In 2013, Nelleke Belo, Susan McKenney, and Joke Voogt conducted a review to further understand research outcomes in the use of technology for early literacy acquisition in the kindergarten classroom. Drawing on four academic literature databases, the research team narrowed 13,070 initial hits to 46 articles that met their selection criteria. These articles, explicitly focused on technology as an independent variable, were aimed at kindergarten-age students, included early literacy development, and were published after 2001. Drawing on previous research affordances as well as gaps in the literature, the authors asked:
- What is the content and focus of studies on technology and ICT applications in relation to early literacy development?
- What kinds of evidence do these studies provide about the affordances of technology and ICT for fostering early literacy development?
The 46 articles were representative of studies of electronic storybooks (11), computer-based training programs (11), and technology-based curriculum supplements (11). The authors also found studies related to full curriculum (5), assistive technologies (4), and other media such as websites and television (4). Based on these studies, the authors suggest two overall findings.
- There is positive evidence of the role of technology in supporting early literacy acquisition for this age group.
- In a majority of the studies used in the analysis, there was a lack of attention paid to the role of the teacher. The specific study outcomes may be promising but they may also be more difficult to replicate without this information.
Review articles like the one offered by Belo et al. are critical to our field. Where specific studies lend insight into the use of particular technologies or methodologies, reviews like this offer researchers and practitioners a chance to step back and paint a picture of the field. The portrait represents successes and areas that need improvement. In addition to the two broad stated conclusions, there are at least two other important outcomes that can be gleaned from the analysis.
First, technologies have affordances and constraints making them more or less useful in different circumstances. The review provided evidence that electronic storybooks can lead to significant early literacy gains. However, there were also other technologies highlighted in this review that were successful in literacy acquisition. More importantly, electronic storybooks impacted literacy skills differently based on the interactivity they afforded and the number of student interactions offered.
This all sounds like common sense: you would not use an electronic storybook for every literacy goal and you would not assume all electronic storybooks work the same. However, there seems to be an innate desire, often verbalized by reporters, who attempt to glorify or villainize emerging tools and technologies. Technology can positively impact emergent literacy acquisition, however, it does not mean it always will. Some electronic storybooks used in certain ways can positively impact literacy skill development, however, it does not mean all e-books will work all the time, even if they demonstrate success in one environment.
Literacy researchers should be promoting a deeper understanding of the role of such technologies by asking a different type of question. Instead of wondering if technology can promote literacy acquisition or even if electronic storybooks work, it is more prudent to ask under what situations or circumstances will certain technologies work. The answer to “do electronic storybooks work?” is not yes or no—it’s sometimes, and under certain circumstances. Literacy practitioners should thus be cautious about interpreting results of research studies in terms of broad-sweeping claims. Instead of asking if it works, practitioners should push to understand when it could work or the conditions under which it works or fails to work.
Unfortunately, as the authors conclude, researchers seem to understand—and then forget—the importance of the teacher. Knowing how to teach and understanding literacy acquisition are both obviously different than knowing how to teach literacy. Arguably knowing how to teach literacy with technology is yet another set of skills. As such, it would be prudent to know more about the teacher involvement and requisite professional development of technology and literacy implementations. These were left out of many of the stated studies, reducing the ability of researchers and practitioners to further implement or confirm the outcomes.
What is striking about the 46 studies is that most of them seemed to be about technologies or experiences where children consumed media. That statement is not meant to be a definitive description of the 46 studies, there were obviously facets of many programs where children were producing artifacts of learning. Nor is it meant to be an indictment against consumable media, these are important in scaffolding learning.
It simply demonstrates a lack of published research on technologies and experiences rooted in student development and production for those age and date ranges. Compare this to the movement of production as literacy as evidenced by the coding movement or the notion that production can lead to literacy gains (e.g. see Jason Ohler’s resources about Digital Storytelling in the Classroom). Think about the “maker movement” (e.g. http://makerfaire.com/) identified through tools like 3D printers and Lego Mindstorms (http://mindstorms.lego.com).
In the end, such analyses help us evaluate our current literacy stances. Are we creating new technologies that mirror our pedagogical stances? Are technologies pushing our pedagogical strategies in intended and unintended ways? And/or are we utilizing the technologies outside of literacy to better inform our pedagogical needs in literacy acquisition and instruction?
Dr. Richard E. Ferdig is the Summit Professor of Learning Technologies and Professor of Instructional Technology at the Research Center for Educational Technology, Kent State University, 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).