Growing Readers in a World of Screens

While many of us grew up surrounded by books, today’s children live in a world of iPads, smartphones and Playstations. Here are our top tips for parents wanting to grow readers and teachers keen to encourage preschoolers to develop a love of reading in a world of screens.

In 2011, a video showing a baby attempting to swipe her finger across a magazine went viral. To the baby, a magazine was an iPad that didn’t work.

Five years later, it’s hard to imagine anyone being surprised at a baby being as familiar with a screen as a printed text. Screens are everywhere and swiping a screen comes as naturally to many toddlers as turning a page.

More than 30% of US children first play with a mobile device when they are still in diapers, according to the US advocacy group Common Sense Media.

In New Zealand, the Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study found that about 15% of children regularly use a computer or laptop by the age of two.

But educators around the world are increasingly concerned that the growth of screen time has come at the expense of reading, writing, listening and talking – the basis of children’s literacy learning.

Alphabet picture book for beginner readers

How much screen time is too much?

Many studies have found that reading aloud to children in their first five years contributes to their language development and prepares them for learning at school.

In one study, for example, researchers who took MRI images of children’s brains while they listened to stories found that children who were read to frequently had stronger activation in the region of the brain responsible for language processing.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, too much screen time can lead to:

Limit screentime boy on smartphone

  • attention problems
  • sleep disorders
  • eating disorders
  • obesity
  • problems at school.

The Academy has just announced new screen time guidelines for children under two. While not encouraging screen time of itself, they now advise that children under 18 months may use video chat with family, with the reminder that:

“young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.”

The Academy recommends that children above the age of two should be on screens for no more than one to two hours per day, and that they should watch only high-quality content.

For children younger than 2 years, says the Academy, “evidence about the benefits of media is still limited and adult interaction with the child during media use is crucial”.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Health draft guidelines on screen time recommend children under two should have no exposure to screens, and that preschoolers should have less than an hour of screen time a day.

So how can preschools minimise screen time and promote reading readiness?

Top tips to encourage a love of reading

words, literature, open book

Here are our top nine tips for encouraging preschoolers to develop a love of language, words and reading:

  1. Point out the words in your preschool environment that contain letters from children’s names. For example, “This pencil starts with the letter P, just like your name”.
  2. Rotate the books on display in your reading area, and display as many books as possible face-out – the bright colors and richly illustrated covers draw young children in.
  3. Cut labels from food boxes and let children to make scrapbooks featuring labels from their favorite snacks.
  4. Encourage children to practice writing their names on tactile surfaces such as in sand or salt trays, or in chalk on the sidewalk.
  5. Label everyday items such as chairs, desks, tables and shelves.
  6. Repetition is key to learning to read, so stay patient if children want to read a favorite story to you – or pretend to read a favorite story to you – again and again.
  7. Set up a writing area where children can practice writing or making cards for birthdays, holidays or other special occasions.
  8. Show children the different parts of a book, like the cover, title page, author’s name and illustrator’s name.
  9. Let children choose the story of the day on their birthdays.

Need some more reading ideas? Here are five fun reading activities for children aged three to five from Scholastic, the world’s largest publisher of children’s books:

  1. Write out children’s names and encourage them to copy their name with alphabet stamps, stickers or magnets.
  2. Play a guessing game about children’s favorite words. What letter does “p-p-p-pirate” start with? If children guess the right answer, ask them if they can think of any other words starting with the same letter.
  3. Write a book together. Ask a child to describe a fun activity, then staple a few pieces of paper together and write out one or two of the child’s sentences on each page. Read the story out loud and let the child illustrate it.
  4. Try dialogic reading, which involves asking children to describe what might happen next in a story, or other ways the story might have ended.
  5. Don’t forget nonfiction! Read factual books that reflect children’s interests in subjects such as cars, dinosaurs or dogs.

Even tech gurus promote reading

If parents ask why it’s so important to limit screen time and encourage literacy, tell them that many tech entrepreneurs preferred their children picking up a book than a device.

Steve Jobs (co-founder, chair, and CEO of Apple Inc) banned his children from using an iPad when they were young, while Apple design guru Sir Jonathan Ive set strict limits on his twins’ use of technology.

Even Carl Sagan, regarded as one of the greatest science and technology communicators of his generation, had an unshakable belief in the power of reading to change lives. “One of the greatest gifts adults can give – to their offspring and to their society – is to read to children,” he said.

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