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Report: Early-Reading Tech Products Have Potential, but Scant Evidence

The market for educational technology for young children is booming, but there is scant evidence that many of the apps, games, e-books, and websites meant to improve basic reading skills are supported by research or have any direct learning benefit, a new report concludes.

The report, "Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West: Empowering Parents and Educators," sees great potential for technology to help infants and toddlers acquire and improve basic literacy skills, but many of today's products have not been rigorously studied. And the authors say much more research needs to be conducted on how to make those products useful to parents, teachers, and children.

"Digital products aimed at building literacy skills in young children are a significant segment of the market," the report says. "Yet many of these products may not be providing the educational benefit they claim."

Few apps and e-books, for example, have provided evidence that "point to any effectiveness studies to back them up," the authors say, "and most only focus on very basic literacy skills that would not be useful for children who are beginning to learn skills like grammar and storytelling."

The report was released by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a nationwide effort led by foundations, nonprofits, state leaders, and communities to improve early-reading skill. It was written by the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, a New York-based research lab that focuses on education issues, particularly media and technology.

The authors examine products marketed to families of children from birth through 8 years old.

Their research is based in part on a review of top-selling education technology products and digital content, apps, software, games, and websites. The goal was not to take on an exhaustive review of each product, they say, but rather to scan popular products that purport to teach early reading. The authors also conducted interviews with industry and tech experts over a six-month period.

Among the products reviewed were free and paid apps found in the iTunes App store and in Google Play, as well as e-books for kids from iTunes.

What the authors found, they say, was unimpressive. Most apps had been released in the past two years, and they targeted "very basic literacy skills," such as letters, phonics, and word recognition. It was much rarer for apps to focus on more advanced skills like comprehension and grammar.

Most e-books had narration, but only about half had text-highlighting to help readers follow along. Similar to apps, many products touted as literacy games focused on letters, sounds, phonics, and word recognition, not letter-writing, "sight-word" recognition, and comprehension.

The upshot is that while the industry is aggressively creating new products, there are only "spotty examples of evidence-based products that could have a positive impact on the children who need help most."

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