Reading & Literacy

Q&A: How Tech Can Improve Youngsters’ Reading Skills

By Sara Gilgore — September 29, 2015 5 min read

Even as the market for digital devices and apps aimed at young children explodes, parents and educators alike remain wary of technology’s growing role in early-childhood education. They point to the harmful effects of excessive screen time, worry about the privacy of children’s sensitive information, and fear that more traditional forms of learning and play are being replaced too quickly.

Early-learning experts Lisa Guernsey and Michael H. Levine last month waded into that debate with a new book, Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens. The pair argues that the current debate should focus less on whether technology makes sense for young children and more on how it can be used most effectively, especially to build fundamental literacy skills. They recommend a “third way” approach, in which devices, apps, and software are treated as tools to foster more and better interactions between children and adults.

Guernsey is the director of the Learning Technologies Project and the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. Levine is the executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, a New York City-based research center.

LISA GUERNSEY says more than two-thirds of American 4th graders are not reading at grade level.

The authors talked with Education Week in a joint telephone interview about their new book and the challenges of helping children learn to read in the digital age. The transcript of the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you feel it was important to examine how technology can promote literacy?

Guernsey: We wanted to take a modern approach to using technology with young kids. There’s a lot of hyperbole out there. There’s a lot of misinformation. Our aim was to take what we’ve termed a “third way” approach: to thinking about where technology fits in young children’s lives; to recognize that it’s going to take a combination of parents, educators, and high-quality media to really help children learn; and to elevate literacy and enable children—especially those in underserved circumstances and low-income families—to really gain a foothold in the 21st century.

MICHAEL H. LEVINE says the skepticism among early-learning experts about the value of technology is changing as they see the benefits of a balanced approach.

Levine: We’ve been working on this reading crisis, which we describe as the “quiet” crisis. Honestly, we felt that the field was stuck, that we weren’t making very much progress, that there was a knowledge base that wasn’t being implemented widely in schools and in preschools and homes. With the potential of technology to be both a positive and a negative disruption on the early-reading enterprise, we wanted to take a look at what the evidence was and sort through a new, third way: Since we’re kind of stuck, is there some way we can get unstuck here?

Guernsey: There’s a statistic that certainly alarmed me when I first started reading about it, and it really has animated our work: More than two-thirds of American 4th graders are not reading at grade level in this country. That’s not two-thirds of low-income 4th graders, that’s not two-thirds of children in very poor communities. That is two-thirds of American 4th graders, period. So we really have to get activated on this.

Levine: There’s so much evidence that reading is a powerful predictor for all that follows, both academically and in terms of success in the job market.

Is there a balance between limiting children’s time spent with technology and promoting reading with digital tools?

Guernsey: It can be a really fun and creative and exciting enterprise for families once they have a little bit of guidance on how to use media in healthy ways. The book is absolutely grounded in the science of how children learn, and it’s grounded in really important findings over the past decades that children need social interactions to learn, especially in their earliest years. The way they develop language, the words that they know—that leads to better reading and literacy skills. But that is something that doesn’t only happen when children are reading a print book; those kinds of social interactions can happen around media of all kinds. So one of our big messages is to promote the idea of learning together, using media for both parents and children to engage together around ideas and stories.

Levine: I think this is very important because for many years, those working in early-learning programs have been skeptical and sort of worried about the use of too much technology and, in some cases, any technology in early learning. Again, the worries about limiting interactions, and kids getting isolated from each other, and all those worries about technologies have been important ones for the early-learning field. But over the last five years or so, we’re seeing a bit of a change in this regard. We try to navigate the evolving landscape in terms of professional guidance in this area, as well.

Are certain types of digital resources more promising than others?

Levine: You’ve got tens of thousands of apps labeled as “educational” for preschool and primary-grade kids. We’ve been tracking [the marketplace] for several years now, and unfortunately the skills that kids need, particularly struggling readers, and the kinds of apps that are being developed are mismatched. In other words, most of the apps don’t accelerate and advance the kinds of 21st-century literacy skills that kids need. There’s a lot of hype and, dare I say, false marketing claims based on products that don’t have the curriculum or the research base that they ought to. And there are plenty of apps that are actually pretty good, but the curation tools and the ways in which families are able to find the really good stuff are lacking. We need quite a bit more public education and public engagement around these third-party review sites, and the expertise that’s necessary to sort out the good stuff.

Guernsey: One of the things that we’re really trying to do with this book is to recognize that yes, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on tools and on making sure that they’re high quality. But we cannot put all of the weight on tools and the technology products. In fact, we are seeing when things are working best, it’s in conjunction with an early-learning program, a library program, a home-visiting initiative in the community. When there are people—professionals and caregivers—who are the ones working with the families first, and then using technology as an assistant, that’s when we’re seeing some real bright spots.

A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2015 edition of Education Week as How Tech Can Improve Youngsters’ Reading Skills

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