Every time I see a toddler with an iPad, I cringe just a little. I try to hide it. I know I’m supposed to be amazed at the little genius.

I also know that the device could be useful, especially as the toddler becomes a preschooler and starts learning letters and numbers. Still, beyond a few apps for those (very important) basics, I typically see the iPad as more opiate than education. But we can’t just say no. iPads and similar devices are ubiquitous and revered. We must co-opt them. But how?

Lisa Guernsey of New America and Michael Levine of Sesame Workshop provide the first really compelling answer I’ve seen. Their new book, Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens, is a rare gem. It’s written in a way that parents will find accessible and it offers a combination of research, initiatives (with videos), and insights that even the most expert decision makers will find useful.

Rather than a summary, I’ll offer a few samples of Lisa and Michael’s findings and trust that you’ll be motivated to dive into the whole book.

On literacy:

Literacy in the younger years is not, and never has been, solely about reading print. Walk into a children’s library and what do you see everywhere? Picture books, some with no print at all. Nor is early literacy only about reading books. Literacy has always involved speaking, listening, and writing.

On literacy apps:

Our analysis can be summed up as follows: kids’ literacy apps are abundant within the marketplace, but they have not been designed or distributed in any coherent fashion, and the vast majority are not oriented to help bridge the gulf of literacy problems faced by some families…. Meanwhile, however, we see hope in the growing number of curators popping up, a few of whom are trying to bring in a lens on learning in the early years.

On the future of literacy apps:

To give you a sense of the type of research likely to come, consider the case of the app-based learning system called Learn with Homer…. It brings a mix of proven early learning techniques—story time, rich vocabulary and background knowledge, and skills practice—together in one app…. Kids are not only learning what the letter A sounds like and that “alligator” starts with A, but also taking virtual “field trips” to the zoo, where they learn about alligators.

On wise use:

We cannot afford to ignore the affordances of technology, especially for disadvantaged children and families of many different backgrounds and circumstances who may not otherwise have access to information and learning opportunities. And yet to leave the fate of these children to technology alone would be a big mistake…. Children who interact with technology while working with adults who can set good examples and guide them to new heights are receiving tremendous advantages. If only the privileged few have the opportunity for that kind of tech-assisted but human-powered learning, divides will only grow wider.

Shutterstock Image
To be educational, iPad time needs to be quality time (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

On knowledge and comprehension:

One recent day in California, a six-year-old boy named Brandon was … watching one of Disney’s Ice Age movies, when he saw a scene that captivated him. On the screen were the lovable animations of Ice Age’s prehistoric beasts, loping along the barren, icy terrain. Brandon turned to his father: “Papi, at that time, what was it like? There weren’t any buses?” Smiling, his father, José Rubén, saw this as a teachable moment. He went to his computer, pulled up YouTube, and searched for videos that would show his son more about what life was like during that time…. Brandon was engaged in building his knowledge base, getting an introduction to concepts and ideas that not only gave him a little more understanding of the Ice Age, but also helped him put the Ice Age into context of other periods in history and start to gain a framework for thinking about how time passes and how change happens….

When most people talk about the troubling state of children’s reading in the United States, the untapped power of these kinds of learning moments are not likely on their minds. Instead they may think our country’s problems are simply a function of whether children ever learned how to decode words on a page or read sentences with fluency. But the root of the problem may be in children’s abilities to comprehend and make sense of the ideas that are built by those words and sentences. Recent vocabulary scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, showed that American children are making few if any significant gains in understanding the meaning of complex words, with a wide gulf between white students and … Hispanic and African American students. So if there are ways to build that word learning and even more importantly build a deeper knowledge base that enables comprehension in today’s children, don’t we have a moral obligation to seize it?

13 comments on “The High-Tech Road to Literacy”

  1. 1
    Lauren on November 15, 2015

    I agree with this article in so many ways. I agree that putting a child on a tablet or smart phone with an app that is meant to be educational is not how that child will learn. The child may pick up some parts of literacy I believe a child will learn better from role models. I liked the story about the father and son and how the father helped his son with is question. I feel this is how learning should take place. The child can ask questions about the world around them and then turn for help to figure out the answer. This in the long run will teach students how to be a life long learner.

