Computers and Early Literacy Education

Linda Labbo & David Reinking. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

Computers are a part of young children’s literacy experiences in their homes, communities, and classrooms. By the time many young children begin formal schooling, they are likely to have had countless experiences involving digital forms of communication, for example sitting in the lap of an adult who is corresponding with a relative via e-mail or who is making an online purchase over the Internet. Or, they may participate in engaging interactive multimedia stories and games on a home computer (Lauman, 2000). Children who attend preschool are likely to have had experiences with computers, at least occasionally, involving educational games designed to teach the alphabet (Duffelmeyer, 2002) or programs designed to encourage drawing and creative play (Labbo, 1996; Haugland, 1999). Even children who, for sociocultural or economic reasons, have not had such opportunities, the computer is a part of everyday experiences ranging from seeing people use computerized, interactive devices in stores and banks to using an interactive digital kiosk that provides information at a subway station.

In fact, for at least a decade, educators have noted that for many youngsters literacy activities involving computers prior to and outside of school are typically more frequent, richer, and more meaningful than are such activities they encounter when they enter elementary school (Green and Bigum, 1993; Mackey, 1994; Unsworth, 2001). That discrepancy and the increasing integration of digital forms of reading and writing into everyday life suggest that considering the role of technology in the literacy development of young children is a timely and important topic. That it is timely and important is reflected by the fact that computers are now considered to be essential in outfitting the modern classroom and they are readily available for use in most elementary schools (e.g. Technology Counts, 1999), by the fact that there is a growing body of literature addressing the use of computers in early literacy (e.g. see Blok et al., 2002), and by the fact that there is an extensive array of commercial, educational multimedia software designed for young children and numerous free websites for young children on the World Wide Web (cf Davis and Shade, 1994; Duffelmeyer, 2002; Haugland, 1999; 2000).

Indeed, national governments and international professional associations for educators are establishing literacy instruction, guidelines and standards for using computers in instruction (Alberta Learning, 2000; Leu, 1997). For example, the International Reading Association and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (1996) issued a joint statement indicating that early childhood educators must be prepared to examine critically and use effectively new technologies for the benefit of children. On a national level, Prime Minister Tony Blair (1999) announced his goal to link every school in the United Kingdom to the Internet. Likewise, the governments of New Zealand, Australia, and Finland have established initiatives to integrate technology into their education systems (Leu, 2000). In the United States, although there is no national policy, a national survey (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999) documented that schools have invested $4 billion to place computers in 90% of K-5 classrooms with more than half of teachers in the survey reporting that they have at least two classroom computers. However, 80% of the teachers surveyed indicated that they do not feel adequately prepared to use computer technology for instruction.

It is clear that various stakeholders in education recognize the importance of computers in the literacy development of young children. Likewise, they are vitally interested in determining how best to take advantage of the presence and power of computer technologies to enhance instruction, to expand or transform teaching approaches, and to support children’s literacy development while avoiding long-standing pitfalls and difficulties inherent in integrating new technologies into classroom instruction (Cuban, 2001; Newman, 1990; Sheingold, 1991). In this chapter we consider the role that research has played, is playing, and might play in addressing this timely and important topic.

Caveats and Multiple Realities

Several important caveats and multiple realities shape our consideration of research pertaining to computers and the development of young children’s literacy. First, the research base is broad and shallow. It is broad because digital technologies have implications for virtually all areas and issues of reading and writing and because they introduce new topics for consideration (Reinking, 1994; 1998). It is shallow as illustrated by the US National Reading Panel’s (2002) report indicating that only 21 quantitative studies addressing the use of computers in early reading instruction met its stringent criteria for consideration (see also Kamil and Lane, 1998; Kamil et al., 2000).

Further, as we have argued previously (Labbo and Reinking, 1999), the connection between research and practice can only be considered in relation to the multiple realities represented by those who conceptualize and conduct research and by those who seek guidance from it. The theoretical stances (or lack thereof) of researchers and the pedagogical assumptions of practitioners create multiple realities influencing what research is carried out and what findings are considered important and relevant. For example, early childhood educators and researchers influenced respectively by the perspectives of educators such as Chall, Vygotsky, Brunner, Piaget, Montessori, or Malaguzzi may have much different conceptions of how technology might benefit young children.

A related caveat is that research pertaining to the use of computers with young children has been conceptualized and conducted within a rapidly shifting landscape affecting what topics are considered relevant. During the relatively short history of educational computing and the research pertaining to it, the power and range of computer-based applications for children inside and outside school have expanded exponentially, as have educators’ understanding and imaginative exploration of how computer technology might play a role in child development. Likewise, views of early literacy and literacy instruction have changed and have become politicized, particularly in the US and in the UK. