Early Literacy in the U.S.: Building a Pathway to Opportunity for All

March 25, 2016
Lisa Guernsey
Director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project, Education Policy Program at New America

CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Parents and Families, Research & Studies

This piece was co-authored by Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project in the Education Policy Program at New America and Michael H. Levine, founder and executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

You can join us for a conversation with Lisa and Michael in our next edWeb webinar on Tuesday, March 29, 2016, 1-2 p.m. PDT. Learn more.

Recent research is fueling debate about the role that digital media may play in strengthening educational opportunities for all students. Common Sense has been among the nation’s pivotal advocates in promoting digital citizenship and inclusion and in leading efforts to reverse the "app gap." Last month the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Rutgers University released a national survey that found that millions of low- and moderate-income Americans are now in the ranks of the "under-connected." Their children's prospects for participating in the global economy and taking advantage of the opportunities available to their wealthier peers are diminished by the current state of affairs. Digital equity now is essential.

Policymakers and industry are responding to these concerns. Working together with members of Congress as well as technology and publishing firms, the Obama administration has launched ConnectED, a multi-billion dollar initiative aimed at wiring every classroom, modernizing school libraries, increasing professional development, and activating technology-infused professional learning communities. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will soon consider adopting a new version of its Lifeline program to increase broadband access for the millions of low-income Americans who do not have consistent service. Educators are well aware of the challenges students face in keeping up with the homework and "blended learning" demands of today's classroom.

Two-thirds of America's fourth graders cannot read proficiently.

These actions, while necessary, are not enough to address a critical and related problem: Will today's young children ever learn how to read? Quite tragically -- especially given that our nation has spent tens of billions of dollars trying to improve early literacy in the past decade -- two-thirds of America's fourth graders cannot read proficiently. Reading is a gateway skill that shapes a student's entire academic trajectory. Eight percent of children of color cannot read well by the time they are 10 years old. To address this festering crisis, we need a new approach.

Last fall, we released the book Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens. We spent three years studying the research on digital media and literacy, conducted an extensive review of the apps marketplace, observed new programs underway at sites around the country, and visited academic and industry labs looking for breakthrough products and models. We were amazed by the amount of activity in this arena on the one hand and the lack of progress and clear strategy in supporting early literacy on the other.  

Communities need to take stock of whether children have literacy opportunities everywhere they go and assess whether they are meeting the needs of their most underserved families.

Our book takes a new approach to helping young children embrace literacy of all kinds, with a particular emphasis on learning to read. We avoid the out-of-touch perspective of the "no screen time" crowd and the overheated enthusiasm of technophiles who position apps as the holy grail of early education. Instead of simply focusing on whether kids have new tablets or the right apps, we argue that communities need to take stock of whether children have literacy opportunities everywhere they go and assess whether they are meeting the needs of their most underserved families. We ask: Is there a cohesive strategy to how we are using libraries and early learning centers, public media stations, the apps marketplace (see Sidebar 1), and after-school programs -- and the way technology is integrated into these places? The answer is: not yet!

For example, our research shows that more than 75 percent of children live in homes with mobile technologies, but little attention is paid to how they are using those devices and the ways in which parents, teachers, and librarians should be helping them use media to learn. To be clear, we do not advocate putting babies in front of screens by themselves. Young children desperately need social interaction and meaningful conversation with their parents and educators. But when screens are used in joint engagement -- when they are used as a jumping-off point for conversation or sharing a new insight -- they can become a powerful tool for learning.

How do we propose solving the reading crisis and positioning digital media as an equity driver? We want technology to assume a new role -- as a human relationship builder, not as a solution by itself.  We need to recognize the power of parents, educators, and media in combination. We sum this up in four key steps:

  • Invest in a new system of early learning from birth through primary school.
  • Address the lack of broadband Internet access in many lower-income homes.
  • Scale up effective tech-assisted programs -- we describe over a dozen proven models in the book and are mapping two dozen more in the United States (see Sidebar 2).
  • Recognize and build upon the assets (such as second-language learning) that are evident in our nation's diversity.

We want technology to assume a new role -- as a human relationship builder, not as a solution by itself.

We also show how a new approach -- one we refer to as a pathway to Readialand (see Sidebar 2) -- might work in communities across the nation through brief video case studies, which can be viewed here.

To sum up: How can educators and parents help children gain stronger literacy skills while promoting digital equity? First, let's remember that "literacy" is an expansive word -- and it's getting more so with every passing year. Even the traditional definition of literacy has always meant more than reading: It's also writing, listening, and speaking. Children need help in all four of those skills, and they can use media tools of all kinds to learn. In this regard, children who are heavy media consumers already may have a real advantage but only if their engagement with apps, games, and social forms are guided by knowledgeable adults -- we call them "media mentors." To help young children build the new essential skills, the adults in kids' lives still matter most -- we all need to spend time talking with, listening to, and interacting with our children. A tech-assisted and human-centered approach is the key to making those critical conversations count in the years ahead.  

Sidebar 1: Let's talk about something that's on every educator's mind: what to do with apps! In Tap, Click, Read and in our recent study "Getting a Read on the App Stores," we call the app marketplace a "digital Wild West" for good reason -- there are about 100,000 apps that claim to be educational. Unfortunately, app makers and marketers aren't providing research-based advice or guidance to educators or parents. Far too often, apps are characterized by a lack of transparency about who made them, a paucity of child development or content knowledge among developers, overhyped or unsubstantiated claims about their efficacy, a lack of evidence that they're designed for learning, and an incomplete ability to respond to the real literacy needs of children, especially those who are struggling readers. The app stores need to step up and help, but we all need to get smarter about the apps that kids are using. Until app stores do step up, the book offers the best resources that now exist -- including curators and review websites that are designed to help educators and parents navigate better. You can see them all here.

Sidebar 2: There's a chapter in Tap, Click, Read that has drawn a good deal of attention from educators and that we call "Readialand." What is Readialand? For starters, it's not a theme park you visit on vacation. We envision it as a cohesive network of educators and families harnessing media to bring early learning and lifelong literacy to a community, an ecosystem where media is designed in service of reading and where reading and literacy are strengthened through the use of media. It does not involve a future in which print is abandoned. Instead, we argue for preparing children for a world that, like our current moment, is a rich mix of digital media and print media.

No matter what technology may come, children will need to learn how to use a wide variety of communication tools for a wide variety of purposes, while becoming critical thinkers about the messages and ideas that they see all around them. In the coming months we will be publishing a set of tools to help educators and parents better understand the new opportunities to deploy new technologies in the service of early literacy development and family engagement.

Our first tool, below, is an interactive map to help educators learn about innovations around the country.

Since February 2015, the Learning Technologies Project of the Education Policy Program at New America and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop have been collecting information on early literacy innovations to create a map of these programs, how they're going about their work, and what evidence of impact they're able to share. The project, Integrating Technology in Early Literacy (InTEL), was launched at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2015 and is generously supported by the Joyce Foundation and the Alliance for Early Success. To find examples around the country, explore the interactive InTEL map.

Join us for a conversation with Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine in our next edWeb webinar on Tuesday, March 29, 2016, 1-2 p.m. PDT.

Learn more and register today!