    1. 2
      Jenn on March 22, 2017

      This blog has me understanding both points. Technology is incredible and valuable when it is used as an educational tool.Technology allows us to immediately provide an example or dig deeper into a lesson (visual aid, virtual field trips, etc.). As an Elementary Teacher, the use of sound from technology allows for intrigue. I do think that students do need to hold a book in their hand and explore the illustrations in the book. I have found that my students like to point out the high-frequency words in the books I read to them. Books can be read anywhere, and students do not need to look for a
      WI-FI connection before they open a book. We need to sit under a tree or on a comfy share and read from a learning tool that was established long ago. Numerous intelligent people learned from books and a chalkboard. Do we need to constantly turn on something electronic for us to function? How about turning on our good ole-fashion brain!

    2. 3
      Kristen Stuckenberg on March 18, 2020

      I agree that technology is very powerful in helping students be a life-long learner. As in all resources that can add to new learning, students need supervision and teachers to help them navigate and learn how to use the technologies thoroughly and appropriately. We cannot just allow them to explore this arena on their own.

  2. 4
    Axie on November 16, 2015

    I agree with this article for a few reasons. First, I agree with you, and Lauren, that it is so hard to see such young kids walking around with thei iPad, iPod, surface, whatever gadget it might be. Growing up, we never had these electronics to keep us busy. We had to have actual conversations. There are so many conversations I have with students, or even people my age and older, who don’t know manners or how to have a real conversation because they have been so engulfed in electronics they don’t have communication skills. Second, the feeling of books and the authenticity of them makes learning so much more fun and meaningful. Getting rid of these books completely is devastating and just hurting our future. Last, if all literacy turns to technology, what happens to those who cannot afford these? You mention this comment in your article, and i can’t agree more. Our reading curriculum has online activities, yet the kids who could benefit from these most are the kids who do not have computers or internet at home.

    On the other side, it’s hard to completely ignore where our society is at with technology. I live in a city surrounded by Microsoft and technology junkies — it’s part of our everyday! It is hard for me to always support this technology boom and allow students to be use iPads and computers, but I also have to support them with the standards and technology we have today. Overall, this is a well written article that is definitely relevant to today’s society and impacts how we teach.

  3. 5
    Marcelo Coba on July 13, 2016

    I teach Kindergarten and my little five year olds walk inside the classroom and the one thing they can all do for sure is use an IPAD. Some cannot write their name or even a letter, but they can easily show you how to get to YouTube. I incorporate IPADS in the classroom as a listening center. The app will read the student a story, ask them questions, and include amazing pictures to keep their attention. I have a few educational games where students can practice letter and number formation. I grew up in a time where if I had questions then I asked for help, today the student searches the questions or watches a video to solve it. Technology is changing education and I think that it needs to be included everyday inside classrooms, but in a responsible matter.

    1. 6
      Jenn on March 26, 2017

      I agree with your comments. Everything needs to be done in moderation. Sometimes the IPAD or computer is an easy fix to keep little ones busy. We need to instill the power of opening a book and writing their own thoughts down on a paper and pencil. Computers do allow for instant discovery which is beneficial and I find it leads to additional ideas. Its all about balance.

  4. 7
    Christina on November 14, 2016

    I enjoyed reading this blog post. I have three little girls, all under the age of three and I too used to cringe whenever I saw a toddler with an iPhone/iPad in their hands. I swore to myself that I would never be that mom who let her child play or watch videos on the phone/tablet and yet three years later I am that mom whose child plays on the phone/tablet and I judge myself for it every single day. I get the judgement, when we were growing up the technology was not around. Children played outside, family dinners consisted of conversations about our day.
    As a teacher, I see the affect that technology is having on our students. Conversations are lost, handwriting is a mess and literacy is often an area of struggle. However, I agree with Axie that we cannot deny where our society is at today in terms of technology. My school has implemented a 1:1 technology initiative and every student has been given a laptop. While there are so many benefits to this, I often question if the teachers are ready for such a huge leap.

    1. 8
      Damaris Mitchell on January 24, 2019

      Yes, I too see both viewpoints of the article and must also agree we must know and clearly understand the role technology has in all areas of life and not just education. When we think about it, there is not much we do these days that does not require the use of technology. It makes life less complicated and chaotic. Despite the differences that may exist on technology use, one cannot downgrade how it has helped education evolve. Our students can now explore the world by simply sitting at their computer. So yes, technology is undoubtedly an asset, but it must not be used to replace everyday conversations. Additionally, we must remember we control technology and technology does not control us. We must appreciate all it has to offer while simultaneously understanding the many avenues it has opened for the world of education. Nowadays, children must know how to properly use technology in order to survive. If not, there is a chance they may fall behind. This concept is interesting, yet true. So do I feel guilty about my children using an iPad? Absolutely not, because I know I am in control of what the iPad is displaying and I am also responsible for the end results, which is why I work hard to find the balance between education and fun. After all, who said learning couldn’t fun? It is all about what is introduced to them. If we start them out on the right technology path, they will continue to follow that path until we once again decide to change the direction.

