Widening the Reach for Early Literacy

Spanish translation of HGSE’s pre-literacy app Small Wonders, produced by Reach Every Reader and GBH, lets more families play and learn

Over half of American children are not proficient readers by the end of third grade, a year that represents a significant benchmark for a child’s educational trajectory. And researchers know that early literacy lays the groundwork for later success; a student who is unable to read adequately in first grade has a 90% chance of reading poorly in fourth grade, and a 75% chance of reading poorly in high school. 
As part of its work to provide comprehensive early literacy solutions through research in education, developmental psychology, and technology, the Reach Every Reader initiative — a collaboration between the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Integrated Learning Initiative, and Florida State University — is expanding access to its pioneering Small Wonders app. 

In partnership with GBH, the leading multiplatform creator for public media  that jointly developed Small Wonders, Reach Every Reader is now releasing a free Spanish translation, Vaivén de Palabras, to enable Spanish-speaking families to engage in the kind of conversational back-and-forth and play- or curiosity-based exchanges that are key to fueling early literacy.

Early Learning Apps

The English-language version of Small Wonders was released in spring 2021 as part of Reach Every Reader’s innovative approach to making early literacy widely accessible in new formats — in this case, via interactive, educational games and activities designed for children and their parents, available for free as apps for mobile devices. Small Wonders was one of three pre-literacy apps that HGSE released at the time, along with Animal Antics and Photo Play. Since then, the apps have garnered nearly 30,000 downloads, and Animal Antics and Small Wonders were selected for the Notable Children’s Digital Media List by the Association for Library Service to Children. 

Now, the team behind Small Wonders — which includes app developers from GBH and researchers from Reach Every Reader — is expanding that reach with Vaivén de Palabras.

HGSE Senior Lecturer Joe Blatt, a faculty co-chair of the Learning Design, Innovation, and Technology master’s program at HGSE, developed the Small Wonders app in collaboration with HGSE Professor Paola Uccelli, Lecturer David Dockterman, and researcher Rosa Turco, then a doctoral candidate who has since earned her Ph.D. from Harvard.

“We know that parents want to support their children’s readiness to learn how to read and write. We created the Reach Every Reader pre-literacy apps to help families do this, by providing fun games and activities that incorporate parent-friendly prompts for sustained conversation and vocabulary growth,” says Blatt. “By sharing these apps for free, we hope to make a difference for all children — so we are delighted that the Small Wonders approach to literacy is now even more accessible to Spanish-speaking families. We hope that Vaivén de Palabras brings joyful interaction and preparation for reading to an even broader audience of parents and children.”

“Vaivén de Palabras promotes back-and-forth conversations for Spanish-speaking families, so that parents can engage their young children in the language they know best.”

GBH’s Senior Executive Producer and Director of Digital Partnerships Bill Shribman led the production team that developed the app with HGSE. “We were delighted to be able to bring GBH’s expertise in creating educationally-based and intergeneration games in partnership with HGSE to encourage early literacy,” says Shribman. “Now with a fully translated version of our Small Wonders app, including Spanish versions of its many videos and catchy songs, we are excited that Vaivén de Palabras can reach a whole new Spanish-speaking audience.”

From the Reach Every Reader team, Uccelli and Turco led the research behind the app’s translated edition, ensuring that conversational interplay stayed at the center. Unlike other apps, which may tend to create distance between parents and children, Small Wonders/Vaivén de Palabras focuses on relationship building and talking as a pathway to learning. “Vaivén de Palabras was designed to bring parents and children closer by providing ideas for fun conversations that support young children’s literacy development and overall learning,” says Uccelli.

The app “promotes back-and-forth conversations for Spanish-speaking families, so that parents can engage their young children in the language they know best,” she continues. “Sharing personal anecdotes, creating imaginary stories, planning future events, and explaining and discussing emotions are all examples of back-and-forth conversations that parents and children can enjoy while using the app, but also beyond the app. What children learn while talking to their parents in Spanish will offer them a foundation for literacy not only in Spanish but also in English.”

Indeed, research shows that children with a strong foundation in their first language have a significantly easier time learning English, and it is beneficial for parents to talk to their children in their own first language. Vaivén de Palabras has the potential to expand pre-literacy support for millions of children and their families.

Vaivén de Palabras and HGSE’s other pre-literacy apps for families are currently available for free on the App Store and the Google Play Store.

The GBH team included Gentry, Bill, Kevin, Dan, Nolan, Jeff, Lizzy, Li, Louise, Kit, Sienna, Kimberley, Sophie, Mike, Bethany, Marnie, Alan, and Kate. Translation services provided by centauro.com.

Coming Soon: Molly of Denali

What many of us at GBH are working on…


From Alaska to homes all across the U.S., MOLLY OF DENALI, a groundbreaking new PBS KIDS series produced by WGBH Boston, will premiere nationwide July 15, 2019 on PBS stations, the 24/7 PBS KIDS channel and PBS KIDS digital platforms.

The first nationally distributed children’s series to feature a Native American lead character, MOLLY OF DENALI is about Alaska Native Molly Mabray, a feisty and resourceful 10-year-old Gwich’in/Koyukon/Dena’ina Athabascan girl, who takes viewers ages 4 to 8 along with her on adventures and fosters literacy skills along the way. With an emphasis on family and intergenerational relationships, episodes of MOLLY OF DENALI model Alaska Native values, such as respecting others, sharing what you have and honoring your elders, while showcasing contemporary aspects of rural life, including strong female role models and how technology aids in communication.

