Making technology work for early years language and literacy
Posted by Danielle Wright
28 Oct 2016
Clare McGread, our Early Years Programme Manager, shares her thoughts on the digital world today's children are growing up in.
Here at the National Literacy Trust, we’ve long been interested in the differing ways that we can engage parents to get more involved in supporting their child learn to talk, acquire language and prepare to learn. We held the first Talk to Your Baby conference in 2003 (the 13th conference is on 13 March 2017), building on our campaign to parents and carers that has been running for almost 20 years. Our research and our campaign work has always looked at the influences and opportunities around the parent. No influence has grown more speedily or become so ubiquitous as digital technology, primarily in the form of smart phones and touchscreen tablets.
Ofcom tell us that in 2011 only 7% of families owned a touch screen. In 2014 it had risen to 71%. They also estimate that 40% of children aged 5 to 15 own a tablet and over half of all 3 to 4 year olds are using them regularly at home. Children growing up now live and work in a digital world. Their literacy skills, by which I include their ability to speak, listen, read, write, decode, understand and interrogate language and texts, need to be strong, and we need to recognise the challenges and opportunity of digital technology.
Our research with families with children aged 3 to 5 has shown us that touchscreen technology may also have specific benefits for two key groups who consistently do less well in early years and primary assessments – boys and children from lower-income homes. We found that children from poorer backgrounds were more likely to look at or read stories on a touchscreen for longer than with printed books.
More children from lower-income homes use technology for educational activities then for entertainment, and children’s vocabulary attainment was more likely to be above average if they used both touchscreen and printed books for reading stories. Our findings also show that boys are twice as likely as girls to look at stories on a touchscreen for longer than they look at printed stories. These are important findings for homes that are full of touchscreen technology.
Yet the wider discussion about the role technology could have in a child’s life tends to be highly polarised. On one side are the technology champions who imagine technology could be the answer to every challenge and on the other side, the view that all technology is harmful to a child and there should be no, or very limited, access. In truth the whole picture is much more nuanced. We reviewed the debate and evidence earlier this year.
On 21 October 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated their guidance to families and doctors on screen time use for children. Following a major evidence review they have moved away from screentime bans to advocate for family media plans to encourage responsible technology use. They stress the critical role a parent plays in choosing, watching and playing alongside their child. This chimes with work we undertook on our HELLO project and with research by a number of American practitioners such as Lisa Guernsey and Michael H. Levine. Guernsey advocates the ‘Three C’s’ when using apps and digital technology – “pay attention to the content, context and child”. Guernsey and Levine state that:
“Media should be used in the service of literacy, and our notions of literacy have to evolve to help children master the skills needed to make sense of all kinds of media…Can technology help today’s media immersed children learn to read?...Yes, if they are surrounded by adults who know how to help, and introduced to media designed to promote literacy instead of undermining it.”
We have created a host of resources, including LiteracyApps, to help parents, teachers and practitioners better navigate a digital world to help increase children’s language and literacy. We are continuing our research with parents and children, to understand better how they are using technology in the home and in their daily life. We’re interested in the opportunities out there and are looking forward to the continued debate to be had.
 There is also a much wider debate about children becoming less physically active because of watching television and playing on computers and phones. This is one of the main reasons for current UK and US advice on limiting screen time. We recommend that children have a balance in activities their daily life to fully support their emotional, physical and cognitive development.
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