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How to promote literacy skills in the digital age

Apps that claim to teach deep literacy skills can be misleading.

Digital apps that claim to teach children important reading and literacy skills do not always impart higher-level abilities that children need to develop strong reading skills, according to a report from the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

Most of the skills these apps target are very basic, and parents and educators often do not have in-depth—or any—knowledge of how the apps work or if they work at all, claims the report, “Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West.”

This past spring, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading asked the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and the New America Foundation to conduct a nationwide scan of technology-based products aimed at improving the early literacy skills of children from birth through age 8.

The researchers did not intend to evaluate product and program effectiveness, but instead focused on gathering information about what is currently available to parents, children, and educators.

The market for children’s apps is booming, the report notes—though it calls this market a “digital Wild West.” In a recent examination of Apple’s App Store, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that 72 percent of the top-selling apps in the Education category target preschool-age children.

(Next page: What the research reveals)

The researchers noted top-selling products and digital content, apps, software, websites, and games that aim to help young children develop reading and literacy skills. They also searched for examples of programs and models that engage parents and children in activities that encourage language and literacy development. In both instances, they searched for patterns in how technology was used as it related to children’s literacy.

The literacy products examined included paid and free educational literacy apps in the iTunes App Store, paid and free educational literacy apps in Google Play, featured eBooks for children on iTunes, electronic non-app games that focused on literacy, and websites with a literacy focus. In all, the authors examined 137 products.

Their research on digital products revealed that “many of these products may not be providing the educational benefit they claim. Few apps and eBooks have information in their descriptions that point to any effectiveness studies to back them up, and most only focus on very basic literacy skills that would not be useful for children who are beginning to learn skills like grammar and storytelling.”

Most apps target basic skills such as letters, phonics, and word recognition, and only very few target advanced early reading skills like comprehension and grammar. Many eBooks have optional narration, embedded games and activities, and sounds—but current research doesn’t reveal how many of those features enhance literacy development, according to the report. Most games target letters and sounds, along with phonics and word recognition. No games included in the research focused on letter-writing, sight-word recognition, or comprehension.

“Technology changes so quickly that browsing the app store can feel like a digital version of entering the Wild West,” the report notes. “Parents and educators face a fast-growing array of products purporting to help their children learn to read but receive little information on how or if these products live up to their claims.”

Websites touch on more literacy skills than do apps and games, and 30 percent of those included in the research reported that they had a curriculum available for children in at least one grade. Twenty percent offered some kind of effectiveness study on the educational materials they offer.

Despite the challenges in finding and assessing high-quality apps to improve literacy skills, there are some promising initiatives. Some organizations have started to review apps, the report notes, including Common Sense Media and Children’s Technology Review. This fall, Daniel Donahoo, an Australian expert in children’s media, opened Better Apps, an assessment tool to prod developers into making better apps.

And the researchers found some promising apps that go beyond what they called “flashcard learning”:

“Some prompt children to move around the real world taking photographs (such as Alien Assignment and Out-A-Bout, created by the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media); some focus on the reading experience and the building of background knowledge (such as Storia and Reading Rainbow); and some tap into children’s natural desire for storytelling and sharing of creative expression (such as Doodlecast and Toontastic).”

In addition, “eBooks from companies like Speak-a-Boo and Oceanhouse Media are building features associated with promoting literacy (enabling children to hear how sounds blend to form words and highlighting words during narration). Lastly, some apps allow young children to engage their loved ones—even at a distance—in joint reading experiences that take advantage of pre-recorded voices (such as A Story Before Bed).”

(Next page: Recommendations for educators and community leaders)

Engagement between adults and children when using digital media is especially important, the report says, because children tend to build strong language and literacy skills through what it describes as a “cascading” effect.

“With so much competing for the attention of today’s children, and so much of their future riding on the ability to learn to read, schools and community leaders have a responsibility to assess how technology fits into the lives of the children they are trying to help — and how it might be used to further, not stymie, their language and literacy development,” the authors wrote.

They say that “communities committed to making a demonstrable impact on grade-level reading” will have to prioritize four key areas:

  1. Promoting personal connection among parents and educators via social media, cell phones, texting, and the development of hybrid (online and offline) learning communities.
  2. Reinforcing basic skills by vetting and making available to parents and educators apps, literacy-supportive eBooks, and on- and offline games to play with their children.
  3. Building background knowledge by providing new routes for taking advantage of content-rich library materials, museum offerings, eBook services, immersive games, and multimedia “field trips.”
  4. Improving the workforce by connecting educators (including librarians and family child care providers) to each other, to new resources for literacy instruction and active learning, and to professional development opportunities.

Recommendations for parents, teachers, communities, and policy makers include:

  • Conduct community audits to “determine who has access to what” digital resources. This opens up the opportunity to “curate materials for families,” the report says.
  • Create public engagement initiatives on the need for critical thinking about media.
  • Create a place in every community where children, parents and educators can experiment together with online and offline literacy materials. Encourage parents to use digital media to learn together with their children.
  • Support sound research on how both technology content and contexts are affecting reading development.
  • Create partnerships for innovation.

“Media use by preschool children is not by itself the critical concern,” the report concludes, “but … technology’s potential to be a game changer will not be reached unless vital new supports for parents and educators are established. In the digital age, it is these caring adults who still matter most.”

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Laura Ascione

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