Technology

Report: Reading Apps for Kids Are a ‘Digital Wild West’

Report: Reading Apps for Kids Are a ‘Digital Wild West’

Digital apps designed to teach young children to read are an increasingly large share of the market, but parents and educators have little to no information about whether and how they work, according to a report released today by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

The report, Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West, shows that most of the skills targeted by children’s reading apps are very basic and do not address higher-level competencies that young children need to become strong readers.

While many digital products claim to teach reading, the report’s scan of the app marketplace uncovered a heavy emphasis on teaching letters, sounds and phonics. A snapshot of the iTunes App Store’s most popular paid literacy apps showed that 45 percent targeted letters and sounds and half targeted phonics, but only 5 percent targeted vocabulary.

Scores released Dec. 6 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that students’ vocabulary skills are tied to reading comprehension skills. None of the iTunes paid apps in the scan focused on comprehension, grammar and the ability to understand and tell stories.

“Technology changes so quickly that browsing the app store can feel like a digital version of entering the Wild West,” the report notes. “Parents and educators face a fast-growing array of products purporting to help their children learn to read but receive little information on how or if these products live up to their claims.”

“Preparing children to be capable readers by the time they complete third grade is a fundamental national goal,” says Dr. Michael H. Levine, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and an author of the report. “Ourreport documents that the explosion of digital technologies can and must be tapped to close critical gaps, especially for those children who use media heavily and whose academic performance is substandard.”

The report offers several strategies for policymakers and community leaders who can help parents and teachers “homestead” this digital Wild West, including conducting community audits to determine whether and which families have access to technology and media and how they use it; providing teachers with training on technology as a learning tool; creating physical places where parents and educators can come together to experiment with various media platforms to foster literacy; and emphasizing digital media’s potential for learning and conversation between parents and children, not just for games that children play alone.

“Whether it’s reading books, watching videos or using apps, parental involvement and qualified teachers are key to making that time enriching for the child,” says Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation and a report author. “When parents spend time with their children, talking with them about an app or asking questions about the story in an e-book, that experience is a launch pad for building early literacy skills.”

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