The digital media marketplace is filled with apps and content that promise to help young children learn. With all these options, it’s confusing for parents and educators to determine what digital media is most beneficial. At the same time, young children are spending an average of 48 minutes a day using streaming media services. If these services aren’t meeting the educational needs of the children watching them, it’s a lost opportunity, especially for low-income families that might not have as many resources available in their communities.

The authors of this report examined the current landscape of education media programs to understand the features that support learning for low-income preschoolers. Given the importance of early oral language skills for future school success, the authors focused on educational media programs that emphasized language and literacy. In their first study, researchers performed a content analysis of two randomly selected episodes from the top 100 educational programs across five streaming platforms. Through qualitative coding of over 2,000 scenes, they identified two main categories of supports to teach vocabulary words: ostensive cues and attention-directing cues. The former provides direct definitions to children and the latter used visuals or sounds to bring a child’s attention to a specific word.

In the second study, the researchers sought to see which of these cues better captured a child’s attention and subsequently supported their learning. They recruited 12 classrooms of preschoolers enrolled in two Head Start centers to participate in this study. Using eye-tracking technology, they monitored each child’s attention as they watched scenes that used either ostensive or attention-directing cues. After viewing the scenes, students were given a word identification task based on the vocabulary they just learned. The results showed that attention-directing cues were most effective in supporting a child’s ability to identify words after watching a scene.

These studies provide critical insights for designing digital media to better support the learning of young children. If these programs are improved to support children’s developmental needs, they could potentially have an impact on children’s long-term academic success. This is an opportunity that shouldn’t be neglected.

Neuman, S. B., Wong, K. M., Flynn, R., & Kaefer, T. (2019). Learning vocabulary from educational media: The role of pedagogical supports for low-income preschoolers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(1), 32-44.

Image: by Thijs Knaap via flickr.