Image: New America
Image: New America


It’s too late to take technology away from young children. They’re already pros at using cell phones and tablets. So instead of asking if technology should be used in early education, a report from the national think tank New America looks at how best to use technology to promote early literacy.

Children do still need human interactions. Positive relationships with adults help them develop strong language and learning skills. However: “Digital tools can be used to help support these positive interactions,” according to New America’s recent report, “Integrating Technology in Early Literacy: A Snapshot of Community Innovation in Family Engagement.”

“Programs across the country are beginning to use technology to engage families,” the report’s author, Shayna Cook, told us in an email. “Over the past year and a half, we analyzed how early learning and family engagement programs have begun to experiment with innovative tools to reach families and help young children develop early language and literacy skills.”

The report looks at 37 programs across the country and at their “evidence of impact,” meaning “the role a technological intervention has in improving child outcomes, adult behaviors in interacting with children, or teacher practice.”

An interactive map provides more details on each program, including Providence Talks, which “aims to close the 30 million word gap and ensure that every child in Providence enters kindergarten ready to learn. The city is working closely with Brown University to monitor and assess the efficacy and impact of the program.” (We blogged about this work here.)

Programs do face barriers, the report notes. Funding is limited. Program officials worry about families who don’t have access to technology. And:

“Two of the larger and more established programs, Thirty Million Words Initiative and Mind in the Making, reported that they needed to balance the pressure to scale up against the slowness of randomized controlled trials. TMW and MITM worried about expanding too rapidly because they wanted to maintain program effectiveness and yet reach a larger number of children and families.”

As programs move forward, Cook explained, they “should consider how to evaluate their impact prior to implementation of the technological tool.” In addition, “parent and caregiver input should help to spur continuous improvement.”

The report itself points to a number of large-scale policy implications, calling on policymakers to:

• encourage “digital equity” by ensuring that families have access to effective digital tools

• create “new channels for communication and resource-sharing between public libraries, public media outlets, school districts, and publicly-funded institutions that provide early learning opportunities”

• fund independent and peer-reviewed research to determine which programs work best, and

• map and track the innovations developed by states and communities

“Although integrated technological tools are becoming more prevalent in family engagement and early literacy programs,” the report concludes, “we are still in the early days. There are so many questions that researchers, policymakers, educators, and program developers will need to work through before innovative programs are implemented on a large scale.”