“PBS KIDS has a longstanding commitment to celebrating inclusiveness and diversity, and we’re delighted to further that mission through MOLLY OF DENALI,” said Linda Simensky, Vice President, Children’s Programming, PBS. “We can’t wait for families to meet MOLLY OF DENALI, who will introduce them to some of the richest cultures in our nation.”

MOLLY OF DENALI is grounded in a pioneering curriculum focused on informational text, a foundational aspect of literacy education. Informational texts are designed to convey information and can include written words, images, graphics, video and oral language. In every episode, Molly navigates her world and solves problems with the help of books, online resources, field guides, historical documents, maps, tables, posters, photos, Indigenous knowledge from elders, her very own vlog and more.

“We’re excited to bring the world of MOLLY OF DENALI to audiences everywhere,” said WGBH Executive Producer Dorothea Gillim. “What began with the idea of creating a show based on the joy children find in ‘playing store’ has evolved into the story of kids and community, and an authentic reflection of life in Alaska, with an important Informational Text curriculum to support it.”

MOLLY OF DENALI includes Alaska Native voices in all aspects of the production, both on camera and behind the scenes. Every Indigenous character is voiced by an Indigenous actor, including the lead character of Molly, who is voiced by Alaska Native Sovereign Bill (Tlingit and Muckleshoot). Alaska Native screenwriters and producers are also part of bringing the series to life. WGBH Boston developed MOLLY OF DENALI with a working group of Alaska Native advisors, and is creating opportunities for developing Alaska Native talent via a Scriptwriting Fellowship. The show also gives young viewers a window into the Alaskan experience through live-action interstitials featuring local children and regions filmed by Alaskan production teams, including Alaska Public Media, KUAC, UAF Frame and Channel Films. The theme song was sung by Phillip Blanchett and Karina Moeller of the Yupik Alaska Native band Pamyua, and the Athabascan fiddle and traditional drum in the song were played by Gwich’in fiddler Brenna Firth.

“I’m thrilled that Alaska Native children will get to see themselves and our vibrant cultures represented in MOLLY OF DENALI,” said Princess Daazhraii Johnson, Creative Producer of the series. “Equally important is having a positive representation of Alaska Native culture shared with a broader audience. The show also reinforces for children that no matter where they’re from or where they live, we are all much more alike than we are different.”

MOLLY OF DENALI is being developed as part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and PBS Ready To Learn Initiative with funding from the U.S. Department of Education. The Ready To Learn Initiative brings educational television and digital media resources to children ages 2-8, and aims to promote early science and literacy learning, with an emphasis on supporting children from underserved communities.

“As a signature component for the CPB-PBS Ready To Learn Initiative, MOLLY OF DENALI presents high-quality, innovative educational content promoting literacy skills while exposing young learners to cultural diversity in a positive and authentic way,” said Deb Sanchez, CPB Senior Vice President, Education and Children’s Content. “CPB supports both education and diversity through its investments in the MOLLY OF DENALI production, ensuring that Alaska Natives are involved in all aspects and all levels of production and the creation of multi-station educational resources focused on rural children.”

Each episode of MOLLY OF DENALI will include two 11-minute stories as well as a live-action interstitial. The first season will feature 38 half-hour episodes, along with a one-hour special.

Starting in May 2019, kids and families can share in the early adventures of Molly and her friends through a new eight-part podcast series, a prequel to the PBS KIDS show debuting in July. Drawing on Native storytelling to introduce Molly and her home, The Molly of Denali podcast is a first from WGBH, in partnership with PRX and Gen-Z Media.

The series is co-produced by WGBH and its animation partner, Atomic Cartoons, in association with CBC Kids. MOLLY OF DENALI is developed and produced with funding from CPB, the Department of Education’s Ready To Learn Grant, public television viewers and the Province of British Columbia Production Services Tax Credit. Corporate funding provided by Homer.

Alaska Native working group: Adeline P. Raboff, Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman, Luke Titus and Rochelle Adams. Language Advisors: Adeline P. Raboff, Lance X’unei Twitchell, Lorraine David, Marie Meade and Marjorie Tahbone. Informational text advisor: Nell K. Duke, University of Michigan.



Go on a nature adventure with Plum’s Creaturizer! Kids and families can build wild creatures, then head outdoors to photograph them right in their own backyard. It’s part of PLUM LANDING, a PBS KIDS project that helps kids develop a love for this amazing, beautiful, and dramatic planet we call home.

Get if for free at iTunes!

Get if for free at Google Play!

The app provides opportunities for kids and their families to interact with nature in a thoughtful way and have fun exploring together.



  • Build a billion (really!) unique creatures using over a hundred body parts based on real animals.
  • Customize each creature’s body, head, legs, eyes, tail, wings, ears, horns, and skin.
  • Take photos of your creature outdoors, “photobombing” them into the scene.
  • Complete missions for each creature in which you consider its needs (habitat, diet, and adaptations).
  • Answer questions to get you thinking about how your creatures might live – how they hunt, eat, look for water, make homes, defend themselves, or raise their young.
  • Watch a slideshow featuring a day in the life of your creature.
  • Visit the gallery, displaying all your creatures, and add to, review, or edit your photos. Photos are saved to the in-app Gallery and your device’s camera roll.


Major funding for PLUM LANDING is provided by the National Science Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Kendeda Fund. Additional funding is provided by the Northern Research Station, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.