The effects of integrating digital technologies (e.g., computers and iPads) into preschool instruction are not well-researched and some scholars even find the issue controversial (e.g., Lindahl & Folkesson, 2012). While some educators have negative stances toward using technology in preschool classrooms (Cordes & Miller, 2000), others argue that using iPads can be an effective way of teaching literacy to preschool children because iPads foster student engagement and provide more interactive learning environments (Dobler, 2011; Hutchison, Beschomer, & Schmidt-Crawford, 2012; Hutchison & Woodward, 2014; Northrop & Killeen, 2013).
In spite of these debates, iPads are being increasingly used in many preschool classrooms in the United States. Furthermore, professional development has been shown to improve the effectiveness of integrating iPads into preschool literacy instruction (Lawless & Pellegrino, 2007). In this blog post, I share one of these positive experiences.
Context of the Professional Development
In the spring of 2013, I participated in a semester-long professional development for iPad integration in a preschool located in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Teachers in four preschool classrooms participated in this professional development. Some of the teachers had used iPads personally on a daily basis but had little experience using them to teach children. Each classroom was provided with four iPads.
Before the professional development sessions, teachers searched and downloaded several free apps by themselves. However, they were challenged by the large amount of educational apps and lack of time for investigation. They needed someone who could help them search for good educational apps and teach them how to integrate the apps effectively. A professional development team consisting of a literacy coach and a technical supporter was formed to address the teachers’ concerns.
Before Integration: Introducing a Set of Apps to Teachers
For the successful integration of iPads, teachers need to be knowledgeable about possible sets of educational apps and the affordances of each for preschool literacy instruction. To support this learning process, I searched for preschool-literacy iPad apps from Apple’s app store, educational websites, and blogs, and selected several to examine more closely.
After exploring and analyzing these selected apps, I created a summary table of the features and functions of each app (figure 1). Then, I selected a list of 32 apps and sorted them into seven categories: alphabet, handwriting, matching phonemes, vocabulary, comprehensive phonics, sentence, and storybook. To share information about these apps, I organized all of this information into a series of PowerPoint slides (see Figure 2 for the slide about vocabulary apps). As I introduced the 32 apps to the teachers, I explained the affordances and characteristics of the apps in each category. As part of this process, teachers found it helpful for me to demonstrate on a projector how to use each app.
During Integration: Observing Teachers’ Integrations of iPad Apps
Of course, introducing apps to teachers is not sufficient professional development for effective iPad integration. What is most important is considering how, when, and for whom the apps will be used. Before we were able to discuss how these apps might be integrated into their literacy curriculum, teachers needed time to explore how children at different levels of literacy development used these apps.
Based on the review of previous studies (e.g., Dobler, 2011; Hutchison, Beschomer, & Schmidt-Crawford, 2012; Hutchison & Woodward, 2014; Northrop & Killeen, 2013), we established three basic principles of the iPad integration for all classrooms. First, we created iPad rules for preschool children and reminded them to follow the rules (Figure 3). Second, teachers used a direct instruction method to teach students how to use each iPad app. Third, a gradual release of responsibility model (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983) was applied to guide classroom practices with the iPad.
For a month, teachers followed these principles and investigated the best ways that they could improve students’ literacy skills. Some teachers established a technology center in one corner of the classroom and other teachers set a regular time of learning with iPads in small groups.
While I observed four classrooms, I also played a role as a technical trouble-shooter. Whenever teachers or students had problems with using apps, I helped them solve the problems. All four classrooms were observed at least once a week and field notes were taken in each classroom.
After Integration: Discussing Effective Apps and Ways of Integration
After a month’s integration of iPad apps in each classroom, I met with the teachers and a literacy coach to discuss their successes or challenges using the iPad as part of their literacy instruction. Teachers shared their experience first. For one teacher, the most effective ways of using the iPad was “differentiated integration of apps.” The teacher used three iPads in a small group session. She paired two students who had similar literacy proficiencies. For example, a group of students played Little Writer app to match sound with each alphabet letter and to practice handwriting of upper- and lower-case alphabet letters. Two children in another group played Dora ABC vol.2 Rhyming app to improve their phonemic awareness.
One thing I noticed was that the teachers did not know how to modify and customize each app for literacy instruction. To solve this problem, I focused on some apps including customization features such as Little Speller and Sentence Maker, which were developed by grasshopperapps.com. One advantage of using these apps was that teachers could create more games with the letters, words, and sentences they taught in the class. I demonstrated how to customize each app and teachers also followed each step with their own iPads.
The Need for On-going Professional Development
At the focus group interview of these teachers, they reported increased competency on integrating iPad apps for literacy instruction. However, teachers still expressed the need for more professional development for storybook reading and writing instruction with the iPad.
Teachers and professionals in preschools should collaborate to implement the before, during, and after integration steps of professional development continuously. Throughout on-going professional development sessions, teachers may learn not only how to use provided apps by other experts but also how to identify high-quality information about educational apps for preschool literacy instruction.
TILE-SIG will host a special session on Sunday, May 11 at 3:00 p.m. at the International Reading Association 59th Annual Conference in New Orleans. The session includes the presentation of the 2014 Technology in Reading Research Award, "Changing the Landscape of Literacy Teacher Education: Innovations with Generative Technology" with keynote Dana Grisham (National University, TILE-SIG 2013 Reading Research Award Winner), and 18 roundtable discussions about research findings and practical classroom ideas. Visit http://www.iraconference.org to learn more about IRA 2014 or to register.
Cordes, C., & Miller, E. (2000). Fool’s gold: A critical look at computers in childhood. College Park, MA: Alliance for Childhood.
Dobler, E. (2011, December). Using iPads to promote literacy in the primary grades. Reading Today, 29, 18-19.
Hutchison, A., Beschorner, B., & Schmidt‐Crawford, D. (2012). Exploring the use of the iPad for literacy learning. The Reading Teacher, 66, 15-23.
Hutchison, A., & Woodward, L. (2014). A planning cycle for integrating digital technology into literacy instruction. The Reading Teacher, 67, 455-464.;
Lawless, K. A., & Pellegrino, J. W. (2007). Professional development in integrating technology into teaching and learning: Knowns, unknowns, and ways to pursue better questions and answers. Review of educational research, 77, 575-614.
Lindahl, M. G., & Folkesson, A. M. (2012). ICT in preschool: friend or foe? The significance of norms in a changing practice. International Journal of Early Years Education, 20, 422-436.
Northrop, L., & Killeen, E. (2013). A framework for using iPads to build early literacy skills. The Reading Teacher, 66, 531-537.
Pearson, P. D., & Gallagher, M. C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary educational psychology, 8, 317-344.
Sohee Park is a doctoral student specializing in Literacy Education in the School of Education at the University of Delaware, firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is part of a series from the International Reading Association's Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).