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How To Stop Worrying About ‘Screens vs. Books’ And Just Get The Kid To Read Already

Crib Notes summarize all the parenting books you’d read if you weren’t too busy parenting. For great advice in chunks so small a toddler wouldn’t even choke on them, go here.

Tap, Click, Read, by Lisa Guernsey and Michael H. Levine, examines, in excruciating detail, the implications of the digital age on child literacy. This pair of child development/education wonks — with the help of their team of nerdy minions — conducted research on educational technology and sifted through the existing scholarly literature on the subject. They took all of that nerding out and came up with a comprehensive guide for parents, educators, and other stakeholders as to what’s useful, promising, or hot, steaming garbage in the struggle to instill literacy in all children.

Because non-scientific studies have shown being a full-time parent impairs adult literacy, here is the non-TL;DR version to make sure your kids will be smarter than you.

1. Communication Is Vital In The Information Age, But Kids Are Reading Less
The National Endowment for the Arts reports that reading among kids has declined since 2010, with nearly half of young adults reading zero books for pleasure. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that the rate of “non-proficient” readers among children of color or in poverty was above 80 percent, and over 30 percent among more affluent kids. In other words, prepare to complain about the next generation even more than you complained about millennials.

  • TVs, tablets, and smartphones are in almost every home in the country. When you’re standing in line at Walgreens checking your phone, you’re demonstrating how in the bag everyone is for their devices.
  • Conventional wisdom says digital media is in opposition to literacy. However, there is evidence that carefully designed and deployed screen content can actually encourage literacy. A is for app.
  • The authors propose embracing a blend of traditional reading and new media forms (they refer to it as “readia,” and since they’re literacy experts they have the power to make up words.) They accept that this screen/paper paradigm is the way literacy is going to be from here on out, so quit yer belly aching.

What You Can Do With This

  • You could go full Amish, but it’s easier to be open to new approaches to literacy. Also, less barn-raising.
  • Engage with your children over media. Encouraging them to read and analyze texts and discuss what they have read, watched, or played with on their own.
  • Model using media as a learning source. Let your kids know how and why you are using media for specific informational, wholesome, not-at-all-questionable purposes — rather than just slamming your laptop closed and yelling “don’t tell your mother.”

2. ‘Language and Literacy’ Apps Are Rarely Vetted
Creating apps right now is basically the coding Wild West, replete with snake-oil salesmen, runaway stagecoaches, dysentery, and the occasional gold nugget. The authors tested 184 popular and/or award-winning apps, checking whether they focused on skills that research shows are crucial to literacy, the extent of the app developers’ literacy expertise, and the presence of other hallmarks of pedagogical credibility. The results were not 5 stars.

  • 65 percent of the skills they searched for were “completely missing or rarely encountered” in any of the apps.
  • Fewer than half of the apps revealed any information at all about their development team.
  • Only 11 percent of the top paid apps and 15 percent of the top free apps that did include information about their team mentioned the involvement of a literacy expert in their development.
  • Fewer than 25 percent of the apps’ descriptions or websites mentioned any kind of research testing regarding usability or appeal, and only two percent mentioned any testing to assess whether kids actually learned anything from the apps.

What You Can Do With This

  • Vet any “educational” apps you download for your kids and make sure they show evidence of being research-based or proven to produce desirable outcomes. Or, more realistically …
  • Rely on credible curators, such as:
    • Balefire Labs, which reviews apps based on peer-reviewed research.
    • Children’s Technology Review, run by a former teacher and Ph.D. in educational psychology.
    • Common Sense Media’s Best Apps and Games, a trusted non-profit whose games & apps editor who has a background in education and child development.
    • Digital Storytime, founded by parents with educational backgrounds to help find worthwhile e-books for kids
    • Graphite uses a 2-part review system wherein the apps are first put through their paces by an in-house team of educators, then crowdsourced with feedback from teachers who visit the site.
    • Moms with Apps includes developer profiles and other insight about apps.
    • Parents’ Choice Foundation has been assiduously reviewing all kinds of kids’ products submitted by the companies that make them, since 1978.
    • Teachers With Apps, run by a team of teachers, a speech pathologist, and an occupational therapist.

3. E-books For Kids Can Be Awesome Or Terrible
E-books can streamline the reading process for kids by helping define unfamiliar words, optimizing text features to keep them engaged, and (let’s be honest) providing audio for when you would rather eat a bowl of mush than read Goodnight Moon. But technology can hurt as much as help the reading experience. Some things to keep in mind:

  • Many “extra features” of e-books, like games or “hotspots” (little animations or sound effects), may distract kids from the text rather than engage them with it.
  • Strategically places extras put near the end of the book can help little readers process the narrative they have just read.
  • Different sized fonts, words floating across the screen, or ones that are highlighted in sync with an audio feed are the most simple, but effective, ways to focus attention on words.
  • A national survey of teachers found programs that include real-time assessments and reading guides were valuable for educational “scaffolding.”
  • A study in Israel found that parents who read commercial e-books with their kids didn’t interact with them as much as the parents who read printed books.
  • The same parents, when reading educational e-books books designed to promote early literacy, were more likely to talk the kids through the challenging aspects of the text. And as anyone who went to Hebrew school knows, that shit is challenging.

What You Can Do With This

  • E-books are not a well-read babysitter. Read, watch, and play along with your kids as they engage with e-books, and have follow-up conversations with them.
  • Seek out media mentors at your public libraries (they’re just sitting there stamping due dates), schools, early learning centers, and those curators above to help recommend some e-books.
  • Remember to consider the Three Cs (per Guernsey’s previous book, Screen Time): content, context, and what’s appropriate for the individual child. Cool?

"Tap, Click, Read," by Lisa Guernsey and Michael H. Levine