With even the youngest students exposed to hours more screentime than typical as school closures drag on, researchers from the Early Academic Development Lab at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst said schools can support parents as educators by guiding their use of educational apps.
In a small-scale randomized controlled trial researchers led by lab director David Arnold found the free literacy app Khan Academy Kids boosted early literacy skills—but parents also said it improved their skills in teaching their children literacy at home.
Researchers randomly assigned 50 preschool-age children from high-poverty families to use loaned iPads loaded with either the Khan Academy Kids app or a control group of art or music apps. After 10 weeks, the researchers found students who used the Khan app at least an hour a week improved on the Test of Preschool Early Literacy, moving from the 34th percentile nationally to the 47th percentile. In the TOPEL’s phonological awareness indicator, the Khan students progressed from the 23rd percentile to the 47th percentile nationally, while students in the control group made no significant progress. None of the students made significant growth in print vocabulary.
Arnold said the study, which was presented at last year’s Cognitive Development Society conference and release for educators earlier this week, did not look at exactly what aspects of the app led to the literacy gains, but suggested three aspects that could be useful in helping parents think about educational apps: "[Khan] really did their homework as far as the content aligned with standards and aligned with what our foundational skills for pre-literacy‐so, they’re targeting the right letter recognition, sound correspondence, all those things; ... It did a good job of capturing kids’ interests, ... and third, it did a good job of scaffolding, so it wasn’t too easy but it wasn’t over kids’ heads.”
Moreover, parents reported that they learned more about how to teach their children literacy skills from watching the app’s videos and activities with the children and seeing how the app explained certain concepts. The app has since added more formal training tools for parents and teachers, but Arnold said it is particularly important for teachers to talk with parents about how they are using apps and other electronic devices at home, and offer guidance and support in learning to use them more effectively.
“Our families were below the poverty line and literally every single family had mobile technology and every single child was very, very capable of using apps and averaged more than an hour a day,” Arnold said. “We did interviews to find out what the kids were doing online, before the study started, and it was sobering that, of 51 families that we asked to describe their favorite app, only five even mentioned any educational apps at all. Some of the 4-year-olds were playing Fortnite and Hello Kitty Nail Salon.”
“I think it’s understandable that kids are going to be on screens more than usual,” he said, “and we would just argue that it makes a difference with what they’re spending that time on.”
Image: The Khan Academy Kids app included phonological lessons. Screenshot courtesy of Khan Academy Kids
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.