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Pioneers in Literacy Land - Childs World America
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Pioneers in Literacy Land

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“This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.”  These words from Plato’s Phaedrus are directed against the alphabet, which Socrates feared would lead to a decline in oral rhetoric and memory. But the warning could just as easily refer to today’s literacy tools. Children learning to read in the 21st century have access to a wealth of sophisticated resources, from apps and games to e-books with “hot spots” that encourage clicks. With kids aged 3 to 5 spending an average of four hours a day in front of screens, it’s only natural to worry, as Socrates did, that technology will negatively impact developing minds.

Lisa Guernsey and Michael H. Levine, authors of Tap, Click, Read, remind us that advances in literacy have always brought skepticism and a period of adjustment. They use the metaphor of the Wild West to suggest that digital media are in an early phase—one of untapped potential and plenty of misunderstandings. Caretakers and educators often don’t know how to navigate the changing digital landscape or distinguish effective literacy tools from the rest. Indeed, they need to realize that, despite the numerous reading apps in the market, not all of the developers are experts in childhood literacy.

Therefore, the reading proficiency of members of the class of 2030 might be a mixed bag. The authors speculate that some will be “über readers,” able to use technology tools to their fullest potential and navigate a daily flood of information, while others will have completely missed the boat. Today, two-thirds of fourth graders in the U.S. read at a level below “proficient.” But Guernsey and Levine suggest this gap is preventable if parents, teachers, and developers work together to build a world—they call it “Readialand”—that is conducive to childhood literacy in the digital age. Central to Readialand is the idea that screens are not the antithesis of literacy but vehicles to promote reading skills … if used the right way.

One problem is that parents and educators are still figuring out what “the right way” is. On one hand, digital media are key to our expanding definitions of literacy. On the other, alluring distractions like games and animations can keep kids from focusing on the tough but ultimately rewarding work of sounding out words and making sense of sentences. Guernsey and Levine say parents and educators should monitor screen-based activities to make sure they actually challenge children to strengthen skills like spelling and reading comprehension and expand their vocabulary. In the Wild West, a good app is hard to find; out of 23 skills identified as important to reading curriculum, only 8 were regularly found in the authors’ test sample of 184 literacy apps.

How children use these products can also affect outcome. The authors reported that early readers using e-books or other digital media often preferred being read to by their devices instead of wrestling with the text themselves. Others skipped reading activities in favor of games or grew frustrated with products that were difficult to use. Some e-books now include questions to help kids parse what they’ve read. But ultimately adults need to guide kids through the wilderness of choices, pitfalls, and distractions. In fact, when the authors examined two Philadelphia-area libraries with similar resources, they found that accessibility to literacy tools was not the determining factor in kids’ success. Rather, children were more likely to succeed when an adult offered encouragement, prompting, and hands-on help when needed.

Of course, not every parent is technology literate or can read well in English. Supporting bilingual learners is an important function of Readialand, along with recognition that people of diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds have different parenting styles.

For example, Tap, Click, Read invokes the “word gap,” a notion that children in poorest families hear fewer spoken words than children in the wealthiest families.  (This notion from psychology is based on a single unreplicated study that has come has come under criticism by anthropologists and linguists.)  Addressing the so called word gap puts the onus on poor and working class caretakers to change their parenting styles and bridge the gap.

Just as digital media can help kids learn to read, Guernsey and Levine point to apps, videos, and texting as tools for parents to become better literacy coaches. For example, Mom or Dad might watch a video that models a parent-child conversation or subscribe to daily texts that suggest fun literacy-building activities. However, for some, being asked to complete “parenting homework” may feel insulting, burdensome, or at odds with cultural practices.

Tap, Click, Read does a nice job guiding laypeople, including parents trying to add value to TV time or make sense of the overwhelming educational app marketplace. For literacy and education experts, it may simply confirm their instincts and observations. In either case, Tap, Click, Read provides a good starting point for conversations about literacy tools and resources that have undergone surprisingly little scrutiny.

A reassuring takeaway for parents is that not all literacy-building activities in the digital age need to involve looking at a screen. Today’s educators and caretakers may remember learning to read by sounding out words in printed magazines and picture books while conversing with adults about what they read. Such conversations still need to happen. Tap, Click, Read reminds us that for the development of literacy in the 21st century the key question is not “humans or machines?” Instead, the issue is how to get humans and machines working together to create a rich learning environment for the class of 2030 and beyond.


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