Children’s literacy learning and screen time

    by Freddy Hiebert | January 20, 2012

    Elfrieda H. Hiebert
    TextProject & the University of California, Santa Cruz

    A question that parents frequently ask these days is: Does screen time count as reading time? With such a wide variety of online reading experiences available, the short answer would be have to be, “Yes, but…”

    Heartily recommended are high-quality interactive e-books that engage children’s interest while expanding their knowledge of words. E-books allow children to interact with old favorites, such as Cat in the Hat, and introduce them to new friends, such as the alligator looking to have his teeth cleaned in Open Wide Snap.

    A must to avoid are the workbooks that have been turned into reading apps or software. Pitched as aids for beginning readers, they have little or anything to do with good literacy-building practices. These repetitive drills with their distracting animations and sounds do not support comprehension or offer real engagement.

    Navigating the sheer amount of content for digital media can be overwhelming. One estimate is that about 300 web applications are added daily—with the majority of these applications oriented to young children. By the time one app is reviewed, 10 more have been added, making it difficult for experts to keep up with recommendations and reviews.

    So without expert guidance, how can you find a quality online reading experience? Here’s how. You can become your own expert by considering these five questions:

    1.​ Does the story or the language create a sense of wonder or fun? Pushing children into games and apps that are tricked out rote exercises will not support children’s love of language and literacy in the long run.

    2. ​Does the experience include opportunities for varied responses and involvement? One expert describes edutainment as “taking advantage of our psychological predisposition to repeat something over and over when the game rewards us in small ways as we go.”1

    3.​ Is the experience best suited to a digital environment? Parents worry that children need to develop facility on the computer—but, at this point, there is absolutely no evidence that this experience needs to occur early on. This is not to say that at some future point advantages from participating with digital devices early on may be uncovered. Meanwhile, current research shows that children’s use of pencils to scribble, write, and draw is linked to reading development.

    4.​ Does the experience lend itself to a discussion with your child? Integration of reading content into children’s lives by the adults around them is an important aspect of the effectiveness of learning from any tool—whether it is delivered via television, digital device, or book. The content that parents discuss with children creates a shared set of references that link learning to life.

    5. ​Is the digital experience designed to take the place of adult read-alouds or children’s independent reading time with books? The list of documented benefits that children gain from adult read-alouds and their own independent reading time is long, including vocabulary, increased world knowledge, awareness of different genres, and focused adult attention. A national commission on reading in the 1980s concluded: “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.” 2 Nothing has come along since to dispute this statement.

    1 Hunter, S. Designing media to foster creative engagement. Children’s Technology Review, August, 2011.

    2 Anderson, R.C., Hiebert, E.H., Scott, J.A., & Wilkinson, I.A.G. (1985). Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading. Champaign, IL: The Center for the Study of Reading, National Institute of Education, National Academy of Education.