Classroom Technology Q&A

How to Use Technology to Improve Early Learners’ Reading Skills: Q&A

By Sara Gilgore — September 18, 2015 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A new book, Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens, proposes steps that educators and parents can take to maximize the use of technology to build literacy skills. Lisa Guernsey, the director of the Learning Technologies Project and the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, and Michael H. Levine, the executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, a New York City-based research center, wrote the book.

Guernsey and Levine recently talked with Education Week about their work on the book and the challenges of building reading skills in the digital age. Following is a transcript of those interviews, edited for length and clarity.

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

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 help those children gain a foothold in the 21st century.

One of the major stimulants for me was, 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, and that with the potential of technology to be both a positive and a negative disruption on the early reading enterprise, 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?

We were also stimulated by the release five years ago of a very influential report, which was called Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters. And that became a little bit of a clarion call for bringing new attention to this issue.

Guernsey: There’s a statistic that certainly alarmed me when I first started reading about it, and it really has animated our work: that more than two-thirds of American 4th graders are not reading at grade level in this country, and that’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about that ‘quiet’ crisis. 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: It’s not just the daunting nature of that statistic, it’s the pathway of unintended consequences that results from our neglect of sort of addressing this quiet crisis. 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 kids’ time spent with technology and promoting reading with digital tools?

Guernsey: There is a balance and, in fact, 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. The book also synthesizes and makes comment on the variety of different debates and consensus statements. So we do 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: We jump into this in the book. There’s an original analysis of the app store, in which we show that the industry has been proliferating quite a lot of content. You’ve got tens of thousands of apps labeled as educational for preschool and primary-grade kids, if you look at the different apps in the app marketplace.

We’ve been tracking it 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, to make those claims. 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. The book gets into some of the better third-party sites. But these things are not widely known by the public, so 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.

Levine: We absolutely need to do more around supporting dual-language learners. Not only is dual language competency a vital asset for us educationally and economically, but the brain science is showing that the development of second-language skills within the first decade of life is incredibly helpful for all sorts of other kinds of learning that young children do. Throughout the book we do look at a range of different examples where dual-language learning would be supported, sometimes with technology and sometimes without. There’s sort of a broader sense of not just learning how to read, but reading to learn a new variety of other digital literacies and global literacies and linguist literacies that are necessary today.

How can technology be used to help students who lack devices or web connectivity at home?

Guernsey: We have some video vignettes that go with the book that show how different tools are being integrated into early learning programs to help kids. One of those videos shows an elementary school classroom where children in a Title I school in Washington, D.C. have access to reading tutors; they call into the classroom, and the children have a moment of one-on-one time with a tutor. They can hear their voice on the phone and then they can also see them on the screen interacting with a book at the same time that they are. The tutor can hear what the child might be stumbling on, and help them to sound out the words so that they can get there. It’s just one example of many that we’ve seen, of ways that new tools are being used in elementary school classrooms, that give them something they might not always have at home.

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.