‘Tablets and e-readers represent a revolution in learning: we just need to make sure the most deprived children can benefit’

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds get the most out of new technology, writes one ed tech businessman

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iPads, e-readers and other tablet computers frequently top polls of children’s most wanted presents at Christmas. Inevitably, this trend worries traditionalists concerned about the decline of the physical book, and the impact these technologies have on children’s education. However, there is now significant evidence to suggest that many children – particularly reluctant readers – develop literacy skills more quickly through the use of tablets, e-readers and education technology.   

The National Literacy Trust last week published the findings of a study into children’s reading habits and educational attainment. It found that, far from being a frivolous way to pass the time, e-books increases children’s enjoyment of reading across all social groups, genders and ages. More significantly, boys and children from less well-off backgrounds prefer reading using technology like e-readers and display more educational progress as a result.

The positive effect of e-readers echoes the findings of other research into the role of education technology, such as online quizzes of books read electronically or in print, to both motivate and engage reluctant readers.  Sometimes termed the "gamification" of learning, it makes the essential practice element of reading development more enjoyable.

The popularity of reading technology among children has wider educational benefits as it enables children to take their learning home with them. A recent study by the University of Hull found that children who take technology home with them are more likely to put extra effort into their learning. It also found that children are more willing to finish their work at home when using technology. Using education technology, enthused young readers can log into a reading portal at home and continue to develop literacy skills outside of school hours. As this is not "homework" in the classic sense, it will have not add to their stress levels, and formative quizzes can add to enjoyment levels.

These programmes can be linked to teachers’ devices to help them understand who in their class is making progress and who needs a bit of extra support. At Renaissance Learning we find that reading regularly is the best way to ensure that children hone their reading skills and develop a life-long love of the written word. However, given the strains on teacher workloads, it is understandable that this cannot always be fitted into the school day. Therefore, tablets, e-readers and education technology can be used to build regular teacher-supported reading into children’s daily routines.

However, it is important to remember that reading books which are either too easy or too difficult for a child’s developmental stage can hinder the development of literacy skills, and discourage a child from reading regularly in the long term. Therefore, the use of computer-adaptive assessment technology can help solve this challenge by accurately identifying a child’s a reading age and recommending books of sufficient difficulty that they will optimise their reading growth. With this in mind, e-books’ generic covers can avoid the problem of less advanced children feeling embarrassed about reading at a lower level than their friends.

Given the benefits of education technology, it is sadly ironic that children in receipt of free school meals show a clear preference for reading using a tablet or e-reader and yet are less likely to be able to afford access to the technology when compared with their more affluent peers. Schools can have an important role to play here in ensuring that children who are unable to make the most of these technological advancements are not left behind. As a 2009 study by Programme for International Student Assessment revealed, “on average, students who read daily for enjoyment score the equivalent of one-and-a-half-years of schooling better than those who do not” – so anything that encourages struggling readers and those from less affluent backgrounds to read for pleasure should be encouraged whenever possible.

For now, printed books are a cheaper option for schools and enthusiasm for them remains strong (one survey found that 62 per cent of youngsters still prefer reading books). But, as the NLT’s research shows, e-books and education technology are useful tools for engaging boys and other reluctant readers. As a sector, we need to respond by weighing up these benefits and continue to work on perfecting a model in which technology and the written word can merge to raise literacy levels for all children regardless of background.

Dirk Foch is managing director of Renaissance Learning UK

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