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Children

"It's our contribution to the future of the world's children". Chitania’s creators on how to hide teaching methods in a magical fairy tale

15.09.2022

Mikhail and Natalia Sosnin talked about their experience of emigrating to Armenia, about how an ordinary Russian family makes the American dream come true, and about how the interactive application "Chitania" was created, which has enabled 20 thousand children around the world learn to read.

The story began five years ago. A mother had two daughters who were growing up and it was time to teach them to read. She already had experience in teaching children to read, but she didn't just want to do it again, she wanted to make learning fun. She wanted to create a game where kids could learn to read on their own.

That's how Chitania, an app for learning to read Russian for children ages 3 to 7, was born.

The whole family worked on the programme: Natalya's mother developed the learning algorithm, Mikhail's father developed the programming, and the children invented the storyline, voiced the characters and made the first sketches of the screens.

For two years, the Sosnins improved the algorithm and optimised the interface - and so, in 2018, Chitania won the all-Russian Positive Content competition in the category of best mobile app, and another year later, it came in first place in the Roskatchestvo rating for games that teach reading.

It turns out that the Russian family has unexpectedly fulfilled a classic American dream: Mikhail quit his job at a large corporation, where he had been working successfully for a long time, and went straight into programming. Natalia took on the task of developing training methods and marketing the product.

In early 2022 the Sosnin family moved to Armenia. Here, they are continuing to develop applications and promote new products.

"I've become more comfortable with the unknown."

- Tell us about your move to Armenia.

Mikhail: In the last few years I began to realise that we in Russia are missing something important, we are losing our future. I have seen that the state is crowding out the individual; I have noticed that people are afraid to speak and write on important topics. I saw the harshness of the suppression of any alternative opinion. This did not affect me, but the general atmosphere became difficult.

It became difficult for me to create and so I stopped seeing the hope in moving forward. I spoke to my friends and many of them felt the same way. In spite of this, February 24th came as a real shock to me.

We arrived in Armenia at the beginning of March - we just took the kids and the suitcase and drove off on the same day. A taxi driver picked us up at the airport, we were booked at a hostel, and we arrived there, but it was dark, there was nobody there and nobody knew what to do. That was the moment when I understood the value of Armenian hospitality when our driver was circling the hostel for an hour at his expense, looking for somewhere to put us.

It so happened that we left in the very first wave, when it was not yet difficult to open a bank account or somehow get settled here. Now that window of opportunity is narrowing, for example, it's much harder to open an account, you need more documents - and even that is no guarantee.

Natalia: I would not call our departure as emigration, it seems to me that so far we have only made the first steps in that direction.

I have always believed that we are the kind of people who are deeply rooted in our country, in our former lives, but since events that started in February, everything has changed.

The whole situation was a trigger for me because it was then that I saw the whole picture of what was happening. I can't say that I used to turn a blind eye, but still before February life in Russia seemed tolerable, and then an event happened that literally blew up reality. I couldn't come to terms with what had happened.

Even us, with all our "rootedness", dug in, got off the ground, and were transported to another country. I felt that what we were doing was the right thing to do at that very moment in time.

Now that six months have passed, I don't regret that choice. The unknown is always scary, but I feel it's the right and right path for us. The point of entrepreneurship is not to stay in one place, but to go forward and try new things.

- What was it like to leave for the unknown?

Mikhail: Going into the unknown is always scary. We were not ready for it, but at the same time I could not accept it and stay. It may be hard now, but we have retained the initiative and the ability to make our own decisions in our family life - and for me that is a very important result.

Natalia: Now that I have come to Moscow to wrap things up, many people I know ask me, "So, what are your plans next? And I find myself thinking that I don't have an answer to their question.

Do we have a plan? Yes, I think we do, but it's so vague that I prefer to answer that there is no plan and we are living one day at a time and only plan for the coming weeks.

You see, this moving experience we've been through - a kind of reassembly of life all over again - is so valuable to me that I've become more comfortable with the unknown. I know now that we are ready for any changes in our lives.  

- You have five children, how did they react to the move?

Mikhail: The first month was hard, the children didn't know what to do, self-organisation without school didn't work well. We were also at a loss, trying to start again in a new place, to solve financial issues.

However, it was also a month of family unity: we gathered together around the table, discussed our plans for the day, and talked a lot about the situation.

The hardest part was with our middle daughter. The older ones understood the situation, they understood why we decided to leave. The younger daughter adapted quickly and made friends, but it wasn't easy for the middle child, at the beginning of her adolescence. She was constantly asking questions, comparing life here and there. Now, fortunately, things are gradually getting better - the children are going to school and the middle child has friends too.

