When the National Literacy Trust announces that tablet computers help disadvantaged children to read, liberal-minded book lovers like me sit up and listen.
The NLT published research suggesting that “touchscreen technology can be more effective in engaging children aged three to five with reading than books”, and that these effects are amplified in low-income households. But read between the lines, and a rather different story emerges.
The research is a collaboration with Pearson, the giant multinational currently extending its corporate tentacles into every aspect of education, from policy to curriculum to resources to testing. The NLT has always had links with commerce: it was founded by Sir Simon Hornby, chairman of WH Smith. But at least back then its interest lay in promoting the selling of books. The Trust is now part-funded by Pearson, which aims to make digital products and services 70% of its sales by 2015.
Thus the cosy connotations of “literacy” and “trust” are here being used as a Trojan horse to introduce the very technologies that are killing reading and writing. Digital and online technology is fragmenting our attention spans and demolishing the publishing industry.
For the most part, the media has dutifully run with the headline findings about literacy and inequality, cheerleading big business’s exploitation of poverty as a fig leaf for market expansion. But these headlines are derived from marginal and contradictory data. The majority of the report demonstrates the enduring primacy of books. Children are much more likely to enjoy stories in books than stories on a screen. Children are 34 times more likely to read storybooks daily than stories on tablets daily. Children are four times more likely to read stories in a book for more than 30 minutes. Children are more likely to read stories on tablets on their own, losing out on the huge benefits of reading with a parent.
In March this year, the NLT and Pearson carried out a related study of children’s use of technology, and made similar claims about the potential for touchscreen devices to bridge social divides. But the actual findings demonstrated the opposite: overall, children who only read stories in books were more likely to exceed literacy expectations at age five than those who also read stories on screens.
Tellingly, seven months on, different criteria have been used to measure literacy. Instead of reading, writing and speaking – the commonsense definition of literacy – this time the study has used something called the British Picture Vocabulary Scale (BPVS), which measures a child’s ability to hear a word and point to the corresponding picture on a flashcard. This is not a test of literacy, and has nothing to do with reading. The BPVS is derived from the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, developed by – yes, you guessed it – Pearson.
New technology makes amnesiacs of us all, so it can create the conditions for its own apparent necessity. “Tablets and touchscreen technology could be vital,” says the NLT, “to engage new readers”. At this rate, we’ll soon forget that children were ever able to learn to read and write using such Luddite props as books, pens and paper.
When my five-year-old son picks up a smartphone and starts jabbing and swiping with the “hectic fervour of a starving dog unleashed in a meat locker”, as Jennifer Egan so aptly describes it in A Visit From the Goon Squad, my heart sinks. His instinctive mastery of the touchscreen interface creates a remarkable illusion of control. But there is something deeply disempowering about this hermetically sealed object that he can never properly understand. Let’s not forget that the moguls of Silicon Valley send their children to Waldorf-Steiner schools, where they play with junk modelling in the open air and are not allowed to use computers, even at home. The men who design our gadgets know that children need to learn about the world from first principles. They need to explore with their hands and do sums in their heads.
And my heart sinks because those smartphones and tablets are a royal road to 24/7 shopping, commercially produced content and personalised advertising. If it’s true, as we are told by some researchers, that internet addiction is not a “real” addiction, why is it that I can barely write a paragraph of this article without Googling Christmas presents?
Touchscreen technology is being rolled out despite the absence of conclusive research suggesting it improves attainment, and in the face of plenty of research, including highly critical analysis of the One Laptop Per Child programme in the developing world, indicating it is detrimental. Positive studies are invariably supported by commercial interests: the “charity” Tablets for Schools is part-funded by the recently merged Carphone Warehouse and Dixons. Other partners include Google, Virgin Media, Pearson, Samsung and TalkTalk.
Meanwhile we read daily accounts of cyber-bullying, trolling, depression, suicide, routine pre-teen exposure to hardcore pornography, online grooming, including the recent case of the murdered teenager, Breck Bednar, and children sitting alone in their bedrooms staring at a screen. Yet none of it appears to dent the argument that we must accept screen technology because that is the way the world is going. What’s concealed is the fact that the increasing prominence of new technology in children’s lives is the result of a highly coordinated lobbying effort, and it downplays human judgment and choice – the point, after all, of education.