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Media, Language Development and Cascading Effects

Published:  January 31, 2013
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Our report Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West argues for more attention to the positive cascading effects triggered by adults and children jointly engaging with media of all kinds.

Until I became immersed in research on child development, I thought learning to read was a project confined to the years of kindergarten, first and second grade. But as countless studies have shown, preparing the brain to read starts long before a child has formal reading instruction. No wonder, then, that our country is full of campaigns to encourage parents to read books with their toddlers. No wonder parents today are told to engage their kids in back-and-forth conversations about pictures on the page. 

By the same token, until I had children myself and became engrossed in studies of media’s impact on how kids learn, I had envisioned screen media (TV and video primarily) as something completely separate from books and book reading. But lately, as studies emphasize how children learn from back-and-forth, inquiry-led conversations of all kinds -- and as on-demand video and touchscreen games become an ever-greater part of children’s lives -- I’ve started to hone in on how parents and educators might make something more of these media moments and build a stronger foundation for reading along the way.  What if we could help moms and dads use media the way they are already urged to use storytime around books: incorporating dialogic questioning techniques, helping children to make predictions, encouraging them to reflect on what they have watched, played or read? 

Some ideas for prompting this joint engagement emerge from Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West: Empowering Parents and Educators, a paper co-written by myself, Michael Levine of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and colleagues. The paper and research behind it were developed for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a collaborative effort by founda­tions, nonprofit partners, states and more than 120 communities across the nation to ensure that more children in low-income families succeed in school and graduate prepared for college, a career and active citizen­ship. 

In an article in Slate magazine last month, we wrote about the state of the app market we uncovered in our research. (The big take-away from that article: The most-popular apps are the ones that focus on basic literacy skills, such as the A,B,Cs.) But Pioneering Literacy delves into much more than the impact of apps. It is based on the theory that both print and digital media could be harnessed to spark those helpful back-and-forth conversations between parents and their children, prompting a soft avalanche of positive “cascading effects” that build upon each other, year after year. 

Here’s how we have visualized what could happen when parents and educators engage with young children around quality media:

The general theory of cascading effects is not new.  Child development experts will recognize it from all kinds of studies of language development and literacy.  Nor are we arguing that children have to have media (print or digital) to gain the experience of back-and-forth conversations or to acquire background knowledge about how the world works. The point is that media -- of all kinds -- surely has the potential to help.  We’ve learned about the background knowledge and comprehension that can come from reading books with young children, so let’s start encouraging parents and educators to think of other kinds of media in the same way. As we say in the report, “Research has shown that parent training can help improve interactions during book-reading, and early evidence shows that such training is needed for digital media as well.”


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