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The Big Question: Are Today's Preschool "Digital Natives" Having Serious Adverse Effects On Learning To Read?



At the entrance of one of the international schools where I was doing morning duty, a seemingly ordinary day took an unexpected turn when a three-year-old toddler unleashed a monumental tantrum. With arms flailing and tears streaming, the child adamantly refused to budge, blocking the path to the school grounds. Desperate to quell the outburst, the parent resorted to a familiar strategy: handing over a smartphone in hopes of pacifying their distressed offspring.


As the device landed in the child's tiny hands, a remarkable transformation ensued. Like a spell had been cast, the tantrum dissipated into thin air, replaced by a tranquil calmness. The once-agitated toddler now sat serenely, utterly captivated by the glowing screen before them.

Witnessing this scene unfold was not an isolated incident for onlookers. The sight of parents yielding to the allure of video technology to appease their children had become all too familiar. Instead of asserting control over their child's behavior, it seemed that technology held sway, dictating the course of parental response.


In a world where screens wield such power over young minds, it begs the question: who is truly in control? As we ponder this, another pressing concern emerges: How will children's behavior in the classroom be affected, and how can teachers effectively teach the basic academic skills?

Let's delve into the profound effects of excessive screen time on children's cognitive, language, and social-emotional development. By examining these impacts, we can better understand the importance of balancing technology use with essential academic skills such as reading, writing, speaking, and listening.


Researchers from the National Library of Medicine, including Muppalla, Vuppalapati, Reddy, and Sreenivasulu, have indicated that children today, termed "digital natives," are born into a constantly evolving digital environment shaped by mobile media. Additionally, a study conducted by Radesky and Christakis revealed a significant shift in the age at which children regularly interact with media, decreasing from four years in age in 1970 to merely four months old in the contemporary era. The competition of screens offers fun, engaging, and stimulating instant gratification, in contrast to a human being who provides interpersonal connection, empathy, and a deeper understanding of emotions and complexities. Screens are more engaging than a book, produce overstimulation which leads to distractibility. As a result, the cognitive brains do not develop properly. This is not a good thing for preschool children when classroom teachers are primarily focusing in on fostering the social, emotional development and children's cognitive, language.


Research findings indicate that consistent exposure to reading and verbal interaction during the formative years of childhood correlates with expanded vocabulary and heightened literacy proficiency compared to peers lacking such engagement. Early years education sets the foundation for navigating the complexities of daily executive functioning, encompassing social, academic, and emotional challenges, which they will encounter in the subsequent 15 years of schooling. Currently, studies are beginning to show that screen time interferes with the reading process. Teaching the foundations of reading to the first generation of true digital natives—children who have been exposed to the bright, blinking, fast-moving screens of electronic devices from birth, presents both a unique challenge and an opportunity to leverage technology in innovative ways. As educators navigate this landscape, adapting traditional teaching methods to engage and captivate these tech-savvy learners becomes crucial in fostering a successful and comprehensive literacy education.


Language Is Essential


Language functions as a vital communication tool, especially for classroom teachers. The difficulty emerges when children struggle to articulate their thoughts, needs, or desires, hindering effective expression. Most children learn how to listen, speak, read, and write from birth through grade three. They typically begin to use literacy as a learning tool in the middle to the end of third grade. Children who are reading and writing “on grade level” by the end of third grade are expected to go on to be successful students.Research studies have proven that the more words preschool to kindergarten children are exposed to by adults, the higher their language and cognitive development tends to be. This exposure to a rich language environment during early childhood positively impacts various aspects of their learning and communication skills. Studies have also shown that bilingualism can lead to cognitive advantages, such as improved problem-solving skills, better attention control, and enhanced metalinguistic awareness. Learning a second language involves navigating different grammatical structures and vocabulary, promoting mental flexibility and linguistic adaptability.


How Do We Motivate Preschool Digital Natives To Read?


