Featured in EdSurge article published by Jenny Abamu
Some people will testify that they learned new languages fluently simply by sitting in front of a screen and streaming. One person on a Duolingo forum noted after six months of watching Turkish soap operas that she could conversationally speak the language. According to new research coming out of New York University, that may be a possibility for preschoolers.
There are so many programs out there that are saying they are educational for kids—like us, buy us or watch us because we are educational. But what does educational really mean?
- Kevin Wong, an adjunct instructor from NYU
Children under eight-years-old view content on mobile devices for an average of 48 minutes per day, according to a recent survey by Common Sense Media. Luckily, researchers also found an increase in the amount of quality content available for preschoolers to view—meaning kids have more options to build literacy skills while streaming.
In a recently-published paper called, “Learning Vocabulary From Educational Media: The Role of Pedagogical Supports for Low-income Preschoolers,” Kevin Wong, an adjunct instructor from NYU, identified existing educational media accessible to low-income preschoolers. Then his team went deeper to learn what teaching strategies built within content were most effective for literacy development.
“If the quantity of media consumption is not going down, then our goal is to see what the quality [of media consumed by preschoolers] looks like,” explains Wong. “There are so many programs out there that are saying they are educational for kids—like us, buy us or watch us because we are educational. But what does educational really mean?”
Researching Smartphone Content
To run the analysis, Wong’s team reviewed 4,600 pieces of media that could be accessed through tablets or mobile devices—noting that many low-income families often have at least one smartphone at home. Much of the media his team reviewed came from familiar household names and included episodes of popular children’s shows like Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer.
The team then ran random samples of the content to learn how many new vocabulary words viewers were exposed to and how the show aimed to teach children those terms through character dialogue. While watching the shows on places Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime they took notes of the language and teaching styles. Overall, 66 percent of media that was labeled as educational taught students new vocabulary words, an increase from other studies in the past.
Wong says there are some caveats to the study’s finding. “As we look more deeply into those words, we noticed that 98 percent of them are nouns, which is helpful, but the kids need to be learning all parts of speech. They need verbs; they need adjectives. And if you think about videos, they are a very appropriate way of teaching verbs.”
In addition to the lack of diversity within the vocabulary being taught, Wong’s team also found that many of the words were too simple for the target age group—meaning students wouldn’t necessarily be prepared for first-grade or kindergarten just by streaming videos.
“The quality of the words that they are learning is a missed opportunity,” Wong explains. “It could be harder, more varied and consistent. But it's kind of a digital wild west.”
Elmo or My Teacher
To examine how the vocabulary words were taught Wong’s team looked at the differences between the way an educator in a classroom may teach new words and how characters such as Elmo taught on screens.
“If a teacher points to something and provides visual support, does Elmo also point to something and provide visual support?” explains Wong. “That's the kind of instructional approaches that we're looking at on screen.”
Working with 3 to 5-year-old preschoolers from headstart programs in New York City, the team measured what cues the children responded using vocabulary tests and eye-tracking technology. The technology looks like a computer screen but has infrared diodes underneath that catch the reflections off of the retinas in children’s eyes.
With the eye trackers, researchers found that kids were paying more attention to the whole screen when Elmo was talking about the definition. But when Elmo directed their attention to a specific word by saying things like, “hey, look at this,” then students were more likely to look and learn the new word.
Yet, this language acquisition also varied depending on the child’s level of English proficiency. Children with stronger language proficiency skills were more likely to learn from the shows which could pose a problem for low-income families who rely on such media but don’t speak English as a first language.
Wong notes that his team is focused on children from low-income communities because they often don’t have the same resources to learn outside of schools as other wealthier families. Many parents working multiple jobs may be too tired to read to children before bed or may not be able to afford additional tutoring. Giving low-income children access to quality digital media has the potential to close some out-of-school educational gaps that they may experience.
“Within the current system,” Wong asks, “can media really help bridge that gap so students come to school on a level playing field knowing the same words that other kids might know?”