Special Report
Classroom Technology

Evaluating Quality in Digital Reading Products

By Sean Cavanagh — May 20, 2013 7 min read

Apps, digital games, and other technology products that promise to build early literacy skills through mobile devices and other platforms are everywhere these days. But are those products any good?

At first glance, the evolving digital world would seem to offer abundant opportunities for educators and parents seeking to put students on the path to becoming capable readers. Many of those products are easy to access—as easy as downloading an app from iTunes, or visiting a website. Many of them are free, or low-cost. And their claim is that they can engage students as they educate them.

But academic experts and children’s advocates say teachers and parents are often left on their own to decide whether various products have any educational value. One recent report compared the current environment for judging the myriad apps, games, and other tools to a digital “Wild West”—a descriptor used by other observers, too.

The educational value of those tools matters a great deal to parents who are determined to build their children’s literacy skills but aren’t always sure how, and to educators and policymakers concerned about reducing the large numbers of students at the elementary level who struggle to read. Just 34 percent of 4th graders, and the same proportion of 8th graders, reached the proficient level in reading, according to the most recent state-by-state results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“Materials are coming out fast, all purporting to be educationally sound,” said Susan B. Neuman, a professor of teaching and learning at the University of Michigan, who has conducted research on early literacy. “There really isn’t any guidance out there for parents at all.”

In an attempt to fill that void, some teachers and parents are turning to websites that offer reviews of individual apps, games, and other products. The number of those resources appears to have grown, in keeping with the expanding tech market. But parents and educators aren’t always sure those reviews can be trusted.

Literacy makes up just one portion of the overall market for apps, games, and other tech tools aimed at serving young children. More than 70 percent of the top-selling apps in the education category of Apple’s iTunes store are directed at preschool- or elementary-age children, an increase from 47 percent three years earlier, according to a report released last year by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. That New York City-based research center and lab focuses on the challenges of educating children through various media.

Apps focused specifically on literacy make up a relatively small sliver of the market, about 5 percent, the report found. But a much larger portion, 47 percent, focus on “early learning,” generally, and literacy products were the focus of many of those apps, said Carly Shuler, the report’s author.

Mobile devices and apps are poised to make a relatively rapid migration into schools, some predict. Once “banned from the classroom,” mobile devices and apps were identified as tools that are poised to enter the mainstream as learning tools over the next year, and game-based learning is not far behind, according to the 2012 K-12 edition of the NMC Horizon Report, a research document produced by a coalition of media and technology organizations.

Focus on Basic Skills

What kinds of literacy skills are those tools attempting build? A report released last year by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading examined the types of literacy skills receiving the most attention on 137 popular educational literacy apps; it found that most of them focused on “very basic skills,” such as recognition of letters and sounds, and phonics, or associating sounds with letters, as opposed to broader abilities, such as comprehension and the ability to understand and tell stories.

To some extent, it’s natural that apps would focus on fairly basic skills, because most of those tools are meant to be used on the fly, during limited periods of time, said Lisa Guernsey, one of the report’s authors and the director of the early-education initiative at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

That focus is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as educators and parents recognize the potential limitations of those apps, Ms. Guernsey said. If the market is “heavily tilted” toward one set of skills, Ms. Guernsey said, educators and parents also need to recognize that various tools are “not going to be everything they need.”

A report by the National Early Literacy Panel, a group convened by the National Center for Family Literacy, a nonprofit in Louisville, Ky., concluded that skills-driven instruction in preschool, including teaching the alphabet and letter sounds, increases children’s odds of becoming successful readers later on. That report, released in 2009 and based on a review of available scholarship and evidence by leading researchers, drew praise for offering direction to educators and policymakers.

But it was also criticized in some quarters by those who said it emphasized too narrow a foundation for young learners.

One of the reasons that little is known about the quality of apps and some other technology platforms focused on literacy is that little rigorous research has been conducted on their effectiveness, and numerous hurdles stand in the way of that work, said Michael Kamil, a professor emeritus of learning, design, and technology at Stanford University’s graduate school of education.

Some apps, for instance, do focus on building appropriate literacy skills in children, Mr. Kamil said. But those free or low-cost products tend to not get field-tested to the same extent that more expensive products do because there’s little incentive for developers to take on costs they may have little opportunity to recoup, he said.

Mr. Kamil, who has consulted for developers of games and other platforms, recalled his experience helping a company that was interested in incorporating math, science, and vocabulary-building skills into a game for older children. That process, he noted, took two years and was supported by a federal grant.

Researching whether an app or other platform will promote literacy skills is also difficult because the product’s effectiveness often depends on how it is used—such as how involved an adult is in guiding a child through an activity, Mr. Kamil added. Another complication: many tech platforms, including apps, are changing so quickly that by the time a study is completed, it may be out of date, he said.

Many products on the market are “transient,” Mr. Kamil said. “They can disappear tomorrow.”

As it now stands, many apps and games have a common limitation, in that they don’t have a diagnostic function that would allow a user to determine a child’s strengths and weaknesses before beginning an activity. Adding that feature, Mr. Kamil said, would bring costs and complications for developers.

Evaluating Reviews

As the number of apps, games, and other digital offerings has grown, so has the number organizations offering reviews of those products for teachers, parents, and other audiences.

One of the best known is Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that uses a “learning rating” system for judging apps, games, and websites. Those products are rated on the basis of age appropriateness, learning potential, the overall quality of design production, and child engagement.

Common Sense Media’s overall site, which includes reviews of products such as books and movies, draws 3 million unique visitors a month, according to the organization. Mike Lorion, the vice president and general manager, education, said his site provides a service and fills a void created by the rapid rise of cheap apps and other digital products.

“If you’ve got a $1.99 app, there aren’t a lot of people who are going to invest in a research project,” Mr. Lorion said. His organization’s credibility with parents, educators, and others, he said, “gets back to the strength of the rubric” for judging them.

Katie Dillon, of La Jolla, Calif., uses the Common Sense site to review apps and other products she downloads from her family’s iPad and iPhone, to make sure they’re appropriate for her 6-year-old daughter. She carefully reads the comments posted by other parents, and uses the site’s search function to rove from product to product.

“It’s nice to have someplace to go to back up what you think,” Ms. Dillon said.

Warren Buckleitner, the editor and founder of Children’s Technology Review, released as a monthly PDF, said that in the years since his organization was founded in 1993, with a focus on software, there has been an “explosion” of websites and materials focused on reviewing apps, games, and other digital products. His publication, which offers a searchable Web database and likens its model to that of Consumer Reports, charges subscribers $30 per year.

Mr. Buckleitner’s organization rates apps on a rubric based on ease of use, educational value, and other factors. It dates reviews, corrects them, updates them with new information, and identifies who conducted the review.

“We like to call a review the start of a conversation,” he said.

Mr. Buckleitner said he recommends that parents and teachers “triangulate” reviews offered by different sites and not “take a single-source for anything.” The quality of reviews across sites varies greatly, he said.

“It’s a space that could use some sunshine, that’s for sure,” he said.

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2013 edition of Education Week as Evaluating Quality In Digital Reading

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