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Can Tech Help Preschoolers Catch Up to Their Peers?

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We hear a lot about the promise of technology closing the achievement gap, but few studies have definitively shown this to be true. In this article in Spotlight on Digital Media & Learning by Sara Jackon, a recent study by the Center for Children and Technology delves into how digital media can make an impact on the preschool set.

By Sara Jackson

“We have some children who can operate a computer, enjoy reading books and have an extensive vocabulary,” said Rosalie Moran, curriculum director for two Head Start centers based in Harlem and the Bronx. “And we have others who have never been around other children before and need a lot of help with the social emotional skills.”

Complicating classroom education further, some of the children speak limited or no English; some have special needs, including language or learning delays.

As a group, preschoolers from low-income families are often behind on fundamental literacy skills. Studies show these children arrive for their first day of kindergarten with less emergent literacy skills than children from higher-income families.


Several years ago, four of Moran’s classrooms participated in an evaluation of how well video and interactive games produced as part of PBS’s Ready to Learn initiative could teach early literacy skills to children from low-income families.

The randomized control study of 398 children from 80 preschool classrooms, found that when coupled with professional development, a media-rich curriculum could improve early literacy skills. The 4- and 5-year-olds from low-income families who had been taught with the media curriculum showed increases in letter recognition, sounds associated with letters, and understanding basic concepts about stories and print.

“The reason it worked is that we had at our disposal high-quality media content,” said Shelley Pasnik, director of the Center for Children and Technology at the Education Development Center in New York City and an author of the study. “We placed an emphasis on high quality media and professional development for educators.”

The curriculum included intensive professional development and teacher-led activities with video and interactive games from the PBS television shows “Super Why!,” “Between the Lions” and “Sesame Street.”

Through training and coaching visits to the classroom, the teachers were given instruction on how and when to stop the videos and guide children’s learning.

“What was different with this study,” Moran told Spotlight, “was that the teacher was actually viewing the episode with the children and interacting with the children, stopping to ask questions, pausing in certain places.”

Moran said teachers were very enthusiastic about the curriculum and the support they received. Several of the participants have continued to use it in their classrooms after the study’s conclusion.

Pasnik said that the kids who had the most to learn made the greatest gains: “Those kids in the bottom fifth who knew the fewest numbers of letters, ended up learning the most letters.”

She points out that these results are particularly significant because literacy curricula doesn’t have a great success rate. A recent U.S. Department of Education review of experimental studies of literacy curricula found only two that had significant positive effects.

The latest round in PBS’s Ready to Learn Television grant competition awarded funding to support “transmedia storytelling” for children age 2 to 8, with the goal of producing stories that children can watch and interact with across multiple forms of media – including TV, websites, online games and mobile apps.

Pasnik says she sees a lot of learning potential in these newer technologies. Tablet computers for example, offer repetition, portability and the possibility of learning with gestural movements, all of which hold promise for preschool students.

She cautions that many of the apps being developed today place too much emphasis on academic skills and not enough emphasis on making things, discovering, sharing and turn taking.

“We do a disservice to young children in attending to a very rigid and narrow sense of math and literacy and not really paying attention to the developmental needs of this age group,” said Pasnik.

“The uptake of adoption here is far in advance of the research. But that’s not to say that we can’t be really thoughtful about what we do know about children’s development.”

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