The Digital World of Young Children: Impact on Emergent Literacy

posted by / Tuesday, 27 January 2015 / Published in Latest posts, POLICY PAPERS

At almost any opportunity, three-, four-, and five-year old children will spontaneously engage in emergent literacy activities. In today’s world they have multiple opportunities to observe, explore, play with, and learn from digital media—television, DVDs, MP3s, Touch/iPhones, computers, video games, cell phones, smart toys, and the like (Critcher, 2008; Drotner & Livingston 2008; Hasebrink, Livingstone, Haddon, & Olafsson, 2009; Linebarger & Piotrowski, 2009). These learning opportunities come at a particularly critical period in their development. Their brains are remarkably supple as neurons make and reinforce connections with almost every experience. This is a time of discovery and exploration during which they are developing a natural sense of wonder and joy about their world, as well as a time when their emergent literacy skills are beginning to develop based on their experiences and neural circuitry.

Until recently, the surge in young children’s digital-media based learning opportunities has drawn scant attention. That situation is now changing (Glaubke, 2007; Lemish, 2008; Weigel, James, & Gardner, 2009; for exception, see Lankshear & Knobel, 2003). The Nielsen Company in the U.S. now gathers data that measures digital media use by children from two to five years of age (who spend 32 hours a week in front of a videogame, TV, DVD, DVR, or VCR screen; McDonough, 2009). In the last year, a comprehensive governmental review from the United Kingdom and at least four separate volumes have focused on digital media and children, with one focused solely on literacy (Byron Review, 2008; Calvert & Wilson, 2008; Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear & Leu, 2008; Drotner & Livingston, 2008; Willoughby & Wood, 2008). Despite this interest, however, it is difficult to gauge what is actually happening because the little that is known about the effects of digital media on emergent literacy skills development comes from educational television and computer studies, as well as from a few studies of other media and surveys (e.g., U.S., Early Childhood Longitudinal Study; The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care; National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey). This lack of empirical research has been noted, for example, by McPake, Stephen, and Plowman (2007), who found “little research into early technology experiences of children aged three to five, [and] how these experiences might relate to emerging literacies, or the implications for subsequent development” (p. 4; see also Anderson & Hansen, 2009).

While almost any exposure to people and language presents a potential emergent literacy learning opportunity, these opportunities can exist through “intentional” activities such as educational television (e.g., Sesame Street) or perhaps more commonly through “non-intentional” activities that have no expressed learning objectives or curriculum. Young children may simply be watching, listening, and talking to others who are using digital media like Pokémon or cell phones. These less-than-classical learning opportunities exist because adolescents and adults are now using a variety of digital media for communication and entertainment and because young children are inextricably intertwined in those activities (Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2001; Byron Review, 2008; Druin, 2009; Guernsey, 2007; Marsh, 2004; Marsh & Millard, 2000; Marsh, Brooks, Hughes, Ritchie, Roberts, & Wright, 2005; McPake, Stephen & Plowman, 2007; Pahl & Roswell, 2006; Palfrey & Gasser, 2008; Shuler, 2007; 2009; Specht, 2009; Stephen, McPake, Plowman, & Berch-Heyman, 2008).


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