In most U.S. schools, it used to be that children were expected to arrive at kindergarten ready to read — mastering the alphabet and beginning to sound words out on their own.
But if a child arrives at school with just their ABCs and 123s, it might not be enough, says University of Nevada literacy professor Diane Barone.
“It creates a double disadvantage for kids if the home doesn’t have a lot of books in it and they don’t have computers or internet access,” Barone said. “It’s hard if they don’t see a lot of technology before they come to school because other kids have seen it since they were 2 or 3. It’s worrisome.”
Literacy used to mean the ability to read and write, but in recent years, that term has become an umbrella for reading, writing and digital skills that run the gamut from typing to intuitively understanding how to interact with both computers and other devices, as well as an early grasp that everything online must be vetted.
“We now have a new definition of literacy where we’re trying to bring the ideas of digital literacy and print literacy together,” said Julie Todaro, president of the American Library Association.
Today, a child who arrives in class ready to read might actually be considered “behind” if they don’t also know how to interact with tablet or computer activities teachers increasingly employ in classrooms.
American kids have struggled with literacy for years. According to the National Education Association’s Nation’s Report Card, literacy rates for kids have plateaued over the past few years. In 2015, the NEA found that reading proficiency changed little from previous years, with just 36 percent of American fourth-graders and 34 percent of eighth-graders reading at or above their grade level. Among adults, literacy rates have changed little over the past decade. Between 1992 and 2003, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy reports that the number of American adults who can’t read hovered at 14 percent.
“This is a crisis,” said Reading is Fundamental president Alicia Levi. “Technology should enable learning for kids, but it shouldn’t replace the fundamental foundation of literacy, which is putting a book in a child’s hand.”
For both parents and teachers trying to lift the U.S.’s dismal literacy rates, the “new literacy” is a delicate problem, requiring parents and schools to strike a perfect balance between time spent on a screen and time spent with printed media —favoring one or the other too much may inadvertently put them at a disadvantage in school. The problem, experts say, is that the focus is too often on the digital aspect of literacy.
“Instead of focusing on what’s on the screen, we’re focused on whether or not they can work the device. Those are two very different things,” Todaro said. “Computers deliver print content. They’re not worth much if kids can’t read and understand what’s on the screen.”
Finding the best tools
Given the rates at which young children interact with a screen today, the number of children who are first exposed to written language via a screen has undoubtedly increased. In fact, Northwestern University found in 2013 that more than a third of parents gave tablets to their children ages 0 to 8, while the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that children 8-18 spend almost eight hours a day in front of a screen. Critics of children being introduced to language in electronic format say technology has limits to its success.
A child begins to read through a process Barone calls “decoding,” or learning to associate words with the real-life things they describe and sounding words out on the page. Decoding is where e-reading and apps shine because they have built-in tools to aid with the process, like reading highlighted words to kids or helping them sound a word out. But that’s about the extent of its usefulness to children learning to read, Barone said, likely because that’s what the majority of such apps are designed for — beginning literacy, nothing more.
“It’s about what these apps can do,” Barone said. “Right now, they’re doing a great job with early literacy, but they don’t do a great job on vocabulary and they don’t do a great job with comprehension.”
That’s why literacy experts say modern children need a healthy mix of reading material to boost both their reading skills and their digital skills. Books need to be worked into the mix, they say, because they require someone to read to the child and it's a different way for kids to familiarize themselves with language. Tablets can help with decoding and they definitely boost children's digital skills, but when children are left alone to read or use tablets, they're less likely to understand what they're absorbing.
“We’re great at giving them technology and they need it," Todaro said, adding that it's difficult to do anything in life without knowing how to interact with a computer or tablet. “But we’re so focused on digital literacy and getting them technology that we’re not as focused on what they really need, which is information literacy — being able to understand and think critically about what they find on the devices.”
Yet some literacy experts say it’s easy to overlook the power of technology for combatting illiteracy. Steve Vosloo, head of mobile learning with Pearson education company's South Africa branch, says for developing countries like South Africa or India, being able to read on a screen is often the only option. Where many communities Vosloo works with have few books, smartphones are fairly prevalent. Speaking via Skype from Cape Town, Vosloo chuckled at the idea of teachers or parents in America worrying about children learning to read on a device vs. a book.
