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How TV Can Make Kids Better Readers

LA Johnson

Is technology the best thing that ever happened to education? Or a silent killer of children's attention spans and love of learning?

Tap, Click, Read is a new book out this week that attempts to offer a third alternative. It tells the stories of educators and parents who are trying to develop media, and ways of interacting with that media, that encourage literacy and critical thinking skills in young children, while reducing inequity.

Lisa Guernsey is the author of Screen Time and director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project at New America, a think tank in Washington, D.C.; her coauthor is Michael Levine, founding director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop in New York City, which focuses on educational media.

We used Google Docs to work on this Q&A collaboratively, just as the authors did when they were writing their new book. That book, fittingly, is not just a text; it comes with associated video content as well.

Why do you say that there is a "quiet crisis" in reading? Is there really evidence that literacy or the love of books is lower across the population than at any point in the past?

Guernsey: An alarming number of children in the United States never become good readers. More than two-thirds of American fourth graders are not reading at grade level or "proficiently," according to the Nation's Report Card. For children in low-income families and children of color, the numbers are even worse: More than 80 percent are not hitting the proficient mark. Despite billions of dollars of interventions and new programs, that percentage has barely budged for more than two decades. That, to us, is a crisis.

Lisa Guernsey, co-author and director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project at New America.
/ Twitter
Lisa Guernsey, co-author and director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project at New America.

Levine: Literacy experts like Donald Leu have noted that the actual amount of reading and writing, especially short-form, is not necessarily on the decline, but that intentional, more complex skills-building needs a boost. We argue that literacy today depends not only on the basics but on a new set of competencies — including digital and second-language fluency. We aren't doing particularly well on either the "old" or the "new" literacies at the moment.

What is the "two-pronged approach" to learning to read? And what role can digital content play?

Michael Levine, founding director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.
/ Joan Ganz Cooney Center
Joan Ganz Cooney Center
Michael Levine, founding director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

Guernsey: The two prongs refer to skills and knowledge. Some people see learning to read as simply a matter of skill — of being able to match letters to sounds and decode the symbols of print. But children also need knowledge. They need to be able to understand the words they read and have a base of knowledge (in art, science, social studies and beyond) to help them make inferences and connect the dots. It would be pretty difficult to understand and appreciate a paragraph about penguins caring for their young, for example, if you didn't have a base of understanding about birds, eggs and icy temperatures — not to mention the patience involved in keeping an egg warm and safe!

So a video of penguins in Antarctica could entice children to learn more by reading?

Levine: Young children are natural born explorers. Many young children express a passion for dinosaurs, building their own cities or managing trains. They assemble what Kevin Crowley refers to as deep "islands of expertise" via their exploration of these learning passions. Today's children have rich opportunities to build background knowledge at the tap of a screen and to demonstrate a new set of skills with the assistance of an app that will publish and allow social exchange about their new creation.

What are some of the best examples of positive uses of technology to promote early learning? At home? In the classroom?

Guernsey: We show examples of text-messaging programs that send parents praise when they and their children read an e-book together. We tell the story of first-graders in a classroom using pen on paper, audio and video technology to rewrite a song and sing the new version to their school.

Levine: And we also explore the rich history of educational media, and imagine public media as a national asset that could be better positioned to connect home and school. The origins of Sesame Street and other public media pioneers are the basis — in many respects — to understanding the impactof new technologies on young children. The book offers an analysis of the role that "joint media engagement" (where adults and children learn from media together) might play if we were to intentionally design in-school and out-of-school literacy programs for such interchange.

Fascinating, Michael! Can you explain more about what joint media engagement could look like?

Levine: Sure. When my children were young we would sit together watching Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood as "co-viewers." I would ... later ask my kids to point out the letters on a stop sign or say numbers like "The Count" would. Today's kids and parents are still co-viewing, but our research indicates that there is less "intentional viewing" of educational media: Parents and kids are more likely to be watching telenovelas or American Idol together.

But the ubiquity and mobility of interactive digital media make it possible to expand the reach of "learning together" moments in a new way ... Today's parents who understand the benefits of blending literacy and media experiences will spend 10-15 minutes in shorter bursts of activity scaffolding and guiding their kids learning in different settings — in the car or on a bus, at the grocery store, after a park or museum visit to research a new discovery!

As you explain, our definitions of "media literacy," "digital literacy" or "21st century literacies"are in flux. What are some emerging concepts that fall under this "litany of literacies"? Given how little we know about what is important for kids to know, how can educators be expected to apply these concepts?

Guernsey: Literacy is an expansive word—getting more expansive with every passing year. Someone who is not steeped in early literacy research might think that literacy means reading print. But even the traditional definition of literacy has always meant more than that: It means reading, writing, listening and speaking. Children need help in becoming skillful at all four of those skills and they can use media tools of all kinds to do so.

And in addition, as children grow up in a world of information overload and constant messaging, they will also need to learn media literacy and critical literacy. Those two concepts are still relatively new in elementary education, but if you think about it, those ideas go hand in hand with teaching a child about what it means to be a writer or media creator and why it is important to look closely and ask questions about what a writer is trying to say.

Explain the parts of your book that speak especially to Spanish-speaking families and other English language learners.

Levine: Our book explores the overlooked assets that reside in both the language and culture of low-income Hispanic-Latino families as seen through the lens of contemporary research on the uses of digital media for learning purposes. Our book includes recommendations based on this research on ways to improve parent engagement programs, school-home links, media design and new public-private partnerships to more effectively meet the needs of ELL's.

Guernsey: We should be helping families enable their children to become truly bilingual, not just in speaking but also in reading and writing.

What is the one big message that you hope readers take away from Tap, Click, Read? How do you hope to influence the debate?

Guernsey: We argue for a modern, "third way" approach to technology that gives young children of all backgrounds more opportunities to learn to read and succeed in the 21st century. We need to get past the tired nagging of "no screen time" and the overheated enthusiasm over apps as the holy grail of early education. Instead, let's take a more mindful approach and combine the power of parents, educators and high-quality media (print and digital) to make literacy opportunities available to all kids and families, regardless of income.

Levine: One final bit of advice for the adults who are trying to figure out how to navigate what we refer to as the "digital wild west" for their kids and students: Digest and act urgently on our findings, but trust your instincts too! ... We intend to bring the message home to everyone who has a stake in ensuring that America's tragic, but wholly preventable reading crisis can be solved in the next decade.

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Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.