media release, research news

New app helps kids tell multilingual stories

January 13, 2014

Kelleen Toohey, Vancouver resident, 778.782.4517,
Diane Dagenais, Vancouver resident, 778.782.3222,
Melissa Hudson, 778.782.9036,
Carol Thorbes, PAMR, 778.782.3035,


With national Family Literacy Day around the corner, two Simon Fraser University education researchers’ success in engaging children in multilingual learning is timely and remarkable.

Kelleen Toohey’s and Diane Dagenais’ creation of ScribJab, a combined website and iPad application for language learners, is helping kids publish on-line books in multiple languages, including Arabic, Punjabi, Japanese, Chinese, German, Korean and Vietnamese. So far they’ve published 30 books of stories.

Built with the help of technical developers at SFU Creative Services, ScribJab allows users to create and share digital stories in any language. It can be accessed via a website on any computer or the free iPad app designed by Toohey and Dagenais, available at the APP store.

The duo is holding a launch party to celebrate ScribJab’s success to date on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Halpern Centre, Room 126 at SFU’s Burnaby campus. The media and the public are invited.

“In 2010, a group of Grade 4 and 5 children at a Surrey school wrote the first books on ScribJab,” says Toohey, who teaches and researches English learning, multiculturalism and literacy.

“Their teacher had them write books of stories about their grandparents’ childhood that could be read to younger children by their grandparents. The child authors based their stories on conversations with their own grandparents.”

“The child authors were all fiercely proud of their online books,” notes Dagenais, a former elementary school teacher with extensive expertise on French immersion programs.

“ScribJab promotes multilingualism by building recognition that many school kids and their relatives are now multilingual, and that multilingualism is a resource that should be praised and fostered.

“This multilingual language learning program also helps young Aboriginal students and minority-language speaking children reconnect with their often lost ancestral languages. Research shows that such reconnection inspires higher educational achievements and self-esteem among these students.”

With the supervision of teachers or parents, ScribJab invites kids into the online world’s first open source environment where they can type in, illustrate and narrate stories and share them with students globally.

Users must create their initial story in one of Canada’s official languages, English or French, and are then encouraged to translate it into another language with the help of parents, teachers and myriad online resources.

ScribJab’s primary funder Canadian Heritage collaborated with Decoda Literacy Solutions and SFU’s Faculty of Education on the program’s development. All books—written in English or French—are translatable into other languages.

“We believe that children learn second languages faster and better if they have a strong foundation in their first language,” says Toohey. “We also believe that valuing languages other than English or French is important for the development of children who grow up in multilingual homes, whether they know their heritage languages or not.”


Possible student scenario: Using the ScribJab application and an iPad (or via the website on computer), ten-year-old Maria can produce a digital story first in English or French and translate it into another language. She can create illustrations and narrations to go with them. After getting her parents’ or teacher’s permission to use ScribJab, Maria writes directly on the site and translates her initial story using resources at hand. An adult monitor reviews her story before it is posted. Maria will be able to read and comment on other kids’ posted stories.

Kelleen Toohey co-wrote a paper about the first books posted on ScribJab, published in the Harvard Educational Review: 2010 Volume 80 (2) 221-241. The title of the paper is Representing family: Community funds of knowledge, bilingualism and multimodality.

Quotes from Kelleen Toohey:

“We have heard that some teachers have used the app with older students. They ask high school students whose first language isn’t English to write down everything they know about a science topic, for example, in their first language, and illustrate the topic. The teachers then supply the English words for translation. This isn’t what the site was designed for but it’s a cool way to use it.”

“When I demonstrated the program to a teacher at a Tibetan school in India, he was able to push a button on a computer to access the Tibetan alphabet and translate what he’d written. There are now stories on ScribJab in Mandarin and Arabic, using characters accessed on a computer.”

Simon Fraser University is consistently ranked among Canada's top comprehensive universities and is one of the top 50 universities in the world under 50 years old. With campuses in Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey, B.C., SFU engages actively with the community in its research and teaching, delivers almost 150 programs to more than 30,000 students, and has more than 125,000 alumni in 130 countries.


Simon Fraser University: Engaging Students. Engaging Research. Engaging Communities