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Pre-school apps 'ignore how children learn'

Warning comes after the education secretary calls for apps to help develop children's communication and reading skills

Ipad pre-school

Warning comes after the education secretary calls for apps to help develop children's communication and reading skills

Popular apps designed to assist pre-schoolers in developing literacy and math skills fail to use techniques that help young children to learn, new research suggests.

The finding comes a week after education secretary Damian Hinds announced a competition to find free apps that can help young children to develop their communication and reading skills at home.

The paper from the University of California's school of education, published today, says more than half of all educational apps are aimed at pre-school children.

The academics set out to see whether key elements for teaching pre-school learners were present within these products.

They found that these pre-school apps “utilised many different teaching tactics, but many of the tactics were not optimal for how research reveals that preschool-aged children learn”.

They wrote: “For instance, the use of feedback that could explain failures and how to succeed in play was rarely used.

"This is unfortunate, as apps could be designed to deconstruct math and/or literacy material, helping young children to deeply understand the content, rather than just aim for finding the correct answers.”

The academics found that many apps only used feedback to praise users and/or prompt them to try again, despite research showing that this “may, in fact, undermine users’ intrinsic motivation”, and “is not a useful teaching tactic for allowing learners to deconstruct and reflect on the educational content”.

Apps 'don't use learning techniques'

The researchers also found that few apps used "modelling" to show children how to get correct answers, or avoid incorrect answers.

The paper says that young children can learn from “well-designed instruction and modelling”, but without this they are “left to learn the game’s goal solely through trial and error”.

The researchers add: “With too many distractors, young children are often unable to sustain attention and could lose focus of the goal(s) of the task. Modelling could be used to clearly show a child the steps needed to correctly complete tasks.”

However, the researchers did find that most apps used verbal prompts – and minimised textual prompts – “which can support an audience of emerging readers”.

They added that touchscreen interactions commonly used by the apps were rarely complex, and were therefore suitable for pre-schoolers who are developing fine motor skills.

The academics conclude: “From our review of a small portion of this market, it does not appear that popular literacy and math apps for pre-schoolers are employing many of the techniques that we know help young children learn.”

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