Lets begin with an overview of how the brain works and exploring the mechanics of reading. From a cognitive standpoint reading involves understanding that visual perception is essential in recognizing and associating letters with their corresponding sounds, known as phonology. As children encounter a growing number of letters over time, they tend to develop the automatic ability to visually perceive and interpret individual letters and, eventually, groups of letters. This exposure-driven learning process occurs when a child is read to, leading them to practice reading independently by imitating the acquired knowledge. Studies show strong evidence that 14-month-old infants can rapidly learn arbitrary associations between words and objects, that this ability appears to develop at about 14 months of age, and that the Switch design is a useful method for assessing word--object learning in infancy.


A few simple strategies to implement.

Realia: Teachers and parents need to expose children to lots of realia. Realia consist of everyday objects from real life used at home and in the classroom instruction to improve children's' learning. For example, A teacher of a foreign language often employs realia to strengthen students' associations between words for common objects and the objects themselves. Parents can name items as they interact with children, by saying words like door, chair, hat, ball, food words, outdoor environment words: train, car, tree leaf, etc.

Labels: Babies and toddlers are learning to match words with different things in their world. Labeling at every opportunity helps babies and toddlers learn new words and understand their meaning. For example: Point and look at objects when describing them.

Repetitive Chanting: The repetitive chanting, reading, writing, or hearing of rhymes promotes good listening skills and memory retention, aside from developing speech. You can also narrate what you do at home with rhyming words or let your children tell you about their favourite toys using rhyming words. For example simple songs or nursery rhymes are very powerful. Singing the nursery songs with hand movements helps the brain making connections and labeling of images.

Story Telling: Engaging in creative activities like storytelling can be incredibly beneficial for language development and vocabulary expansion. Spend time crafting imaginative stories with your child, complete with characters, plot twists, and happy endings. Another enjoyable activity is reminiscing over family photographs, discussing the people in the pictures, their activities, and locations. Encourage your child to retell stories in their own words, and make sure to incorporate regular reading sessions into your routine. Additionally, try narrating the day's events with your child as they unfold, providing them with a narrative of their daily experiences.

PictureBook Spotting: Reading picture books with your child, pausing and look at and discuss the pictures. Repeating what you have read in the story by pointing out to what is happening in the pictures. Encourage the child to make comments by asking them what else they can spot. For example: 'What is the dragon eating?' 'What color is Luna's shirt?' 'What did Alexander do to his shoes?' 'What else can we see on this page?'"


As educators and parents, it is crucial to recognize the potential consequences of unrestricted screen time on children's learning abilities. However, we must also acknowledge the valuable role that technology can play in enhancing educational experiences when used appropriately.

By navigating this delicate balance, it becomes imperative to implement strategies and responsibilities that promote healthy screen habits while prioritizing the development of fundamental academic skills. Through collaborative efforts between parents, schools, and educators, we can cultivate a learning environment that fosters both technological literacy and proficiency in core academic competencies.


Parents, you are your child's first teacher, and your immediate family plays a crucial role as well. It's important to establish boundaries early on. Limit screen time, incorporate music, and engage in playful activities to foster learning and curiosity. Remember, children thrive on human interaction. Starting early with children is paramount. If children have access to phones and tablets as young as four months old, it's imperative to change this behavior now. Set and enforce limits and boundaries.


Justifying a child's outburst or disruptive behavior through the use od technology should never be used to reward or reinforce inappropriate behavior. Digital access should not be thought of as a pacifier. It is a tool to be used to enhance the learning experience. Parents, grandparents, older siblings, I implore you to talk, sing, and read to all children. Your involvement and interaction are indispensable for the development and well-being of children. Encouraging verbal communication not only aids in advancing children's writing, reading, and exploration of new subjects but also ignites their curiosity and motivation for acquiring further knowledge.


Ever wish of having invaluable insights and support while embarking on the journey of first time leadership, or perhaps academic training to open a founding school? Look no further! Dr. Renata McFarland, with over 30 years of extensive experience in higher education, private, public, and international schools, along with a vast network, is here to work directly with you.


Contact Dr. McFarland at International Educational Consultants to leverage her expertise in addressing your students pre literacy skills, motivation to read and more. Whether it's through training sessions, idea-sharing, attentive listening, or workshops- connect with Dr. Renata today!


Look out for our upcoming Instagram posts and reel spots featuring informative steps for introducing pre-literacy skills necessary for primary school, engaging activities to enhance your child's language and social skills..

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