  5. 9
    Maren Talcott on March 22, 2017

    Technology is taking over our society and education. The district that I currently work in is extremely technology based and educators are expected to use technology resources in the classroom. I was unfamiliar with the app Learn with Homer. After looking into it, and reading reviews, I was surprised to see how successful and positive people’s experiences are with this app. There are definitely a variety of online resources and apps that I find hindering to student’s learning, but not all are negative. I found it interesting that young students are better using technology with adults present at the same time. Too frequently we see parents giving a child an iPad to keep them busy or quiet. It rarely is used as a quality time experience. I think that makes sense to ensure that teaching and guidance can take place and the information is being understood and comprehended by the learner.

    When thinking about equity and giving student the opportunity and access to technology at school, I can understand the importance of this. At my school, many students are not coming from a families that can afford such advanced technology and items such as iPads. It isn’t to say that we should leave the fate of these students in the hands of technology, but it should be exposed and have learning opportunities that incorporate technology, computers, and interactive online learning tools. Technology can help build knowledge when students want to inquire more about a subject.

    I do see many students struggling with reading in my school, and wonder how the correlation of technology use is influencing this new trend. The concept of comprehension is key, and it is an important aspect of literacy/reading. I see students with less understanding of complex vocabulary and meaning of words. Usually, there is a large gap between reading fluency and comprehension. I would love to see more opportunities to build knowledge base that enables opportunities to build deeper understandings and comprehension. There could be technology or hands on experiences that can help build these strategies and skills.

  6. 10
    Jodian Scott-Banton on May 28, 2017

    I agree with this post on several levels. I write as a mother of a one year old and a high school teacher with eleven years teaching experience. Within the 21st century it is critical for teachers to incorporate technology in the daily lessons. Students need to learn to master technological devices and use them effectively for research and learning so their computer skills can be enhanced for the world of work. As I write this blog, I reflect on the effective use of blogging for networking, sharing ideas and building knowledge. A few other educational tools and services that are available through the internet are message boards, forums, school portals, e-learning, cyber libraries, virtual field trips and web quests (Henson, 2015, pp. 81). What is not okay is for us to just hand children devices and automatically assume that positive or effective learning will take place. Devices should not be used to replace human interaction. As a parent I believe that the interpersonal skills of the child must be developed through social interaction. This is demonstrated quite effectively with Brandon and his dad in the initial post. Apps that assist with phonics, spelling and other language arts skills for example are good. However, language is not static; therefore we cannot rely on preset recordings. Human interaction allows for the acquisition of pragmatics. Interaction also provides an opportunity for the child to give feedback and ask follow up questions. The use of technology for learning must therefore be guided by the facilitator.

    Another drawback to introducing technological devices to children at an early age and making them dependent on it, is its “crippling effect”. The 2010 Kaiser Foundation study found that children between 8 and 18 years old spent an average of 71/2 hours in front of devices in spite of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation for screen time to be reduced. Additionally, it is recommended that children under 2 years not be exposed to computer use. Cris Rowan, a pediatric occupational therapist, reported that too much screen time leads to developmental and neurological delays, some of which can be permanent (Konerman, 2014, para. 3).


    Henson, K. (2015) Curriculum planning integrating multiculturalism, constructivism, and
    education reform. (Kindle version). Retrieved from Amazon.com.

