certainly part of the development process. I was fortunate to work with a group of enthusiastic developers and designers. I’m particularly grateful to Paul Hogan from the Open University.

As for the research challenges, these too were related to the novelty of the phenomenon. I was keen to explore the theme of digital personalisation in early years, but that required an understanding of the use of iPads more generally. Some of my early studies therefore look at the more general aspect of technology-mediated interaction – how to introduce tablets and touchscreens and use them effectively at homes and in schools. These insights were necessary before I was able to look more specifically at digital personalisation.

4. Did you have any ‘aha moments’, where some social or scientific advantages to the project suddenly became clear? Or any other moments in the process that were generally gratifying?

I had my ‘aha moment’ when I saw the many different uses of Our Story in a school that I visited. Not only was the app used differently by different children within the same classroom, but also across different year groups and different teachers. Some used it to create their own digital diaries, others focused on individual words and how to pronounce them (and created a personalised digital dictionary), others linked Our Story to the school curriculum more directly, by personalising set texts with children’s own story excerpts. Up until then I didn’t really understand the power of an open-ended design for cross-context use of apps.

Open-ended design is related to open opportunities to express children’s voices. I remember very vividly a personal story shared by one little Italian boy in a London pre-school. He didn’t speak much English, but he recorded his story using a series of loud screeching sounds. Everyone knew his story was about a scary dinosaur. He was very proud that he could share his story despite not being able to express it in written or spoken words as other children did. Giving children flexible and equally attractive choices to express their feelings and ideas can be very empowering for them and those around them.

5. Where do you plan to take your research in the future? Will reading continue to figure prominently?

I would like to explore writing in more depth, as reading and writing cannot really be separated, and, so far, I have been foregrounding reading in my work. I’m currently working on a systematic review of children’s digital writing, which is a fascinating subject, especially from the developmental perspective.

I’m also very interested in clarifying the essence of personalisation. I’m keen to go beyond the commercialised ‘name-centred personalisation’ to authentic markers of self. I will be exploring the relationship between authenticity and personalisation more in my forthcoming book by Harvard University Press.