App Opens New Chapter in Childhood Literacy

The Obama administration’s partnership with publishers and nonprofits is letting low-income kids and teachers access thousands of ebooks for free. But books are only one piece of the early literacy puzzle.

Think back on your favorite children’s book. “The Rainbow Fish.” “Curious George.” “Green Eggs and Ham.” Reading is a critical part of childhood, but for too many low-income families, children’s books are an expense beyond reach.

That’s why last month the Obama administration announced that it is helping teachers, parents, and children download thousands of ebooks on smartphones or tablets for free. Teachers and librarians in more than 66,000 low-income Title I schools, families on military bases, and special education teachers can now access those books with the new Open eBooks app.

To obtain the books, teachers or librarians sign up online and receive codes for each of their students. Students and their parents take the codes, download the app onto a smartphone or tablet, and select what they want to read. In the first week after launching the app, over 1,000,000 codes were issued to educators, according to the White House.

In addition to partnering with 10 major publishers, including Random House and Penguin, the White House worked with other organizations to create the app, including the New York Public Library, the Digital Public Library of America, and a nonprofit called First Book, which sells deeply discounted books (around $2) to groups serving children. The initiative was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, while the publishers contributed the content.

Unlike the case when borrowing an ebook from a public library, children and families don’t have to wait until the item is available or somebody checks it back in. They can browse titles and download at will.

“As a former teacher in a Title I school, I know an app like Open eBooks would have been a game changer for my students,” Colin Rogister, a who helps to lead the administration’s ConnectED initiative, told EdSurge.

Opening the floodgates to thousands of free books is undeniably a bonus for advocates trying to boost early literacy. Research has found that kids from lower-income families have fewer books in their homes and often start school months or years behind their peers. Meanwhile, being read to and having books at home can be predictive of success in school. And one study found providing children with access to printed materials helped them read more frequently for longer periods and widened their vocabularies.

[pullquote] Media can help literacy, but only if teachers and parents use it intentionally and offer supervision. [/pullquote]

Books are only part of the equation. Despite national and local efforts to strengthen reading skills, two out of every three American children are not reading proficiently by fourth grade, and half of children from low-income families do not meet the low level of “basic” on reading tests. Meanwhile, technology (like the tablets and phones kids use to read ebooks) is often treated as a silver bullet or as harmful to children’s literacy.

In their recent book, “Tap, Click, Read,” Lisa Guernsey and Michael H. Levine describe how a third option is needed—one where media and technology support reading and literacy in ways that were never possible. They say media could help literacy, but only if teachers and parents use it intentionally and offer supervision. Examples include Skyping or FaceTiming with a grandparent, watching videos of new animals after a field trip to the zoo, or conducting iPad scavenger hunts where kids take pictures of the words they are learning.

Accessing thousands of ebooks for free is another emerging example of this. About 8 in 10 Americans under age 50 own a smartphone, meaning millions of parents and educators are a few clicks from finding a book on a topic that interests their child.

There are other barriers to using technology to enhance literacy. Ten percent of Americans who own a smartphone lack in-home broadband (which can make downloading faster), in large part because internet connections are too pricey. And for parents who are stressed or overworked, it may be difficult for reading to take priority.

Literacy, like learning as a whole, is a complicated concept. Even if Open eBooks is a single step in the right direction to democratizing books, it remains encouraging to see government and national partners making literacy a priority.

Published April 05, 2016