Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hey kids! Why watch cartoons when you can watch animated storybooks on your computer?

Don't want to plop your children in front of the boob tube? Want them to hear stories instead? Want them to hear someone besides their parents speaking English, Spanish, or French? Want them to interact with the material? Want to pay big bucks for the privilege? Then sign up for TumbleBooks, "e-books for e-kids"!

I'm currently previewing a very intriguing website that offers animated stories read out loud in the three languages mentioned above. The pictures are cute, the animation is simple but effective, the narration is lively (and differentiates between voices for different characters). It's done karaoke style--as the narrator speaks, the words are highlighted. (The fact that the words appear on the screen is a strength of the program in my opinion, making it more valuable than, say, watching cartoons on television.) Many of the stories (though not all the French ones) indicate what reading level they're on and how long the presentation lasts. Some stories have multiple choice comprehension quizzes or non-linguistic games associated with them (memory and picture puzzles).

The site also has some longer works--novels and plays--for adolescent and adult readers in all three languages. Unfortunately, these consist simply of the text on the screen rather than brought to life. On the other hand, there's also a nifty book report feature that asks open-ended questions about the story and either displays your answers on the screen or prints them out in a worksheet format.

I've spent more time with the French part of the site. While only 27 picture books exist in French, I was impressed by the fact that most of them are honest-to-goodness French children's books rather than French translations of the books the site offers in English. A couple even seem to be set in Africa (two books about a giraffe, and one lovely story about a boy who lives in the desert and has trouble picturing what the ocean must be like, Raconte-moi la mer). Surprisingly, TumbleBooks only has 12 children's books in Spanish, and their authors have very gringo-sounding names.

Here's what I didn't like about the site: sometimes the background sounds (monsters roaring, for example) drowned out the narration. The French books don't all have difficulty level indicated. The games are not varied enough or content-oriented for my (albeit teacherly) taste. Worst of all, the French text has too many typos and misspellings for a program this pricey. The animation and narration are so good, and the website itself is so professional, why would they bring down the quality of the product by leaving out accent marks and not proofreading?

I've mentioned the price twice--so how bad is it? $399 per year. It seems like they're targeting institutions like schools and libraries rather than individual teachers, parents, or homeschoolers. (The latter could really take advantage of this site, though! What a shame.) On the other hand, if your local library or school district subscribes, then you would probably be able to access TumbleBooks from their homepage regardless of where you are.

Exciting update! The Lafayette Public Library has just purchased a subscription to Tumblebooks! Click here for their Kids' Stuff page which will let you access the site from your home without a password.

If I were an elementary or middle school teacher (doing French or ESL), I would enjoy having this site as one of my resources. It would be great, for instance, to hook the computer up to a projector and show the story to the class on the big screen as if it were a movie. And as viewers can watch either on "automatic" (the story proceeds at the pace of the narration) or "manual" (the viewer "turns" the page himself when he's ready), it lends itself to lots of "teaching moments" where I could pause to ask questions and point things out or flip backwards. As I'm a big proponent of using context to help kids learn to read, I can see myself asking the students to first describe the picture on the screen, then look for the words in the text that describe the picture, then having the narrator read the page, and finally asking the children to read the page aloud. (I'm just brainstorming at this point, since I've never actually taught elementary or middle school.) I can also see taking the class to a computer lab so each child could pick out his own book to read and watch online. (I'd take advantage of the book report feature in that case.)

But as long as the number of books in French is so limited and the price so high, I can't imagine subscribing and using TumbleBooks with my nephew and my future bilingual baby. Too bad!

Can any of you familiar with the site share your ideas about it with us? Click on "comments" to do so! And to see a post on Reading A-Z, a cheaper program offering more downloadable books (but without the narration and animation), click here.


  1. Merci Sarah pour cette evaluation du site! Comme tu l'as dit, ca pourrait vraiment etre interessant...s'il y avait plus de livres et que c'etait bien moins cher. Je vais garder le lien au cas ou dans le futur ils baissaient leurs prix. Mais franchement, ca serait chouette a avoir! Oh, et je ne sais pas si tu je l'ai dit, mais maintenant, nous allons avoir un cours service-learning, et ca sera de Preschool a Grade 6! Ca grandit!:) Merci pour toute ton aide!:) Frede

  2. Thanks for the ideas! My adult class wants me to read them children's books and I didn't know what to do with them.