Emigration has broadened our horizons. We started to think about international prospects and international education for the children.

Now our eldest daughter is off to study in England. Her English is not perfect, but it was enough to pass her exams and get her accepted to study. Of course, it was not easy for us, we sold our beloved dacha near Moscow, but I think it has turned out to be one of our best investments.

Natalia: We were very lucky that the children were on the same wavelength as us. When I talked to other emigrants, I heard different stories. The hardest one is when grown-up children protest against their parents' choices. They complain that overnight they lost everything they had and they don't understand why. In this situation, parents not only have to change their lives and look for new opportunities outside, but also to overcome the conflict within the family.

It would have been hard for me to face such a situation in my own family. Luckily, the children somehow understood and supported us on their own, without a lot of talking.

"I freed myself and became myself".

- Will you stay in Armenia or do you have any further plans on relocation?

Natalia: It is hard to say. We have to balance the interests of family, children and the development of the project, to look for work and educational opportunities in a new environment. We are looking at the opportunities that are still available for projects from Russia in different countries that are staking on the development of human capital and attracting promising innovative companies.

Many European countries now still accept Russian projects and Russian developers. There are very interesting programmes for transferring projects in Germany, in Finland, in the Netherlands.

- It is not easy to go from corporate life to free floating.

Mikhail: I have worked in big companies and quite successfully - but I always felt that I was out of place: that I could not do it for the rest of my life. However, when the idea of the app came up, I suddenly felt liberated and became myself.

Going free is not easy, there are always some problems to solve - but you feel that you build your own life, that you are responsible for everything. It's a very important feeling.

Natalia: Before our project started, I often thought: what will happen when the children grow up? How am I going to go back to work, I spent so much time with my children while someone else had a career. Will I be able to regain my professional skills and manage on all fronts?

Developing the app was the answer to all these questions. I had the opportunity to develop my project and grow professionally without any stress and go at my own pace.

This is a great stroke of luck, because it is particularly difficult for a mother with many children to go out to work. She has to compete for jobs on a general basis and often prefers to hide her family status because having many children is always a disadvantage in the eyes of the employer.

I am very lucky in this sense, I am happy to combine work and family and deal with all my schedule issues on my own.

"It's a magic tale with a hidden learning mechanism"

- What are the author's findings that make your app really cool?

Mikhail: I think it's a good combination of teaching techniques and a magic tale.

A child often doesn't understand why he has to learn to read, why he has to repeat letters day after day. He loses interest, becomes fretful and refuses to continue learning. Parents get nervous, frustrated and worried.

But our app takes a completely different approach.

All the tasks are set in the framework of the story and have a clear goal which is understandable to a child.

The learning mechanism, on the contrary, is hidden from them. They don’t feel that they are engaged in some kind of routine, on the contrary, they defeat the evil wizard and save the world. It is clear to them what they are doing and for what purpose.

By following the storyline, the child discovers new games and magical worlds.

Natalia: The main thing about Chitania is that it's not just an application, it's a journey.

The program takes a child from point A, where they can't read at all, to point B, where they read and understand the meaning of what they are reading.

We have developed a special learning algorithm that makes the tasks more difficult as they learn the material. For example, on entering the game a child knows only some letters. At the end of the game, after 1-2 months (it depends on the age of the child), they will be able to read words fluently enough and understand their meaning, and will begin to read the first books!

The whole routine part of learning to read is completely given to the app, and the parents only have to guide the process a little bit. I think it's really cool to see real results at the end of the game.

- Is it true that you can just sit a child down with a tablet, open Chitania and they will learn to read on their own?

Mikhail: We have received such feedback, but in general the idea was that adults would occasionally join the children and get involved in the game. We have several screens where parental involvement is implied - write the child's name, put words together, riddles for them. There are even special tips for parents on how to structure the learning process.

We assumed in the design that the parent will spend about 50% of the learning time with the child. Also the game from time to time gives out messages like: "Well done, now find paper and pencils and try to write this letter yourself. In other words, we periodically take the child "offline" and don't let him or her get bogged down in the game.

Natalia: I understand how adults want everything to happen by itself, without their involvement, but sitting together with your child, playing with him, taking part in their learning - it's really important! Especially since participation is supposed to be rather emotional, because the app takes care of the routine training of all the skills required for reading (letters, syllables, combining them into words, reading and writing a huge number of words, etc.).

On the Russian-language AppStore, you can read a long review of Chitania from one dad. He talks about how he learned to read as a child, flying off the backs of his chair, but now he's endlessly delighted not only by his daughter's rapid progress in reading, but also by the fact that there's an app like Chitania in her life that gives the child an entirely different learning experience. This dad adds that he tries to sit down with his daughter and watch her play, sharing her excitement.

