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Growing Language Skills Through Storytelling


Growing Language Skills Through Storytelling


Growing Language Skills Through Storytelling

ScribJab is a website and free iPad application that enables
children to create storybooks in any language

ScribJab was envisioned by SFU education professors Kelleen Toohey and Diane Dagenais as a tool that to empower schoolchildren in becoming more comfortable with writing and reading in their non-dominant languages, as well as to support multilingual family literacy. 

Launched in 2014, the digital platform enables children to create “picture books” with text, illustrations and even audio recordings in languages from Mandarin to Italian, Swedish to Arabic. Over 400 user-created, virtual books made with the help of a teacher or guardian are hosted on the website, including titles such as “The Story of an Old Woman/ 老太太的故事” (in English and Chinese) and “The Wedding Dress/Damit Na Pangkasal” (in English and Tagalog).

The roots of the idea were planted in 2010 when Toohey was conducting a research project that was situated in local Grade 4 and 5 classrooms. Many of the children in these rooms were of Punjabi heritage whose daytime guardians were often grandparents who spoke very little English. The teacher asked the children and their grandparents to create stories in both English and Punjabi so they could read together.

As she observed this creation process, Toohey was struck by the value the grandparents’ mother tongue skills had in terms of multilingual education. She also noticed how fiercely proud the children were of the simple yet meaningful stories they came up with, many of which were firsthand accounts of both the hardships and joys the grandparents faced during their own childhoods in India.

Together with Elizabeth Marshall, another colleague in the Faculty of Education, Toohey published a paper in the Harvard Education Review (2010) which examined the content of these stories. Their underlying intergenerational and intercultural value was undeniable and blossomed into an idea to create an online hub where such stories could be collected and freely shared on a larger scale.

Toohey and Dagenais developed ScribJab with support from SFU, Heritage Canada, and Decoda Literacy Solutions, the latter a supporter of community-based literacy and learning initiatives in B.C. Technical assistance came from developers at SFU Creative Studio who earned a Gold 2014 Horizon Interactive Award in the Education Mobile/Apps category for their work.

Says Toohey, “A great deal of language learning research has pointed to the importance of first language skills maintenance for second language learners. When these learners maintain ties with their home languages and cultures, they can benefit more from school instruction: their school achievement is higher, and they demonstrate higher self esteem and higher educational and occupational aspirations.”

Dagenais and Toohey hope ScribJab’s popularity will spread worldwide as more children and older users take advantage of this free resource, including for the purpose of writing stories with elders who speak and write in Indigenous languages. To accomplish these goals they are seeking financial support to upgrade the iPad application and to possibly develop Android and Windows versions as well. “ScribJab enables learners to compose in two of their languages, and to also engage in multiple forms of expression, such as writing, illustrating and narrating,” says Toohey. “Researchers in a number of countries have referenced the app as a promising tool for supporting multilingual story production in contexts of linguistic diversity.” 


Dr. Kelleen Toohey is a professor in the SFU Faculty of Education. Her research focuses on language learning and teaching practice. She is particularly interested in the learning of English as an additional language by children, and she has recently been engaged in digital production work with such children.  

Dr. Diane Dagenais is a professor in the Faculty of Education at SFU. Her research documents the literacy practices multilingual learners adopt in and out of school and explores innovations in language teaching that enhance educational experiences and learning outcomes. Her recent work examines how digital and multimodal literacies might best support language learning.

Q & A with Kelleen Toohey & Diane Dagenais

What motivates you as a researcher?

Our research has broadly considered language education for Indigenous students, new immigrants and other learners of “heritage” languages. We are keenly aware of Canada’s linguistic resources and want to contribute to projects that value their use and resist the exclusive use of dominant languages.

How has your research made an impact in our lives?

We have been part of the Faculty of Education for decades and in that time have taught many undergraduates, students in teacher education, and graduate students who have become practicing teachers. We have always emphasized the importance of first language maintenance along with second language learning, and hope that the teachers we have worked with bring that commitment into their teaching lives.

How important is collaboration in advancing research?

In education, almost all of our research is conducted in collaboration with community members. Many of us work in schools and so have obligations to teachers, children and parents alike to involve them in the research process and contribute to improving the practice.