Thomas Normann-Ekegren was helping his daughter to learn to read when he first came up with the idea for a dragon who relies on the power of reading to stay alive.
After watching his daughter struggle, Normann-Ekegren, who has worked in IT for 13 years with companies including Microsoft and IBM, began to develop an app that takes the concept of the Tamagotchi (the handheld digital pets that were popular in the nineties) and incorporates this into an eBook design that can be used in the classroom.
“Learning to read is not an easy thing and it can be quite demotivating. That’s where the idea came from to make something that would make reading easier, but would help with motivation too,” says Normann-Ekegren.
And what could be more motivating than making reading a matter of life and death?
Aimed at readers between the ages of 5 and 10, the app is called Maneno and it starts with the story of a mother dragon that has to abandon her nest of eggs while she is fighting evil forces. Children are asked to adopt an egg and read to it for at least 15 minutes a day to help it to hatch and grow into an adult dragon.
Users then have a selection of texts to choose from at each reading level and the more they read the more life they breathe into their dragon. Currently, there are only Danish texts available, but the company is in talks with a UK publisher about incorporating English texts, should it get a UK release.
“We try to tap into the emotions of children,” says Normann-Ekegren. “The baby dragon will automatically become bigger and wiser as the children read more.”
However, if the children do not read regularly, the dragon will grow smaller and eventually return to its egg.
Will an app make children read?
It's the kind of idea that either gets teachers very excited or very angry. The former would see the value in getting reluctant readers to pick up a book and hope to transfer the motivation from keeping the dragon alive to the joy of reading in due course. The latter will be horrified a teacher would trick a child into reading rather than persuading them that reading in itself is worthwhile.
And this is before you even get into debates about whether an app has any place in the classroom at all.
If you're in the group that thinks reading should only be promoted for reading's sake, then you might want to stop reading here. For if the prospect of keeping a baby dragon alive doesn’t sound like enough to motivate the less caring members of your class, Maneno has some other gamification tricks up its sleeve.
For example, children are awarded points according to the number of minutes they read and whether they are reading at a level appropriate to their ability.
They can also compare their performance in league tables based on the amount of effort they put in, and make friends with other readers using a built-in social media platform, where they can show off their dragons and exchange book recommendations.
And, for pupils with learning needs such as dyslexia, there are options to add coloured overlays to texts and to hear words read aloud.
The app is still at the pilot stage and − although it has received positive feedback in Normann-Ekegren’s native Denmark, particularly from those supporting pupils with dyslexia − teachers in the UK will have to wait until early spring before they have the chance to put its effectiveness to the test.
However, Normann-Ekegren is confident that the app has potential to make a difference for pupils that struggle the most.
“Schools are becoming more digital all the time. I have noticed that there seems to be lots of new technology for teaching about maths, but not for supporting reading. There’s no reason why that should be the case,” he says.
While many will agree with him, there are plenty more that won't. And if Maneno does come to the UK, Normann-Ekegren will hear both views pretty quickly, and very loudly.