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Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West

Published:  December 10, 2012
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Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West looks at the features of apps that are marketed as helping young children learn to read. It also explores how pioneering early childhood programs are harnessing technology to reach parents and teachers.

For many early childhood educators, the words "technology" and "reading" don't go together. Yet the realities of today's hectic households and the affordances of new technologies are pushing us to think about where and how tech and literacy might overlap. As electronic games, especially apps, are increasingly aimed at children, and as digital media and social networking becomes a bigger part of parents' daily lives, it's time for new roadmaps.

To get started, The New America Foundation and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop teamed up to scan the market of digital products aimed at young children and unearth promising practices and programs that harness technology to reach parents and educators. Our project was conducted for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a collaborative effort among foundations, nonprofit partners, states and communities to increase the number of low-income children who read proficiently by the end of third grade. Currently, only a third of U.S. fourth graders and barely one in six low-income children hit that mark, contributing to wider achievement gaps and higher dropout rates.

Our report, Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West: Empowering Parents and Educators, shows that while many digital products claim to teach reading, the app marketplace currently puts 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. And 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.”

But there are bright spots. In our interviews, we came across several pioneering projects designed to help the adults in children's lives -- especially those in disadvantaged families -- use media to foster children's language development and eventual reading skills. Examples include using on-demand video for parenting education, social media to provide new resources to parents and teachers and daily texts and web-based messages to prompt storytelling and conversation. The report cites creative ways to use technology emanating from state libraries, public television, home-visiting programs, Sesame Workshop, the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media, the Erikson Institute, the Ounce of Prevention Fund and more.

For a copy of the report and a link to a pre-recorded webinar explaining its findings, go here.



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