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Can technology help develop children's literacy skills?

Up until recently, I did not have much interest in technology. However, I have been aware for some time that I’ve been burying my head in the sand and a couple of things have happened over the past month which have made me realise that, professionally, it is not a wise stance to take. 

Do you find it difficult to concentrate and retain information when reading from a screen? I have put my own struggles with technology down to my age, but a few weeks ago I decided to find out if there was a better explanation.  A search of the internet revealed an interesting article on paper versus screens (see reference 1) which looks at some of the theory behind this phenomenon.

 Reading from poor quality screens and the resulting increased mental effort is only one explanation.  The tactile experience of reading from a book helps us to create a mental map of the whole book or document enabling us to understand and remember what we have read.

 Using a screen, e-reader or tablet means we scroll through a vast amount of text or tap on one page at a time, making it difficult to locate where we are in the whole body of the document, thus affecting our comprehension and recall.  It is gratifying to know that it may not just be my age after all.

Reading the article, watching the video clip (see reference 2) linked to it and subsequently attending some training on e-safety made me appreciate that I needed to take my head from the sand and start thinking about children and digital media.  

I decided to take a look at what research was saying about digital media as an aid to helping children to read.  We already know that sharing books with children from the earliest opportunity not only sparks an interest in reading, but also introduces language and literacy skills essential for later reading.  We also know that children are born with an innate ability to acquire language but that the circuits in the brain required for reading need to be developed.   

At this point I had many questions. Does reading using an electronic device increase or decrease engagement and understanding? Do animated pictures and hyperlinks distract and break concentration, by tapping rather than turning a page do children still develop the sense of beginning, middle and end? If raised on reading from digital devices, will children experience the same issues that adults sometimes do?

An internet search revealed there is very little research available which answers these questions. One American study (see reference 3) compares the level of child comprehension of, and engagement with, the story on paper and on digital devices.  It found that children were more engaged by e-books rather than by the printed version which may have benefits for those not so keen on reading.  

In fact, an earlier National Literacy Trust report did suggest that using technology might make reading more enticing for boys, thus narrowing the gap between girls’ and boys’ performance.  However, the study also found that when using e-books, the interaction between parents and children was more focused away from the story and text. This not only affected the children’s recall but also limited their literacy building skills. 

We do know that the connection between brain cells can be reinforced (hardwired) through regular exposure to certain experiences.  If these experiences include reading on digital devices perhaps children’s brains will literally be hardwired differently from our own, meaning children may not experience the same difficulties that we face as adults who did grow up with advanced digital technology.

 However, another American study (see reference 4) does indicate that there is currently not enough evidence based research to indicate that existing apps and programmes do actually improve literacy skills, not to mention the digital divide that exists between how certain groups of adults make use of technology with children. It is also important to consider e-safety.

My advice would be that if you are using technology with children, make sure you have carefully thought through your e-safety policy.  PACEY’s Practice Guide (see reference 5) gives you plenty of good advice and signposts you to useful resources.

Technology is here to stay and as children’s knowledge of technology continues to expand, we need to consider its impact.  It seems clear there is still much research to do on the effect of digital media on a child’s long-term reading ability, and there are indications that the interactions between an adult and child still plays a key role in their development.  As both “digital immigrants” and early years practitioners, we need to keep up to date with the latest thinking on the use of technology with our children so that we can reflect it in our practice.  

  • Do you think using technology with very young children is advisable? 
  • Do you use technology as a reading tool now? If so, how useful is it? 
  • Can you see a future without children’s books in paper form?

It would be interesting to hear what other childcare professionals think.







Carol has worked for PACEY for the last 14 years. Coming from a teaching and pre-school background, she worked first as a Network Coordinator. Carol's current role is Service Manager for the PACEY Kent project which involves planning and coordinating the delivery of childminding services for the local authority.

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