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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

Balanced, Current, and Relevant, Part I, by Tess Prendergast

Question: Why is research about digital technology, young children and libraries so hard to find?

Answer: Because it has not even been written yet.

When children’s librarians approach the topic of digital technology’s place in early childhood, I think we need ways to “converge” what we learn from the available research with our own expertise and mandates. Despite the fact that we are information professionals, this convergence, in this divided field, is not at all an easy task. I am a children’s librarian with 17 years on the job. I am also halfway through a doctorate in early literacy, but I don’t claim to have all the answers or even any of the answers! What I do claim, however, is that what I have found to be most helpful and informative to me as an early literacy researcher has come from mostly qualitative research in the field of early childhood education. A lot of qualitative research tends not to “prove” anything because that is not its aim. It provides illustrative data drawn from real people’s lives, tied to important themes and issues that concern us all. We can and should learn from this kind of research as we move towards the goal of creating our own.

You might be thinking: But we are children’s librarians! We are not early childhood educators! And we are not all early literacy scholars either! Why don’t we just go to our own research? Well, there is the problem, staring us in the face. Our profession has very little research (qualitative or quantitative) about children and literacy, and even less on the impact of technology on young children. To date, information schools have just not generated the volume of research that early childhood librarians need to draw our own informed conclusions, based on our own contexts. Thus, we are forced to borrow heavily from other spheres, such as education and even medicine. While I acknowledge a great deal of common ground, children’s librarians, teachers, and doctors have different mandates. While valuable and respectable in their own right, wholesale application of these different paradigms’ research to public library contexts is not without its own hazards. One of those hazards makes itself so apparent in the current debate about screen/digital/tech use in storytime programs. The hazard is that librarians are not sure whose research should be used to make good, rational, thoughtful, 21st-century decisions for our public library work with young children. We literally have no research of our own to draw on, and what we borrow from varying camps may not fit nicely into our paradigms.

I definitely do not think that I have this a this all wrapped up, but here is what I think early years librarians need from whatever research we can find on this topic: Balance, Currency, and Relevance.

Balance: We need balanced research that clearly acknowledges the need to provide children with a range of opportunities from which to learn, opportunities which together help support their development across all domains, not just those of early literacy learning. Balanced research will emphasize the importance of human interactions in all early learning.

Currency: Current research will build on studies from the past to a certain extent, but truly current research will take into account contemporary, present day realities of children in our communities. Older research studies that tell us it is bad to have the television on all day are not useful in this conversation; we already know that. What we need to know is how contemporary children are experiencing contemporary technology (including television programs) in their lives. Our practices and decisions should be based on actual childhood, not ideal childhood.

Relevance: The data we draw on for making the best digital tech decisions in early literacy/library services for children should be relevant, meaning well-matched and appropriate to the contexts and realities of families who are most like those in our communities. I don’t just mean the ones we see in our libraries. We need to understand the realities of all the families in our communities, especially the ones we do not see in our libraries. We really need to see and understand research that is relevant to the realities of Western childhood, in all its diversity. This is not an easy task. Believe me when I say that you can spend many years studying children and you will only scratch the surface of all there is to learn from them and about them.

Right about now you might be saying: But we are working professionals and we are busy enough for goodness sake! How are we supposed to get a handle on all of this? In other words: Where to begin? And please don’t tell me I have to get a PhD to understand all of this!

For this particular topic (digital technology and early childhood) I recommend starting with the NAEYC–the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Their joint position statement with the Fred Rogers Center says (among other things):

  • When used intentionally and appropriately, technology and interactive media are effective tools to support learning and development.
  • Intentional use requires early childhood teachers and administrators to have information and resources regarding the nature of these tools and the implications of their use with children.
  • Limitations on the use of technology and media are important.
  • Special considerations must be given to the use of technology with infants and toddlers.
  • Attention to digital citizenship and equitable access is essential.
  • Ongoing research and professional development are needed.

