Screen Time and Literacy Learning
Recently I’ve been doing lots of reading about literacy, specifically about literacy and screen time. Because reading and writing are among the most complex things we ask our brains to do, and because we demand that our brains engage in reading and writing throughout our lives, I figure understanding how screens might be impacting our kids’ abilities to carry out reading, writing, speaking, and listening tasks in our classrooms and beyond is pretty important work.
Now let me preface this blog post by saying that research on the effects of screen time on literacy is absolutely in its infancy. And, depending upon the resource, the findings can, of course, be biased. Let me further state that I’m not a Luddite or a technophobe or anti-technology (when used in moderation). But I am a little worried that screen time might be impacting kids’ reading, writing, speaking, and listening growth and achievement.
Speaking and listening are what we call primary discourses; that is, kids naturally learn to speak and listen simply because they live within a family structure and a community where language is used. To be fair, some students come to school with tens of thousands of words; others come with lots fewer. But either way, the innate skills of speaking and listening take a natural course, and they are what children learn first.
Reading and writing, however, as secondary discourses, must be taught explicitly. Reading and writing are only about 5,000 years old, and they require the development and integration of fundamental cognitive abilities, dedicated to specific brain areas and networks. Essentially, when children learn to read, they are altering their brains in some way.1 Cool, right? Likewise, when students are exposed to screens, they are also altering their brains in some way. When I use the word screens, I refer broadly to smartphones, tablets, computers, and television.
In addition to various medical journals that will support this assertion, I have a great little anecdotal tale to offer. Back when I was a teacher, I had a student, with whom I had kept in touch; he was a really smart guy—the kind of fellow who had a perfect 2,400 on the SAT and went to Yale undergrad. After Yale he went on to medical school. While meeting for coffee one Saturday morning, he told me that when he had been at Yale, studying was easy, but now in medical school, his studies were frequently impeded by his brain interrupting his thinking and reminding him, with some regular frequency, to check his phone. The phone didn’t need to ding. He’d pick it up and look at it anyway—just to see. What he worried about was that his brain had been retrained to think about that phone. He had no control over his brain’s behavior. It just happened.
I worry about effects like that—not just that, but stuff like that. The retraining and restructuring our kids’ brains. I worry that when our children are attached to screens, they lose valuable time with both adults and peers when reciprocal verbal stimulation could be taking place. What happens when our kids can’t articulate what they want to? What happens when our kids are not effective listeners? Are there resultant conflicts or misunderstandings in school? Without ample vocabulary, is reading development protracted? Are children less likely to engage in creative play? And, finally, is readiness for schooling—beginning in kindergarten—lessened?
What about reading? According to Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, strategic readers solve and attack words, work to maintain fluency, think about author’s purpose and genre, stop occasionally to summarize what they’ve read, anticipate what’s going to happen next, infer, analyze, and critique, and self-correct when the text isn’t making sense.2 And, according to a 2017 study, passive media now occupy a lot of the time that children once spent reading, and therefore impede engaging in the practices Fountas and Pinnell assert as critical for reading proficiency.
Now, if there is a place where screens have come in handy, it’s in writing. According to a meta-analysis, the brain, when writing, holds about seven +/- three words at a time. That means some of our student writers are holding ten words while others are holding four. But the point is that the faster we push those words out, the faster they’re replaced. Writing production then, a fancy phrase for composition, is speeded up by being able to type on a computer or tablet. That said, on the flip side, learning can be impeded if one is using the computer to “take notes.” Because some students can type super-fast, they can essentially type out every word spoken, which means the student is typing indiscriminately and they’re not thinking about what’s important and discerning the meaning of the speaker; rather, the student is acting as a transcriptionist, of sorts. Not effective for learning new information. I point this out because what we can see here is that the task should determine the tool. Makes sense.
Anyway, I’m not telling anyone to take away your kids’ screens. Let’s be real. That’s not going to happen. But I would encourage families to think about the purpose of their technology use and the time attached screens. As a nice self-assessment, ask yourselves how frequently your kiddos are reading for pleasure, engaging in creative play, talking with adults and peers, writing for a purpose, and messing around with words.
As I said at the start of this entry, the long-term effects of screen time and its impact on the brain are still largely unknown. But early research encourages a cautious approach.
1 Horowitz-Kraus, T. and Hutton, J.S. (2018). “Brain connectivity in children in increased by the time they spend reading books and decreased by the length of exposure to screen-based media.” Acta Paediatricia:Wiley and Sons Vol(107) pp. 685-693
2 Fountas, I.C., and Pinnell, G.S. (2018). “Every child, every classroom every day: From vision to action in literacy learning.” The Reading Teacher. Vol(72) pp. 7-19
Rideout, V., and Robb, M. B. (2019). The Common Sense census: Media use by tweens and teens, 2019. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media. Available at: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/uploads/research/2019-census-8-to-18-key-findings-updated.pdf
Strohman, L. (2017) Empowering Kids to rise above technology addiction. TedX. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qsQXRqREwM
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