Literacy apps, reading, teachers and parents: What to do?

ABCD LETTERSDigital apps that teach reading! Can that be the answer (or at least part of the answer) to increase kids reading by the grade level by third grade, a predicator of school success? Well, kinda. Yes there are many digital apps designed to teach young children to read. But do parents and educators know much about whether and how they work? Not so much. Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West*: Empowering Parents and Educators looks at the world of literacy apps. It was produced as part of a collaboration between the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, the New America Foundation, and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop . They scanned the market of digital products, interviewed literacy and early childhood experts and discovered some promising practices.

What did they find? Their key finding was that most of the popular apps target very basic literacy skills: letters and sounds and phonics with word recognition.

“Among the most salient findings in our scan was the high proportion of paid iTunes apps that purported to teach reading but focused entirely on basic early literacy sills. The app market this spring (2012) felt a lot like a digital Wild West, with learn-to-read apps popping up seemingly overnight and little to no information on whether the developers had backgrounds in early literacy or whether the apps were vetted by reading experts or evaluated in any way.”

They scanned popular apps purported to teach early grade readings and interviewed literacy and early literacy experts. They chose 187 apps, e-books, electronic literacy games and websites with a literary focus, targeting ages 0-8. They did not evaluate these products independently but based it on information provided by product description on websites, by app and e-book developers and independent reviews.

The products had to target one or more of the following areas associated with literacy:

  • Print concepts
  • Letters and letter-sounds
  • Phonics with word recognition
  • Letter Writing
  • Sight Words & Vocabulary
  • Spelling & Grammar
  • Comprehension

Most of the popular apps target only letters and sounds and phonics with word recognition. The websites offered a wider range of literacy skills than apps and games. E-books offered many features, but they did not necessarily enhance literacy learning. Ninety-five percent had optional narration embedded but only half highlight the text so children can follow along.

This scan was done in April 2012. At that time the Apple store had over 500,000 apps, in February 2013 there are over 800,000. In March 2013 Android has over 650,000 apps . The edtech market alone is growing exponentially. With the increasing number of edutrepeurs (education + entrepreneur) creating“educational” products purporting to help children, there is a bit of lawlessness out there. As Frank Catalano writes in his post, Closing the Gap Between Educators and Entrepenuers , there is no shortage of new businesses looking to apply technology to education but in many cases there is a gap between these edupreneurs and teachers. (emphasis added) The apps do not necessarily line up to what is needed to enhance the quality of education.

Is that the only thing to be concerned about? The last sentence of the report in the conclusion is my favorite part:

“…technology’s potential to be a game changer will be not reached unless vital new supports for parents and educators are established. In the digital age, it is these caring adults who still matter most.

It is important to keep in mind that this is a US study for a US market but nonetheless, the conclusion about a need for educators and parents to be involved is universal.

The need for teachers is greater than ever to meet the universal primary education goal. In UNESCO Institute for Statistics UIS Information Bullentin No. 10, The Global Demand For Primary Teachers – 2012 Update states that at the global level, 1.7 million additional teaching positions will need to be created to reach universal primary education by 2015. The 2013/14 EFA Global Monitoring Report is looking at why education is pivotal for development and among many areas, explain the need to invest wisely in teachers. The 2013 International Summit on the Teaching Profession took place March 13-14, 2013. All recognizing, focusing and zeroing in on how key teachers and educators are.

And the parents. The study also included interviews with people who lead early literacy interventions, are involved in early childhood programs or conduct research on educational technology. They did not come across many programs that reach parents but some programs show the potential of technology. An example of a program that would be transferrable to the international development education is Pocket Literacy Coach. Texts are sent to parent’s mobiles with ideas for literacy activities and reassurances to lessen the stresses of parenting. If the parent is literate, SMS is great; otherwise use voice.

Are apps the solution (along with any type of technology)? Apps can enhance reading but to make them useful and enable kids to read, it is equally about teachers and parents.

*For those not familiar with the term “Wild West,” it refers to the western United States during the period of its settlement, characterized by roughness and lawlessness (think cowboys).


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