Then, you may wish to compare that statement (read the whole statement, not just the summary I gave you) to this one from American Academy of Pediatrics about media and children. Again, read the whole thing, not just the snippet I have here.

Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors.

By limiting screen time and offering educational media and non-electronic formats such as books, newspapers, and board games, and watching television with their children, parents can help guide their children’s media experience. Putting questionable content into context and teaching kids about advertising contributes to their media literacy.

The AAP recommends that parents establish “screen-free” zones at home by making sure there are no televisions, computers, or video games in children’s bedrooms, and by turning off the TV during dinner. Children and teens should engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content. It is important for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies, and using their imaginations in free play.

Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.

Now I want you to think about these statements while considering the expertise of the people behind them regarding their collective knowledge about early childhood literacy & learning. I am pretty sure that the authors of the NAEYC statement all hold advanced degrees in education (or related fields), with specializations in early learning. Many of them have conducted and published their own research about various aspects of early childhood learning with actual children. Now remember, I said that wholesale adoption of their conclusions is not necessarily going to be a perfect fit for public libraries. However, given the choice between the education sphere and the medical sphere regarding something like early literacy, I feel pretty confident in my leaning towards education for a better fit. On the other hand, although no doubt well trained, pediatricians do not receive any specialized training in early literacy. For this reason alone, they are just not the “experts” I would go to first (or at all, actually) for help understanding any aspect of early literacy or learning. Personal experience with the copious quantities of early literacy research which I need to read, understand, critique, and synthesize in order to get my doctorate tells me that none of it has been written by a pediatrician. This not to say they are not out there, but none of the authors on my extensive and very authoritative course reading lists in early literacy have been pediatricians (or any other type of medical doctor).

Yes, pediatricians are concerned with the health of children, and research does suggest that excessive and/or inappropriate exposure to screens is unhealthy. I could have figured that out myself, but that has more to do with various aspects of my socioeconomic, educational, and cultural characteristics than any medical training I have or don’t have. All this to say, we all know the hazards of excessive screen use, for all ages. We do not need medical degrees to be authoritative with that statement. It is, for many of us (privileged and educated as we are) what we call “common sense.” Meanwhile, this AAP statement is being used as a blunt instrument by many who question the value or appropriateness of screens in early childhood. And, because medical doctors are mythologized as being much more than just very well trained professionals in their own fields of pediatrics (which they are), their opinions on such things as the appropriateness of digital technology in early childhood is taken as the only expert opinion we will ever need. Because a doctor said so…

On the other hand, educators–and by educators I mean those folks with those advanced and multiple degrees who work for National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) as well as many fine schools of education in universities across the Western world–not only have abundant training in early literacy, but they are the creators of a copious quantity of research on this specific, and very important, topic.

So, I want to ask you: Who do you trust more to help you make decisions about the place and value of digital technology in early childhood?

My next blog post will summarize what some of the “experts” in the early literacy field have been saying about digital technology in early childhood. Their work is real research. It is authoritative enough for me because these people are experts on this topic. I think we should be listening to them. Then, as a next step, we should get the library profession committed to the notion of generating much more of our own research from which to build and continually develop our own expertise and practice.


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

#BCLC2013 Presentation Slides; I love you, Vancouver!

Many thanks to my brilliant and well-spoken co-presenters, Tess Prendergast and Francesca de Freitas. We should totally take this show on the road. For any of you who attended today but were unable to ask your questions, please feel free to post below or use the contact form and I can ferry your questions to Tess or Francesca, or answer it myself. Thanks for the opportunity to speak! Let’s keep the conversation going!

KinderTown and VPL

I’ve been continuing my search for resources and guidance on collection development for apps in libraries. Tess Prendergast, a PhD student at UBC and a Children’s librarian at VPL pointed me to the work of Francesca de Freitas, who uses apps in her position as a Children’s Librarian at the Vancouver Public Library. Carisa Kluver of Digital Storytime sent me  the presentation by Carolina Nugent at KinderTown.