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iPads, E-Readers, and Early Literacy: Emerging Research From AERA

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Digital reading and early literacy were among the hot topics at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, held here last week.

Following is a round-up of four pending papers and studies to keep an eye on. 

The common threads among them: It's important to look at how digital devices, apps, and e-books are actually being used in classrooms, and the most promising literacy practices with these new tools involve lots of human-to-human interaction.

1. Parents and Infants Shared Reading Engagement Using Electronic Storybooks

Preliminary findings from this ongoing study suggest that parents of young infants tend to become passive bystanders during their children's use of e-books on a digital tablet. During video recorded interactions of eight parent-infant "dyads," or pairs, the amount of interaction that parents initiated with their children diminished over time. 

"As the length of each session progressed, parents allowed increasing independence with the technology by their infants, with decreasing verbal and physical interaction between parent and child," wrote Corinne Eggleston, the assistant director of the early childhood research center at the State University of New York-Buffalo, and her colleagues in an early paper that has not yet been peer-reviewed or published.

"When the babies' attention waned, parents would attempt to redirect by primarily moving the [digital] tablet more directly in front of their child," the researchers found.

Parent surveys administered by Eggleston and her colleagues also found that parents in the study expected their infants to be more independent when using tablets than when interacting with print materials.

That dynamic is troubling, the researchers wrote. Technology should be a "catalyst for play and learning together," they said, and parents should play with and talk about digital apps and e-books with their children in the same ways they do with print materials.

2. Integrating an iPad App Into Literacy Instruction for Struggling Readers: Teacher Perceptions and Student Outcomes

Fifty 1st grade students across seven low-performing urban elementary schools showed statistically significant gains in their ability to identify letters after using an iPad app called Letterworks, developed as part of a U.S. Department of Education-funded effort to expand the Reading Recovery intervention program. Despite those gains, though, teachers participating in this experimental, randomized experiment expressed reluctance about continued use of the app.

"The teachers in our study identified a mismatch between their beliefs about literacy teaching and learning and [information and communication technologies, or ICTs] as their major obstacle," wrote Emily Rodgers, an associate professor of education at The Ohio State University, and her colleagues in a poster presented at AERA.

Many of the teachers in the study said they would prefer to continue using magnetic letters instead of the iPad app, in large part because they held a philosophical belief that tactile learning is important for young children.

"There is a critical need to consider the fit between how ICTs are used in instruction and the theoretical frame that informs teachers' instructional approach," the researchers wrote.

The study is complete and currently under peer review.

3. E-Reader Apps and Reading Engagement: A Descriptive Case Study

An e-reader app intended to facilitate collaboration and reflection among students and teachers ended up being used mostly as a tool for delivering assignments and monitoring students' basic reading comprehension, in this case study of two fourth-grade classrooms at a prestigious private elementary school.

In response to those instructional practices, students placed "less importance on answering questions [in the app] thoughtfully" and expressed that "answering questions [on the app] interfered with their involvement [in] and enjoyment of the text," wrote Ayesha Hashim and Vanessa Vongkulluksn, postgraduate researchers at the University of Southern California, in a poster presented at AERA.

Those unintended outcomes "could potentially outweigh the cognitive support that [the app] provided to some students" via tools such as a built-in dictionary and read-aloud functions, the researchers said.

The preliminary findings come from a study that is currently in progress. 

4. Reading Approaches, Interaction Styles, and Depths of Comprehension Discussed: An Analysis of Kindergartners' Buddy Reading With iPad App Books

Providing kindergarten students with opportunities to collaboratively read and discuss an e-book delivered via an iPad app led to more robust reading strategies and deeper comprehension, according to this preliminary analysis by researchers at Oakland University (in Rochester, Michigan) and SUNY-Buffalo.

Interactions in which the children helped each other use the app and discuss the story's meaning together helped lead to more "integrated" reading patterns, in which the children both listened to text being read aloud by the app and activated "hotspots" that provided additional meaning or information to the text.

Those integrated reading patterns in turn helped children to make more inferences and deeper connections, wrote Tanya Christ and X. Christine Wang, in a paper based on a preliminary analysis of an ongoing study that has not yet been submitted for peer review or publication.

The implication for schools, according to the researchers: "Teachers should provide opportunities for young children to read iPad books with a buddy and facilitate collaborative interactions during buddy reading to support children's development."

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