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Technology can play a positive role in young children’s literacy development. Preschool children with more access to tablets are found to have better emergent literacy skills than children with less access to tablets (Neumann, 2014). Children’s use of writing apps on touch screen devices has a positive association with their print knowledge and phonological awareness (Neumann, 2016; Neumann & Neumann, 2015). In addition, studies have found no difference in literacy outcomes between children reading electronic books versus traditional print books (Bus, Takacs & Kegel, 2015; Takacs, Swart & Bus, 2014). Taken together, this research suggests that the introduction of technology at home could redefine the home literacy environment of young children.
However, the role of technology in the home literacy environment of low-income preschool children has not been widely explored. Although access to technology has increased among low-income families, how technology fits into the home literacy environment may be different from more affluent families. The home literacy environment in low-income families varies based on the frequency and quality of literacy-related activities. However, on average, low-income children experience fewer instances of literacy activities and have fewer books in the home in comparison to their more affluent peers (Coley, 2002). Therefore, we need to understand how technology is incorporated into low-income home literacy activities, and whether the children in these homes experience the same literacy benefits found in previous studies of more affluent families. Since most low-income families have access to technology, using technology for home literacy activities may help level the playing field in the emergent literacy skills needed for kindergarten.
The present study explored low-income preschool children’s everyday use of technology at home, specifically touch screen devices, and its relationship to their emergent literacy skills. Research participants were 50 children (20 girls, 30 boys) 3-5 years of age (M = 4.68 years; SD = .71 years, range = 3.1-5.71 years) from across Head Start centers in the Greater Boston area. Parents were asked to complete a questionnaire that asked about their child’s access to touch screen devices, their child’s frequency of touch screen device use, the kinds of touch screen devices (e.g. smartphone, e-reader, tablet) and the educational (literacy games, e-books, numbers app) and entertainment apps (game apps, video apps) their child used on the touch screen devices. Children were assessed on their print knowledge, vocabulary, and phonological awareness skills.
Only six percent of children in this study did not have access to touch screen devices at home. Children spent roughly three and half hours a week on touch screen devices— double the amount children spent being read to at home on average. No association was found between the frequency of tablet use and children’s literacy skills. Children who used tablets for educational purposes (e.g. literacy apps/games) performed better than children who did not use tablets for educational purposes (See Table 1). Results motivate further research to explore types of activities or apps children use on tablets and the features that are important for children’s literacy skills.