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A high school library in a school district in Mentor, Ohio, was redesigned to fit the school’s vision for blended learning.
A high school library in a school district in Mentor, Ohio, was redesigned to fit the school’s vision for blended learning. Credit: Nichole Dobo

Phonological awareness is an essential part of oral language development. It includes identifying and using words and syllables. In an earlier opinion article for The Hechinger Report, I discussed how children with these skills have a much easier time in learning to read and spell.

Although these skills can be developed in preschool age children by simply reading books, teaching rhymes and singing songs, technology can also aid in their development.

That’s why I tell the parents and caregivers of children in my Mississippi kindergarten classes that instead of simply allowing children to spend screen time playing games without any educational value, they can access inexpensive — and even free — apps that will develop skills to lay the foundation for future reading success.

Related: What does online preschool look like in Mississippi?

One app that fits the bill is iSpy Phonics ($2.99). Children match sounds with letters using illustrations of everyday objects. Young learners become even more engaged when they have the opportunity to add their own voices and pictures. After looking around in the environment for things that begin with a particular letter, children can take a photo and say the name of the object to further reinforce the sound they have learned. This app truly takes the familiar game of “I Spy” to the next level.

“I tell the parents and caregivers of children in my Mississippi kindergarten classes that instead of simply allowing children to spend screen time playing games without any educational value, they can access inexpensive — and even free — apps that will develop skills to lay the foundation for future reading success. “

Because it features a Baby Mode that will automatically turn the pages, even toddlers can use Interactive Alphabet ABC’s. ($2.99) Older children can interact with familiar objects that begin with each letter on a flashcard. Simply touching the screen will allow them to do things like take a bite from an apple or feed olives to an ogre. Next, they can sing alphabet songs, type words, or trace uppercase and lowercase letters. This app can also be customized when children take pictures of family members or things in their home and add them to the sound library. With colorful artwork and playful animation this app will be a fast favorite for any child.

First Words Deluxe ($4.99) gives children age 5 and under the opportunity to build words in kid-friendly categories like animals, colors, shapes and vehicles. It can even be customized to include other languages such as Spanish, French, German and Japanese. Parents can choose levels of difficulty to match their child’s abilities. It makes combining sounds to spell words fun and easy.

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In “The Importance of Digital Storytelling for Children,” the author, Lucy Gill, says she understands how some parents could be concerned about excessive screen-time for young children. She admits that encouraging children to communicate with technology rather than in person could have negative consequences; however, she supports the use of digital storytelling because of the opportunities it offers to children.

Because this simply involves using something digital when telling a story, it brings together language and literacy skills while building a child’s confidence and creativity. It also mirrors the traditional writing process because children are given the chance to brainstorm, create, edit, publish and reflect.

To give children some very basic storytelling experience, parents and caregivers can use a free app called ChatterPix Kids. Because it makes anything talk, kids simply need to take pictures, draw a digital line to make a mouth, then record their voices. Filters and stickers make this very similar to snapchat but it’s safe for children to use. It provides them with a fun and easy way to express their ideas and share them with others.

Related: Mississippi Learning: Five programs you should know about in Mississippi’s ESSA plan

Some other free digital storytelling apps I discovered recently provide young children with opportunities to retell familiar stories or make up stories of their own.

The first is called Princess Fairy Tale Maker. It allows users to create fairy tales with princesses, fairies, animals and more then decorate with sparkles and glitter. The oral language skills come into play when the child narrates the story using the self-record feature. Children will be proud to share their stories with family members and friends and will be encouraged when they feel their voices are being heard.

The same developer made a similar app called Superhero Comic Book Maker which features comic book scenes, monsters and superheroes. Text and sound effects can be added to make the stories come alive. Children can even drag and drop multiple scenes to create their own comic strip.

These digital projects could be used by parents, caregivers or teachers as an alternate form of assessment.

After reading a story aloud, the child could be asked to add characters or a setting from their favorite part using the apps to demonstrate understanding of what was read. I think most students would welcome the chance to show what they have learned in a new and different way.

Since many of our children will have careers that require them to be competent with a wide variety of computer skills we should take advantage of opportunities to use technology in a positive way.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Devin Walsh is a kindergarten to first-grade “looping” teacher at Oak Grove Primary School in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She recently completed a biennial loop with a group of first graders and joins a group of incoming kindergarteners this fall, which also marks her 18th year of teaching.

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Letters to the Editor

2 Letters

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  1. Ms. Walsh is correct regarding the development of reading skills,such as phonological awareness. There is much more involved in the case of children who begin school with total illiteracy. This is an area that is not addressed in teacher training. I have had middle school classes of immigrant children where 1/4 of the class had never been to school. The alphabet is seen as scribbles on paper. Many children need to begin at an even lower level. Over 35% of the 48 million-plus children in our schools are from Latino and black communities. Over half will drop out of school, and many others will leave school functionally illiterate. This has continued for decades, with little or no progress. We are missing something.
    Ms Walsh states that the proper skills can be developed before school by reading books. Many children can’t read, and we don’t prepare them to start reading. M<any "struggling readers" that we identify in later years are actually "non-readers".
    I have been studying this phenomenon for many years, teaching and conducting research in disadvantaged schools, and conducting graduate teacher training
    classes at several universities. I would be happy to share research information with MS Walsh. I am sending a document to the editor via USPS for added information.
    Patrick Herrera

  2. While we can “take advantage of the opportunity to use technology in a positive way” we must be forewarned about the negative effects of imbalanced instructional use. Overusing technology does not support communication and collaboration among peers nor does it give teachers the ability to own his/her craft and build relationships with students.

    There is a value in engaging students in activities that require verbal discourse and group communication and listening skills but all too often, little faces are buried into tablets, I pads, and computer screens focusing on visual learning. A Kindergarten classroom should not be overtaken by muffled electronic sounds. Let’s not forget about the Common Core Speaking and Listening standards that are a critical component of a child’s whole development. Being able to participate in collaborative conversations with diverse partners allows students to develop ideas, analyze ideas, and synthesize ideas. When students are stuck on technological devices, they do not have the ability to engage in peer collaboration and discourse. Students then take the passive role of listening and performing rather than explaining.

    A balanced instructional situation needs to exist for technology not to overcome the role and responsibilities of the teacher. We cannot rely on apps to develop a foundation for reading. Nor can we rely on technology apps or websites to build positive relationships with each user. Building positive relationships and knowing your students are key fundamental responsibilities teachers possess that allow them to plan, assess, and reflect on teaching practices and priorities for each individual student. Using apps and websites for the bulk of learning, takes too much teacher-student engagement time away and shifts the responsibility from the teacher to the technological device or app. Teachers then become proctors rather than instructors.

    Moreover, it is not enough to claim that apps are good because they are inexpensive and are relatively easy to access. We must also consider how often they are used and when they are used during the roll out of a lesson. Apps should not take the place of direct instruction or be considered for use during guided practice. If apps are used during as enrichment activities, teachers can continue their jobs of exporting new learning. If the goal is to maximize meaningful peer-peer discourse and develop teacher-student relationships, more consideration must be given to skill development and oral participation that will allow students to develop the skills that the Speaking and Listening standards suggest.

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