I think this shared experience of having an interesting time, the experience of delight, is something that is remembered for a lifetime. It doesn't matter if it's playing Chitania together, reading a book or hiking up a mountain. You have to capture those moments. After all, children grow up very quickly and things change.

"A child from France learned to read Russian in two months"

- How well does your app work for bilingual children?

Mikhail: The first positive impressions were from American families. So you could say that it was bilingual children who became our first users - our early adopters. We realised from the feedback that Chitania is used by parents not only as a tool for teaching reading, but also as a way of transmitting Russian-speaking culture to their children.

After all, Chitania is more than just teaching material. We have tried to put some moral values, some cultural aspects into our app.

For example, the app occasionally says proverbs and sayings - where appropriate, of course. Or children defeat an evil wizard and feel sorry for him, saying it's sad that some people choose to be bad when they can be good. We wanted the children not just to learn the letters, but to learn some life lessons, like in a real fairy tale.

 Marina, a Chitania’s user, tells us:
- I'm the mother of a little 7-year-old bilingual, we live in France. We do not have a Russian-speaking environment (the child does not go to a Russian school, we do not have any Russian friends nearby for everyday communication either). So when the question of how to teach my child Russian came up, I just typed "best apps for learning to read" into Google.

At that time, my daughter was almost 6 and already knew how to read in French at her Montessori school. Since I didn't want to mix methodologies or ideas in her head, the easiest solution for me was to find a ready-made app developed by professionals.

The app won me over not only with its interesting content, but also with its design: since Europeans have a different style of drawing, unlike many Russian "cranberry" editions and apps, in this game I was hooked by the illustrations, which just fit perfectly in the context that my daughter is used to. They are sleek, stylish, and perfectly complement the learning without overwhelming the child.

The layout of the application and the work with fonts deserve all the praise; and of course the methodology itself - the child learned to read Russian in 2 months.

My daughter also really liked Chitania, especially the questing presentation. Even now, a year and a half later, when I asked her opinion, she said she would like to play again!

"Developing a new international maths app"

- It's a pretty complicated situation right now with all these sanctions. Are Russian users still able to pay for your app?

Mikhail: Yes, lately we have been just busy with the question of the availability of the programme. The Apple Store now allows you to pay for the app from your phone balance. They do not accept cards, but money from the phone is still accepted. The Play Store is in a different situation, they refuse to accept any payment from Russia, but it is still possible to pay for an Android game on our website.

We also had to move our website to another domain so that the app works worldwide.

We are constantly monitoring the situation and making the necessary changes.

- Do you get any criticism from users?

Mikhail: I remember there was one woman from Perm whose Chitania just wouldn't launch. But she didn't tear anything down, didn't swear, but patiently corresponded with me. So I was grateful to be able to change code variants under her for a long time until it finally worked. I'm also very grateful to her that she waited until I fixed the problem.

- Do you have plans to develop new applications?

Mikhail: Right now we are working on a new big maths project. It will be an international app with much wider reach and larger target audience. We plan to develop it in different languages, but it will be based on the same interesting story as Chitania.

It was in Armenia that we really got into our maths project, and that's when I fully realised that work saves the day.

We got in touch with all our programmers and artists with whom we had worked on "Chitania". They had probably forgotten about us by then and we said to them: "Guys, there's a new project, let's get on with it!"

You know, we called people, we heard their sad voices, we saw their lost glances - after all, the situation around us was not easy - but when the work started, everyone just perked up!

We immersed ourselves in the project, we even spoke at an international conference in Armenia about it - and things got going. Hopefully, we will soon be able to show the first results.

Natalia: We want to create an international product, which is in demand, and mathematics is ideal in this sense, because mathematical language is a universal language, spoken by people all over the world.

We are planning a story game that will develop a child's mathematical style of thinking, inquiring mind and observation.

Mathematics is all around us, and our new app aims to teach children to see the beauty of mathematical problems and to be able to solve them.

- Have you tried to estimate how many children have learned to read with Chitania?

Mikhail: Yes, about 20,000. When we first introduced Chitania, I watched and marvelled: here's one user, here's two already, and here's three as many! It was a very exciting process to see your app start to gain popularity.

I can't say that 20,000 is that much on a national scale, let alone worldwide, but it is still our modest contribution to the future of these children. Maybe now they are reading books about pirates or wizards - and it's nice to think that Chitania has helped them discover the wonderful world of reading.

Interview by: Irina Yakovleva
Photos from the Sosnin family's personal archive

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