Tapping, Clicking, and Reading Through the Digital Wild West

In their new book, “Tap, Click, Read,” authors Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine ask "How will kids ever learn to read when technology is everywhere?" They find answers in some surprising places.

In their new book, “Tap, Click, Read,” authors Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine invent “Readialand.” In this mythical place, “human beings are in control of technology, not the other way around.” Families speaking an array of languages harness new tools to support their children’s learning and literacy development. And, importantly, in Readialand, these same adults put devices away when they are distracting. Product developers work alongside educators and families to create materials that foster language development and literacy.

But, alas, Readialand is still worlds away. As Guernsey and Levine point out, far too many American students will never become good readers. Despite many national and local efforts to strengthen reading skills, two-thirds of American children are not reading proficiently, and half of children from low-income families do not meet the low level of “basic” on readinClick-Tap-Read-Homeg tests. Meanwhile, new technology tools are either heralded as a silver bullet or rejected as a bane to reading and literacy.

Guernsey, who is director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project at New America, and Levine, who is the founding director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, wrote “Tap, Click, Read” to help parents and educators find a “third way”—one where media and technology support reading and literacy in ways that were never before possible.

But what does that “third way” really look like?

Throughout their book, and in accompanying videos, Guernsey and Levine highlight places where small glimpses of Readialand already exist. In rural Maine, for example, a program called Comienza en Casa (It Starts at Home) connects immigrant families with home visitors who show up with all sorts of learning materials, including toys, art supplies, and iPads loaded with apps and iBooks. The visitor leads learning sessions, in English or Spanish, giving parents new ideas for on- and off-screen learning activities, and some approaches that merge the two, like backyard scavenger hunts for colors that kids snap pictures of along the way.

Several thousand miles away, a long-running Houston program called PALS pairs up new mothers and home visitors who are trained in promoting responsive parenting. The parents and visitors watch videos of ways parents can interact with their babies, like labeling things and explaining the world around them. The home visitor then records mom playing and talking with her baby. Together, they play back the video and point out what the mother did that was effective, and how she can improve. Evaluation studies have shown mothers who receive PALS use significantly more “verbal scaffolding”—the kind of interaction that helps build early language skills—than a control group.

The programs highlighted in the book deploy learning technology in a judicious way. That approach conforms with the recent decision by the American Academy of Pediatrics to rethink its position that children under 2 years old should avoid all screen time. Instead the AAP says we need to provide advice to help families navigate their children’s digital media use, advice that compliments past work by NAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center.

“We need to get past the tired nagging of ‘no screen time’ and the overheated enthusiasm over apps as the holy grail of early education,” Guersney said in a recent NPR interview. “Instead, let’s take a more mindful approach and combine the power of parents, educators, and high-quality media (print and digital) to make literacy opportunities available to all kids and families, regardless of income.”

Published October 26, 2015