Want to know something cool?

One point of view, taking note of sundry "cool" things that affect-- or could affect-- the education business.

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Monday, August 22, 2005

Talking books for early learners

Want to know something cool? After generations of "See and Say" auditory reinforcement of reading skills, today's toddlers have a plethora of new technology that makes reading a more interactive-- and some would say immersive-- activity. (See Newsweek's article in the issue dated August 29.)

Talking books, technology enrichment, and other (literally) bells and whistles are taking center stage as the consumer market gears up for the holiday season. But how many of these gizmos are actually helping kids read better, or earlier, or more successfully?

There are websites that "go beyond the book," posing questions about the content to help kids learn to immerse and absorb. There are interactive DVD companions to a printed book, integrating one of the all-time kid favorites (TV) with reading. There are well-known characters playing the role of "reading buddies," to reinforce the concept that reading is fun. And of course, there's the gee-whiz factor of various gadgets, designed to bring kids in with the promise of fun and payoff, such as stylus-based "smart books" like the LeapPad-- now with microphone!-- or touch-spot models (such as the Fisher-Price Power Touch Learning System). Handheld gadgets include the PDA-like Leapster or the Learning Screen Karaoke.

Are we blurring the lines between information ingestion methodologies? If so, maybe we have to wonder whether that's necessarily a good thing. After all, we all know kids who've had a book read to them so many times that they can recite it by rote, and while that may speak well of their memory skills, it doesn't mean much in terms of actual reading proficiency. Then again, language skills are interconnected, and if a child finds something compelling enough to memorize it and verbalize it, she's probably well on her way to literacy.

Toymakers know that parents, doting dupes that we may be, will spare no expense when we think we're doing something "good" for our kids, something that will make them "smarter." Hundreds of millions of discretionary dollars are spent every year buying toys, books, and software that will "help your child succeed," or "unlock their potential," or "reinforce learning."

Tutoring and test preparation services are experiencing unprecedented growth, and as schools move toward more "high-stakes testing" and federally-mandated performance measurement and accountability, moms and dads are looking for any and every way to help their kids excel academically.

Are these early-learning products really doing the job? Or are parents being preyed upon by industries who sell minimally-effective products and services that do more to ameliorate parental guilt than they do to advance reading skills?

The truth is probably in the gray zone. Chances are, lots of these products will do exactly what they claim, simply by getting a child's attention ... at least until the novelty wears off. And it's likely that different kids will derive varying degrees of benefit from them, based on aptitudes, attitudes, and affinities. If your kids can't get enough of a certain red fuzzy monster, then there's at least a chance that if Elmo tells them to read, they'll make the effort. That doesn't necessarily make Muppets key to your child's success, but as a parent, you'd probably take whatever you can get. Likewise, teachers are always looking for ways to motivate kids to do more reading, and to read more immersively. In the early years, many teachers feel it's as important to instill a love of reading as it is to hone actual skills. If Johnny loves to read, he'll read; and as he does more of it, he'll get better at doing it.

Still, we have to wonder whether all of these techno-wonders may leave kids flat at the end of the day. Will a child read a plain-old book once they've tasted the thrills of a talking plush figure? Will interactive books make Dick and Jane look lame in comparison? Or are these things the shape of the future-- will "plain old print" go the way of the slate and bookstrap, to make room for multimedia experiences that blend type with touch and sound? Maybe what we're seeing is the beginning of the next era, when books talk and ask questions and move pictures on a screen, rather than painting on the mental canvas. Maybe our kids need to learn to read, but they also need to learn to absorb multimedia input. Maybe what we're talking about isn't really a new way to read; maybe it's a new way to learn.

Cool, huh?

How will it shake out? Comment this blog, and let's see where the conversation leads. For great news, views, and resources for educators, check out The Balance Sheet at http://balancesheet.swlearning.com Published by South-Western, a Thomson company.

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