How to promote literacy skills in the digital age

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).”

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Laura Ascione

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