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Books or Screens: Talk to Your Kids

The key line from today's New York Times article on children, technology and language acquisition, "Is E-Reading to Your Toddler Story Time, or Simply Screen Time", is this:

In other words, "it's being talked with, not being talked at," that teaches children language, Dr. Hirsh-Pasek said.

As a parent of two girls, four and one, I think about these issues of screens, books, and language every day.

The NYT article does a nice job of capturing what we currently know about language acquisition in very young children: interaction with adults is critical. Part of the value of reading is in the conversations that emerge naturally questions about words, pictures, and the connections to a child's every day life.

In evaluating technologies for children under two, one useful question is whether the technology promotes interaction and dialogue. There is plenty of evidence that televsion and recorded video replaces dialogue: that kids plopped in front of screens to watch things don't have the same kinds of interactions as children reading books with adults. Perhaps it's theoretically possible for children and parents to have rich conversations in front of screen media, but it doesn't seem to be what happens with recorded video. It seems that in many cases, television displaces opportunities for interaction and language acquisition.

What, then, of ebooks, that read aloud and turn pages? The implication of the article, and I think a fair reading of the very limited research we have, is that these technologies are going to look more like television than books. If we sit along with ebooks and read them with children, there may be opportunities for positive interaction. But let's be honest here, if I'm giving my daughter an ebook that reads for her without me, it's because I'm trying to go do something else. (And, to be completely honest, my wife and I do that all the time with videos, games, ebooks and whatever else will buy us some of the time that we need.)

That doesn't necessarily mean that screen technologies are all bad. I've come to really love flipping through online photo albums with my daughters, precisely because the medium is so amenable to generating conversations. Who is this relative? When did we last see them? Do you remember the day we took that picture? I like playing Minecraft with my older daugher for the same reasons. She can't manipulate the controls, so the activity has to be very collaborative. Where do you want to go? What do you want to build? What should we do next? When screens spark conversation, my hunch is that research will bear out that it's a good thing for kids.

As children get older, the issues are likely to become far more complicated when students perhaps can benefit more from individual inquiry and exploration. And there is probably plenty of room for innovation in creating technologies that get parents and young children interacting and talking with each other. And we probably don't have to fear "rotten children's brains" from ebooks, they aren't necessarily causing harm so much as displacing better activities. When new technologies replace the natural conversational interactions that happen when adults read to children, we're likely to find that these new technologies aren't as good for kids as reading with adults in their lives.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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