Although parents now have more options when it comes to apps that claim to help teach children how to read, the research on their effectiveness is lagging far behind. According to a report published by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, most of the apps reviewed don't deliver on their extravagant claims, with most focusing on basic skills and ignoring more complex knowledge that is required for children to achieve competency in reading.
Yet several groups are pioneering a different kind of approach to literacy that embraces technology by offering options to teachers and parents to make them more effective in assisting children who are just learning to read. A paper by the New America Foundation and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop calls for more people to embrace this kind of an approach, which is based less on marketing copy and more on insights offered by education and early childhood development experts.
"Parents are a child's first and most important teachers, and technology will never change that," says Ralph Smith, the managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. "But technology can help us connect with parents of young children, and it can help families promote early literacy skills. Many parents, though, need guidance in choosing the right technology and knowing how to use it."
Most widely available apps offer instruction only in letters, sounds and phonics, which is insufficient to gain mastery in literacy. Only 5% of apps offered on Apple's iTunes App Store also focused on vocabulary, a key element of reading comprehension. A recent report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that there was a definite link between vocabulary and reading comprehension skills, and data shows that vocabulary gaps between students from low-income families and those from middle-class or high-income homes exist.
In addition to looking at what is missing from the most popular learn-to-read apps, the report also offers a number of recommendations to parents, educators and policymakers who are looking for solutions for their children that will make a real difference in helping them become expert readers.
The report offers several strategies for policymakers and community leaders who can help parents and teachers "homestead" this digital Wild West, including conducting community audits to determine whether and which families have access to technology and media and how they use it; providing teachers with training on technology as a learning tool; creating physical places where parents and educators can come together to experiment with various media platforms to foster literacy; and emphasizing digital media's potential for learning and conversation between parents and children, not just for games that children play alone.