Balanced, Current, and Revelant, Part II: A Short, Sweet Literature Review, by Tess Prendergast

If you read Part I, you will know I went pretty hard at this notion of whether the AAP might actually be qualified to make decisions about early literacy learning. Put simply, pediatricians are not qualified to make those kinds of recommendations, and we have many other experts to go to to help us make decisions on this topic. Moreover, even if you tend to be wary of digital technology, it is important to not let this barrage of ambiguous and conflicting data overwhelm you so much that you freeze and choose not to do anything at all. The world will indeed go on without your decision, but it may be a loss to the communities you serve that you did not actually decide to do anything about digital technology. The available research is reassuring enough: digital tech tools can (and do) support early learning across many contexts, and just because there is scant research about library contexts does not mean we cannot proceed with confidence. Much of what we learn, we learn as we observe real life. This is just as important for our practice as double-blind studies, in my opinion.

On the other hand, if you are very keen on technology, it is just as important to not just dive in willy-nilly and hope that what you come up with is going to meet your goals. We all need intentional, deliberate, and thoughtful applications of what we know so far about how technology can support children and families. As professionals, it is critical that we know what these tools are all about and that we be capable and comfortable navigating the ambiguity found in this field of early childhood.

The following is a short, hopefully readable literature review of some of the academic pieces that have helped to inform my evolving knowledge about technology and early childhood. As I mentioned, none of it is from the library field, so we must also understand the contextual differences therein. That being said, I think these authors are worth familiarizing ourselves with. They have a lot to say on this topic, and we should be listening.

In “A is for avatar: Young children in the literacy 2.0 worlds and literacy 1.0 schools,” author Karen Wohlwend emphasizes the concept of play. This short and highly recommended article emphasized play; this is early childhood we are talking about, and most of us agree on the importance of play. She says:

Children pretend their way into literacies by “playing at” using computers, iPads, or cell phones as they try on technologically savvy user identities.

In this short, very readable piece, Wohlwend also contends with the digital divide and promotes the idea that the early childhood classroom is the ideal place for disadvantaged children to engage with the digital media that shapes communication in the world today.

She also contends with the spectre of the “natural child” and how this idealized notion of childhood “distances our youngest learners from access to digital technologies that make up modern literacies.” She then says:

Questioning the common-place (just the way things are) and commonsensical (what we just know) allows us to see how our beliefs keep us compliant and complicit in maintaining the current ways of doing things in schools.

This same kind of questioning is what we as professional librarians need to be doing with regards to the kinds of mainstream early and family literacy messages we tend to spout. It is just not good enough to say that we are and have always been about “the best books for children.” We are about content, regardless of platform or media, and our job is to embrace it, evaluate it, and continue to provide the best services to families in our communities with regards to all content (books, apps, games etc).

Wohlwend continues:

At a minimum, we need policies that remove institutional barriers and actively support a permeable literacy curriculum that encourages young children to bring their cultural resources to school, including digital technologies and popular media.

The biggest barrier is the negative attitude about children and screens, though. Screens–meaning all this digital tech, games, iDevices, and other handhelds–can be viewed in both positive and negative light, simultaneously; a good critical educator (including librarians!) will be able to cope with this ambiguity and move forward with curricular and pedagogical choices that support literacy development without being detrimental in social and physical domains.

Wohlwend can be found on the web here, and she is the author of several books and articles about the role of play in early literacy development.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for librarians to consider the work of the UK scholar Jackie Marsh. In a 2004 article called “The techno-literacy practices of young children,” Marsh reports on her study of a group of young children’s “techno-literacy” practices. Building on the paradigm in which children are seen as “active meaning-makers,” she describes how her participants demonstrate varied avenues to learning literacy by their interactions and engagement with technology media such as television programs and video-games. Marsh identifies and confronts the intense focus still placed on literacy as a mainly print-based concept. She believes this focus has led to over-emphasizing formal, printed, and text-based reading and writing skills. She also believes the negative views of media in young children’s lives are largely unfounded and not reflective of what is revealed in the existing research.

In her 2004 study, Marsh found that families value the role that television plays in their children’s lives and that parents actively participate in their children’s engagement with the media text made available to them via shows such as Bob the Builder™. The parents in this study believed strongly that such television shows facilitate imaginative social and cognitive development. Marsh emphasizes the importance of non-print media, such as television, computers, and mobile phones, that children encounter in their non-school lives.

Marsh’s 2006 study, entitled “Emergent Media Literacy: Digital Animation in Early Childhood,” followed the work of a small group of 3 and 4 year olds who learned how to make stop-motion animation videos in their preschool. They used small toys, together with a digital camera and an animation program loaded onto a computer, to accomplish this task, and the results were impressive.

Finally, Jackie Marsh is co-editor (with Joanne Larson) of what I consider to be the most up-to-date, authoritative resource on early childhood literacy: The Sage Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy, Second edition ©2013. I own a copy, it cost a lot, and it weighs a ton. While I haven’t read the whole thing yet (talk to me next year!), Marsh, along with Karen Wohlwend and dozens of other early literacy scholars, have written chapters on a dizzying array of subtopics in early literacy, much of which is important for us, as practitioners, to know. However, for this topic I can tell you that the index shows that the term digital technology takes up an impressive amount of real estate in this volume. It is wrapped into discussions of play, home literacy learning, multimodality, and children’s writing, among other things. I think this is proof positive that this topic is here to stay, and if librarians really see ourselves as having a role to play in the support and development of early literacy in our communities, we are well advised to read all about it from the people who, so far, seem to know the most. Finally, as I mentioned before, it really is time for librarians and library scholars start conducting a whole lot more library-focussed research on this topic (and lots of other topics too) and telling everyone else all about it.


  • Larson, J. & Marsh, J. (2013). The SAGE handbook of early childhood literacy (2nd ed.). London: Sage.
  • Marsh, J. (2004).The techno-literacy practices of young children. Early Childhood Research, 2, 51-66.
  • Marsh, J. (2006). Emergent Media Literacy: Digital Animation in Early Childhood. Language and Education 20, (6),493-506.
  • Wohlwend, K. (2010). Focus on Policy: A is for avatar: Young children in literacy 2.0 worlds and literacy 1.0 schools. Language Arts, 88, 144-152.
  • Wohlwend, K. E. (2013). Literacy playshop: new literacies, popular media, and play in the early childhood classroom. New York: Teacher’s College Press
  • Wohlwend, K.E. (n.d.) Teaching new literacies in PK-2 classrooms. Retrieved from:
Tess Prendergast is a children’s librarian in Vancouver, Canada. She currently studies at the University of British Columbia in pursuit of a doctorate in the Department of Language and Literacy Education. She also blogs about early literacy and children with disabilities at

About Amy Koester

I'm a youth services librarian with a penchant for exciting ideas and engaging programs. It's a sure bet that if you talk to me about STEAM, whimsy, and trying new things, we'll be best friends forever.

Posted on July 10, 2013, in Media Literacy, Research and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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