Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Northwestern scholar weighs in on apps, reading, and 'joint media engagement'

We’ve been hearing from app producers about the new publishing landscape and what these electronic devices mean for young readers. I thought in might be interesting to talk with a media specialist about the changes we’re seeing and how they might be affecting children. So I reached out to Ellen Wartella, a professor of communication studies, of psychology, and of human development at Northwestern University. She is a leading scholar on the role of media in children’s development and has a dozen books to her credit and well over 100 book chapters, research articles, and other writing on children and media.

Wartella currently is working on a five-year research project on the influence of digital media on very young children, funded by the National Science Foundation.

She sounded somewhat qualified to talk with, don’t you think?

DotMomming: As my three young children engage with books, the experiences of my fifth-grade daughter are already somewhat quaint when compared with my kindergartner. She learned to read in the traditional way with paper books and crayons on a page. My little guy, on the other hand, accesses digital books and enjoys "read to me" features available in popular picture book apps.

Can you address these experiences and whether one is more valuable than another in terms of early literacy?

Ellen Wartella: Well, it’s clear that we haven't a track record to know what differences there will be. But theoretically, we can draw on [pioneering psychologist] Vygotsky, who said that cognitive development is influenced by the tools children have available to them.

Some things are the same, of course: learning to decipher letters, learning to put letters together as words and words into sentences, having the social experiences with people and things to give a worldly context to communicative texts. Those developmental tasks are the same whatever the "tools" for reading. Whether those are more important than the affordances? I like to think so.

DM: I have heard some parents voice concern over their children learning to read on a Kindle or iPad instead of the way most of us grown-ups learned. What do you have to say to these moms and dads?

EW: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Their children still have to learn to read, so give them books as well as e-books. Reading is what is important.

DM: My kindergartener loves video games, and I can see that he's motivated to use his reading skills to master things in his games. However, I cannot justify gaming time when I think he should be
reading. What do you see as the merits to video gaming for young children?

EW: Well, it depends on the game. There is some evidence that gaming, depending on the intellectual tasks involved, can aid in children's mathematical reasoning and other cognitive activities. So I would be more concerned that my child do a variety of activities, and that he/she engage with content I approve of, whatever the media platform. Balance, reasonableness and appropriateness for the child's age is what's needed.

DM: The iPad has opened up the floodgates for digital books, and many parents let their children run free in this new and exciting land. But as with everything when kids are involved, parental monitoring is still crucial. If left alone, my rascally kindergartner jumps from the
book apps to the games. What's the best way parents can make good use of these new technologies?

EW:Joint media engagement” [meaning co-participation between a child and a parent, sibling, teacher, friend, etc. as a support for learning with digital media] is the new buzzword – where you can and when you can. And secondly, setting clearly defined rules about all media and content now, then working to ensure that your child follows them. Not an easy task. [Check out the Wall Street Journal on gaming with your kids.]

DM: Screens are here to stay, and this generation of new readers are true digital natives. Can you talk about the merits of having technology savvy kids?

EW: Well, for one, they are partaking in a dress rehearsal for the adult professional world, which is immersed in technology. Clearly, technology in work, home, and school is here to stay. Children who have technology experiences early may (and I say may because it is still only a hypothesis and not one tested) may be better prepared for that world. Clearly, the whole argument about the digital divide between rich and poor children and their access to technology assumes that being connected is better for a child than not having access or being connected.

DM: We're screen friendly in our house, but I am wary of it encroaching on free play time. So I set aside time for my kids to sit down with their toys or art supplies and tap their imaginations. Can you talk about the need for balance in our technology-intense world?

EW: Yes, balance is terribly important. And not just balance in terms of play materials but outdoor play, being with other kids and other adults. A well-rounded set of experiences is most important for healthy development.


  1. In the end, everything comes down to balance. Doesn't it? So easy to say.
    So hard to do.

  2. It's so tempting to let the devices babysit the child so the adults can get to their own work or recreation. I certainly used TV this way at times. Books used to be a great way to cuddle, to sit quietly together. I hope that won't be replaced by children alone with their screens. Nothing beats reading aloud for building loving relationships and love of reading. I read to my kids through junior high and even occasionally in high school. I'm looking forward to reading to grandchildren some day.

  3. Balance! I agree. Thanks for another great interview, Kate!

    Who LOVES reading to grandchildren.

  4. It's great to know I'm following expert advice by encouraging balance. I'm intrigued by the research project and can't wait to hear what she finds.