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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

The site and app ScribJab was envisioned by SFU education professors Kelleen Toohey and Diane Dagenais as a way to empower Canadian schoolchildren aged 10 to 13 to become more comfortable with writing and reading in additional languages and to support multilingual family literacy. Launched in 2014, ScribJab is a digital platform for creating “picture books” using text, illustrations, and even audio recordings in languages from Mandarin to Italian, Swedish to Arabic.

The site hosts user-created virtual books with 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), in addition to over 400 others composed by children with the help of a teacher or guardian to aid in the translation.

The roots of the idea were planted in 2010. Toohey was conducting a research project in local Grade 4 and 5 classrooms where many of the children were of Punjabi heritage whose guardians during the day were often their limited-English grandparents. Their teacher recognized an opportunity and asked the children and their grandparents to create stories in both English and Punjabi so they could read together.

Observing this creation process, Toohey was struck by how valuable the grandparents’ mother tongue skills were. She also noticed how fiercely proud the children were of the simple yet meaningful stories they were making, many of them firsthand accounts of the hardships and joys the grandparents faced during their own childhoods in India. 

Elizabeth Marshall, another colleague in the faculty of education, and Toohey published a paper in the Harvard Education Review in 2010 examining the content of these stories. The realization of the undeniable intergenerational and intercultural value blossomed into the idea to create a freely accessible online hub where such stories could be collected and shared on a much larger scale.

Toohey and colleague (and frequent collaborator) Diane Dagenais developed ScribJab with financial support from Heritage Canada, and with resources and training from both their SFU faculty, as well as from Decoda Literacy Solutions, a supporter of community-based literacy and learning initiatives in BC. Technical assistance came from developers at SFU Creative Services, 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 are able to 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.”

They hope that ScribJab’s popularity will spread worldwide as more children and older users take advantage of this free resource, and they would like to see children using the app to write stories with elders 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.

“Researchers in a number of countries have referenced ScribJab as a promising tool to support multilingual story production in contexts of linguistic diversity,” says Toohey. “It enables learners to compose not just in two of their languages, but to also engage in multiple forms of expression, such as writing, illustrating and narrating.”  


 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 are practicing teachers. We have always emphasized the importance of first language maintenance along with second language learning and hope 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 thus have obligations to teachers, children and parents alike to involve them in the research process, and contribute to improving practice. 

SFU bills itself as "Canada's most engaged research university." How does your work exemplify this spirit of engagement? 

Our research has mainly been situated in classrooms with teachers, learners of English and French as additional languages, of Indigenous languages, and of heritage languages. This work has necessarily involved school district personnel, parents and educational leaders. We have benefitted enormously from the generosity of all of these community members and we hope, in some part, they have benefitted from our educational research.