    Konerman, Tanya (2014) Negative Effects of Computers on Children

  7. 11
    Gloria Cortez on March 22, 2018

    I enjoyed reading your blog. The allure of engrossing digital tools, entertaining experiences and social networking communities outside of school is making it increasingly difficult for educators to motivate and engage a large majority of students in academic learning with traditional pedagogy. Schools must create learning environments that are as engaging and relevant as the ones that students gravitate to outside of school (Henson, 2015). I am a 5th Grade teacher and the students are only thinking about computer games and virtual games. I am surprise that most of the students do not know how to play regular outside games, example hide and seek, jump rope, etc. Now a days, even Kinder students have cell phones. In my opinion, as an educator it is difficult to compete with technology. I do believe technology is helpful, but like you mentioned it on your blog when it is used for the right reason. Why integrate technology into the curriculum? According to the George Lucas Educational Foundation (Edutopia.org), the reasons are many:

    Integrating technology into classroom instruction means more than teaching basic computer skills and software programs. . .
    Effective tech integration must happen across the curriculum in ways that research shows deepen and enhance the learning process. . .
    It must support four key components of learning: active engagement, participation in groups, frequent interaction, and feedback, and connection to real-world experts. Effective technology integra- tion is achieved when the use of technology is routine and transparent and when technology supports curricular goals. . . .

    As time passes and technology advances, I sometimes wonder if teachers will be replaced by some new technology invention.

    Lucas, G. (n.d.). Why integrate technology into the curriculum? Retrieved March 21, 2018, from http://www.edutopia.org/

    Henson, K. T. (2015). Curriculum planning: Integrating multiculturalism, constructivism, and education reform (5th ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press

  8. 12
    Tracey Collins on January 22, 2020

    I enjoyed your post and find myself responding to it from two angles. One, from my perspective as a mother of 3 (a 16-year-old high school junior, a 15-year-old high school freshman, and a 2 1/2-year-old princess) and the other a reading specialist in a school where 90% of our kindergartners come to us not knowing their letters, how to write their names, or having much print knowledge. Times and technology have certainly changed from when my boys were toddlers. I remember fretting over the amount of Barney they wanted to watch on VHS tapes while I was making dinner or working on lesson plans, but I gave in because they were obsessed and I need to work! But guess what, my kids learned songs, colors, shapes, and all sorts of other things from Barney. Yes, of course, I reinforced them, but I have to be honest, I was a teacher who was too tired to teach when I got home. I wanted to snuggle and play. Of course, I read to my kids every night (and they always conned me into more books than I planned on reading) and I sang songs and we did fingerplays and rhyming games, but I didn’t drill sight words and letters like I did at work. My kids are now in advanced placement classes, no worse for wear and we can all still sing Barney’s shape and color songs. Fast forward many years and many technological advances, I now find myself the exhausted older momma of a toddler, serving as a reading specialist in a challenging school, taking 4 graduate classes a semester, trying to balance the schedules of two high-schoolers, and manage my home and family while making sure my little one gets all the attention she deserves. Just like her big brothers, she loves the colors and songs of Barney and we have broadened our viewing to include some other friends as well. I am totally ok with this, it doesn’t monopolize her time, but is there, in the periphery. Despite my declarations to the contrary (we all know the “I will never…” game), we bought her a Kindle tablet before a trip to Disney World thinking that at least it would keep her occupied in line. At 2 1/2, she can find her favorite songs on YouTube and the Mickey Mouse color game she loves. She amazed her pediatrician by knowing all of her colors and shapes at her 2-year-old check-up and can write the first two letters of her name from practicing scribbling on the paint app. She has picked up songs and sayings that we wouldn’t have taught her and while we continue to foster a love of reading and language in our home, she has grown stronger with the technology. Of course, we use it in moderation and she doesn’t sit for hours staring at a screen. Although those people who want to judge will continue to do so (but I will continue to refrain from asking the lady in the restaurant that wants to share with me her opinion that my daughter is too young to be looking at a screen to sit down and let her tell you her numbers, letters, and colors, and show you what would happen when my tired little angel doesn’t have something to occupy her while I try to shovel the first hot meal in my mouth all week). As an educator of many students who do not come from homes where there is a great deal of language or reading, having access to technology that reads to them and allows them to interact with stories and songs, letters, numbers, and colors may be more that they have a chance of getting without the technology. Their parents are busy trying to make ends meet and if they decide that the technology is the way to go, the least we can do is provide them with some guidance on how they can use it to help build their child’s language and literacy development. We can’t fight the technology, it is here and it isn’t going away. It is a second language for our kids, as it will never be to use. They will never know the world of going to the library to find a book on your research topic, the world is at their fingertips and who are we to deny them that?

  9. 13
    Shelbe on May 21, 2020

    Technology can be a blessing and a curse. When parents are using technology to help “babysit” the child it is often hurting that student. Showing guidance to students and parents can help aid students to use technology to help aid their learning instead of curing their board ness. Like most technologies when used in the correct way can help students learning. How do you use technology to help aid learning?

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