Tap, Click, Read: An Interview with Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine (Part Two)

Frequently, media and reading are pit against each other in what amounts to a zero-sum game. Time spent doing one comes at the expense of the other. Yet, you are suggesting that these do not have to be seen as opposing forces. How might they best work together? You are right--the debate between technophiles and technophobes is driving us down the wrong road. In our book we talk about the need to find a ‘third way,’ that is using media and technology in the service of early literacy development. We call this concept readia. Let us explain.

In developing the thesis for our book, we had an abiding worry that our thinking about early literacy was locked in a time warp. While the science behind early reading development has never been stronger, our capacity to make progress has been constrained, we fear, by a large elephant in the room—the ubiquitous force represented by multiple forms of media in almost every young child’s life. We wondered: might that force be tapped in a more balanced and purposeful way? But we also knew that without pushing for better quality, and more access to diverse learning environments for low-income families, we might be deepening, not closing existing divides.

Just last week, early literacy activists may have gotten an unexpected ally in crafting a modern response: the American Academy of Pediatrics announced changes to its recommendations on “screen time.” For years the Academy has been telling parents to refrain from or sharply limit use of screen media. The new guidance takes a more realistic approach, acknowledging that even young children are using tablets and other technology every day, and that parents and teachers should use new tools more intentionally and collaboratively.

This is a moment perhaps where the important connections between media and reading can be brought to light among educators,’ parents, and in the public’s imagination. If guidance from professionals is more nuanced and evidence-based, we think it’s possible to escape the polarized debates between technology as harmful (it’s nothing more than distractor or electronic babysitter!) and technology as savior (apps will somehow fix everything). Our book documents research and innovations on the ground that are pointing to a third way. In short, let’s maintain a human-centric approach to early literacy by empowering and mentoring parents and educators to see their role as primary. But let’s also see technology as a powerful complement.

Our key takeaway: today’s toddlers -- the class of 2030 -- will still need to be able to read in the traditional sense. But they will also need a new blend of skills-- to speak, listen, write, be able to discern an author’s motivation, and to look for evidence in books to inform their opinions. The new blend is something we refer to as “readia” -- media in service of reading, and reading conducted via media of all kinds.

I have heard many parents and even some educators argue that we should keep digital and other media out of schools, that children get too much exposure to this beyond the school day, and that school time should be a time of quiet contemplation such as that traditionally associated with book culture. How would you respond to that argument?

First of all we do not advocate that very young children are left in front of a screen or that ambient use --”always on” media--is effective to promote the rich literacy skills that a developing child needs to get ready for a life of learning.

But keeping digital media out of school is a mistake. The argument works if you are a tech entrepreneur or highly skilled in scaffolding media and tech usage at home because you have the time to do so as a parent. But for a child who is growing up with limited means and parents who might be working 2 or 3 jobs, we need to create normative use of technology beginning in the preschool years. There is no reason at all that children cannot have both quiet and reflective time and be adept in the use of the modern technologies that can be a great ally in personalizing and globalizing their learning possibilities!

We should not be surprised that the Joan Ganz Cooney Center is deeply invested in understanding how children learn to read in a digital age given how much Sesame Street contributed to fostering a deeper understanding of how children might learn to read during the television era. So, what lessons from Sesame Street carry over into this new context and in what ways might we need to rethink that model for the age of networked, mobile, and interactive media?

The book explores the rich history of educational media, and imagines a new, more highly networked and mobile form of public media as a national asset that could be better positioned to connect home and school The origins of Sesame Street and other public media pioneers are the basis--in many respects-- to understanding the impact of new technologies on young children. The book offers an analysis of the role that ‘joint media engagement’ (where adults and children learn from media together), might play if we were to intentionally design in-school and out-of-school literacy programs for such interchange.

Let us illustrate. Many of our peers (and we are of slightly different generations!) would sit together watching Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as “co-viewers” when their kids were preschoolers. The music or sketch comedy or wholesome life lessons appealed to parents who saw the benefits of engaging their children to “learn beyond the tube.” Research in the 70’s and 80’s showed that parents would often use the teachable moments and displayable skills they were co-viewing to later ask kids to point out the letters on a Stop sign or say numbers like ‘The Count would.”

Today’s kids and parents are still co-viewing, but our research indicates that there is less ‘intentional viewing’ of educational media: parents and kids are more likely to be watching telenovelas or American Idol together. But the ubiquity and mobility of interactive digital media make it possible to expand the reach of ‘learning together’ moments in a new way. For example, rather than constructing the “family hour of coviewing” that often took place in the 60’s and 70’s, today’s parents who understand the benefits of blending literacy and media experiences will spend ten-fifteen minutes in shorter bursts of activity scaffolding and guiding their kids learning in different settings--in the car or on a bus, at the grocery store, after a park or museum visit, to make a new discovery!

Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project in the Education Policy Program at New America. She leads teams of writers and analysts to tell stories, examine policies and generate ideas for new approaches to help disadvantaged students succeed. Prior to her work at New America, Lisa worked as a staff writer at The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She has also contributed to several national publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Slate, and USA TODAY, and she is the author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child (Basic Books, 2012). She won a 2012 gold Eddie magazine award for a School Library Journal article on e-books and has served on several national advisory committees on early education, including the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on the Science of Children Birth To Age 8.

Michael H. Levine, PhD, is the founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. The Center conducts research, builds multi-sector alliances, and catalyzes industry and policy reforms needed to advance high quality media experiences for vulnerable children. Levine serves on the senior team at Sesame Workshop where he focuses on educational initiatives and philanthropic partnerships for the global nonprofit. Prior to joining the Center, Levine was Vice President for Asia Society, managing interactive media and educational initiatives to promote knowledge and understanding of other world regions and cultures. Michael previously oversaw Carnegie Corporation of New York’s groundbreaking work in early childhood development and educational media, and was a senior advisor to the New York City Schools Chancellor, where he directed dropout prevention and afterschool programs.