3 Truths and a Fib About Language and Literacy Apps for Children

3 Truths and a Fib About Language and Literacy Apps for Children

Raise the topic of young children and media use, and everyone has an opinion. From media teetotalers to evangelists, positions on either extreme of the spectrum can be quite fierce about the value—or dangers—of screen time

Despite the heated debates, data-driven guidelines for choosing quality educational products for young children are relatively scarce. Parents and educators need guidance to navigate what we have referred to as the “digital Wild West.”

As part of a unique investigation of the nature and potential of digital language and literacy resources, we conducted an analysis of nearly 200 language and literacy-focused apps for 0- to 8-year-old children in the Apple, Google Play, and Amazon app stores as well as lists of highly-rated or awarded apps from Children’s Technology Review, Common Sense Media, and Parents’ Choice Awards. Our goal was to better understand the mismatch between the information that parents and educators want and what they are finding in the app stores, and to find ways to help narrow this gap.

Today, we present a challenge based on a popular ice-breaker game: Can you spot the “fib” among the three “truths” in our findings? Three of the statements below are “true” insofar as they reflect findings in our analyses of children’s language and literacy apps, while the “fib” is counter to what we discovered.

  1. Language and literacy apps for kids make up a substantial proportion of popular educational apps.
  2. Developers often do not provide key information about the development of the educational content of their apps.
  3. In most cases, the only information directed at adults is geared towards getting them to download the app. Once you buy it, you’re on your own.
  4. There is considerable diversity in the kinds of activities within language and literacy apps available for children 0-8

1. Language and literacy apps for kids make up a substantial proportion of popular educational apps—TRUE

We found that parents and educators are likely to find a wealth of language- and literacy- focused apps for children: 34% of all Top 50 paid educational apps, 29% of Top 50 free educational apps, and 21% of expert-awarded apps had a language- and-literacy focus and were intended for children from 0-8.

Compare these findings to our 2012 market scan of the most popular educational apps, where only about 5% targeted literacy for young children, and it's clear that reading apps that are on the rise. Perhaps developers are responding to consumer demands: A 2014 national survey of parents conducted by the Cooney Center suggested that 73% of parents with 2- to 10-year-old children reported that their children learn “some” or “a lot” about reading and vocabulary from mobile applications.

2. Developers often do not provide key information about the development of the educational content of their apps—TRUE

We scoured app descriptions for what we consider key benchmarks of educational quality, including mentions of experts involved in development, underlying curricula, and research testing. All three qualities were fairly rare within app descriptions. Only 29% mentioned any kind of curriculum. For only 37% of apps could we find any information about the development team. Only a quarter mentioned an education or child development expert involved in development. When it comes to research, only 23% of descriptions referenced any studies, and less than 10% of that research involved testing children’s learning; the vast majority of research tested app usability and appeal.

It is certainly possible that more apps include these quality benchmarks but do not mention them in their descriptions. Still, we think that including more of these elements in app development and sharing them within descriptions would give parents and educators valuable information to guide their choices.

3. In most cases, the only information directed at adults is geared towards getting them to download the app. Once you buy it, you’re on your own—FALSE

While we think producers could do a better job of providing key information to consumers upfront, we actually found plenty of evidence that developers are interested in more than making the sale. For example, the vast majority (79%) contain some information directed to parents or educators within the apps themselves. Often this content describes instructions for using the app (40%) or privacy and security issues (38%). Some also provided feedback about children’s performance (17%), offered suggestions for how to enrich their family’s use of the app (17%), or gave more detailed information about the educational content specifically (14%).

4. There is considerable diversity in the types of activities within language and literacy apps available for children 0-8—TRUE

To be included in our sample, an app had to include at least one activity that was not a storybook. We assumed that any kind of reading—including e-books—benefits children’s learning and wanted to document other kinds of activities within popular apps. As shown in the figure below, games, puzzles, and quizzes are especially plentiful, present in 70% of our app sample. Also common were narrative formats, like storybooks or videos.

Notably, nearly 40% of apps in our sample contained activities so unique or rare that we could not create a specific category for them, and thus coded them as “other interactive activities.” Many also included interactive hotspots that move or make noise when touched, and the ability to input one’s own voice or images. Overall, we found a diverse and innovative array of language- and literacy-focused resources for young children.

Overall, these findings and others in our full report (due this November) show that producers and developers are increasingly creating apps focused on children’s language and literacy development. The array of diverse and innovative apps for children is dizzying: many are promoted by app stores and lauded by expert review sites.

But while many apps provide valuable information to parents and educators, there is considerable room for improvement across the board. Particularly lacking is information on the very qualities that justify an app’s educational value, such as the expertise behind development, curricular or teaching philosophies guiding the educational content, and research confirming that an app teaches what it intended. The truth is that until producers and app stores abide to the underlying science of early learning, we are missing a critical opportunity to prepare our young children for a more literate future.

Michael H. Levine and Lisa Guernsey are co-authors of Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens. Sarah Vaala is a Senior Fellow at the Cooney Center

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