“It’s not about paper or pixels, it’s about reading,” Vosloo said. “Technology isn’t a silver bullet, but if you don’t have access to printed books at least this way you do have access to reading.”
Vosloo says he prefers books as tools for literacy, but he says there’s no hard and fast rule that makes them “better” for learning to read, especially in countries where print books are scarce.
Vosloo has studied the impact of technology on literacy and from his perspective it’s minimal. The biggest example is a study Vosloo conducted on so-called “text speak,” a trend in the U.K. where students increasingly turn in homework and interact with common text abbreviations. But the concerns about “text speak” being a sign of eroding literacy are overblown, Vosloo said, mostly because kids in the developed world learn to read and write in English before they adopt “text speak.” But even in Cape Town, where Vosloo says many children speak a blend of English and Zulu, text speak is actually a sign of literacy.
Children there learn to speak English in classrooms where writing isn’t done, so children learn text speak using mobile phones before they know how to write it. It’s corrected as the children learn how to read and write English. It’s remarkable, in a way, that they’re learning to write phonetically correct English without having seen much written English.
To Vosloo, that’s potential that can’t be denied.
“There’s a potential for communities of readers that wouldn’t be here otherwise,” Vosloo said. “For countries and communities anywhere where there aren’t many printed books but there are digital alternatives, we should be open to that.”
‘A tool, not a solution’
To boost literacy rates, experts say it doesn’t matter whether kids learn on screens or on a page so much as how either tool is used.
For new readers to move beyond decoding words to develop reading comprehension, they key ingredient is still interaction.
“They absolutely need digital skills and we need a curriculum change to introduce those technical skills at a younger age,” Todaro said. “But we have to do more than hand them an iPad.”
That might seem like common sense, but for educators trying to make sure even lower-income, technology-hungry communities have access to digital devices in school, it’s been a hard-learned lesson.
While school districts like Los Angeles famously spend $1.3 billion to give each student an iPad, less thought was put into how the devices would be best put to use. One of the biggest criticisms for individual iPads in classrooms is how easily distracted students become from learning on the devices. Yet that problem might also be a solution, as a 2015 Northwestern University study found.
The study observed more than 300 kindergarteners across the Midwest that had iPads in the classroom and found that the group of kids who had to share iPads in class scored 28 percent higher in literacy testing than children who had their own iPads or no iPads.
“This is why technology is a tool, not a solution,” Levi said. “It’s about finding ways to leverage existing teaching practices and using technology where it’s appropriate.”
Reading is Fundamental explored this across a two-year program called Reading for Success in 2012. The program, designed to improve literacy rates among underserved and minority communities, distributed books to 33,000 students in 16 states during summer. The idea was that by giving children access to books when they were out of school, they could shore up the so-called literacy “summer slide.”
It worked — the program kept most of the participants at their reading level throughout the summer and 57 percent of participants saw gains in reading proficiency. What made the difference, Levi said, was that the kids had access to books and parents had instructions to read with their kids without having to pay for the books themselves. The package also included access to online enrichment programs related to the books and curriculum offers for schools to implement the next school year.
“At the end of the day, the basics still meant sending books home with kids and tools for parents to read with their kids over the summer,” Levi said.
Whether in the U.S. or remote Africa, Vosloo says parent-child interplay is as crucial as having access to written words, regardless of whether the reading was done on the page or by the light of a phone screen. He cited a 2014 UNESCO survey about literacy as an example.
The survey asked 5,000 parents in seven book-scarce countries if they read to their children from a mobile device. One-third said no outright, one-third said yes and one-third said they would if they had a mobile device. Through his work in South Africa, Vosloo is now trying to leverage those survey results into a more literate world, using what most Americans use to text or check their email.
“Even if it’s on a little screen, it can make all the difference in the world. But it’s a fallacy that children will work it out for themselves,” Vosloo said. “They need someone else to show them how.”