Can Apps Help Teach Young Kids to Read?

January 07, 2013
Sarah Jackson
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Parents and Families, Research & Studies, Students

We were pleased to see mention of our work in a new report out from the Campaign for Grade Level Reading last month. In Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West, Lisa Guernsey, Michael Levine, Cynthia Chiong, and Maggie Severns examined top-selling products and digital content for young children that make claims about building reading skills.

The researchers from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and the New America Foundation looked at products reviewed on our site (apps, software, websites, and games), those available in the iTunes App Store, and other places. They sought out model programs that engage parents and children in activities that encourage the development of language and literacy skills.

They found thousands of apps on the market that are labeled educational, marketed to parents (& teachers), but with little to no information about whether or how these products work.

They also found that most of the skills targeted by children’s reading apps are very basic – teaching letters, sounds, or phonics, for example. Most did not address higher-level competencies that research has shown young children need to become strong readers, like background knowledge and vocabulary.

A snapshot of the iTunes App Store’s most popular paid literacy apps, for example, showed that 45 percent targeted letters and sounds and that half targeted phonics, but only 5 percent targeted vocabulary, which research has shown to be crucial.

Similarly, the authors say the most frequently downloaded e-books are too often not those with the greatest opportunity for literacy development. Parents often download e-books based on popular kids’ movies, for example, which are designed to be watched more than read.

“By contrast,” Guernsey and Levine wrote in a post at Slate,  “good e-books for building strong readers will ask questions that lead to interactions with on-screen images that add meaning to the story or help reinforce the storyline.”

But we can’t leave it all up to the apps.  Or stick our heads in the sand and hope this digital craze just goes away. Parents and teachers must spend some time to learn  how to use digital media and apps appropriately to promote literacy.  

“Whether it’s reading books, watching videos or using apps, parental involvement and qualified teachers are key to making that time enriching for the child,” Guernsey said.

Teacher training in digital media is imperative, as they are charged with making sure kids can read. (In a few states, failing to learn to read by third grade means being held back.) The report thankfully includes recommendations for educators and policymakers to make sure adults have the guidance and training they need to support children’s literacy growth with technology. This includes:

"conducting community audits to determine whether and which families have access to technology and media and how they use it; providing teachers with training on technology as a learning tool; creating physical places where parents and educators can come together to experiment with various media platforms to foster literacy; and emphasizing digital media’s potential for learning and conversation between parents and children, not just for games that children play alone."

Stanford researcher Brigid Barron, Michael Levine at the Cooney Center and their colleagues have created a blueprint for ensuring that teachers get the proper training in digital media. As they say, “If teachers aren’t being adequately trained on how to integrate technology into their instruction, how can we expect students to benefit from these resources in their learning?”

In “Take a Giant Step: A Blueprint for Teaching Young Children in a Digital Age” they outline several ideas and review successful examples of professional development and other opportunities to improve the use of digital media in classrooms, including three case studies of successful innovation that showcase approaches to using technology in classrooms.

One of those case studies is in Maine, where an investment in laptops for all students and teachers in the upper grades, coupled with training for parents and teachers is starting to pay off. 

After introducing  laptops, the state’s eighth-grade writing proficiency jumped 12 percent, and the research shows that this jump is directly connected to the one-to-one program. (There’s been some positive impact on science and math scores as well.)

We reported last year on Maine’s work implementing our Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum along with their 1:1 program, which is just one component of their comprehensive Learning Technology Initiative. Check out some of the professional development opportunities for teachers and support for parents here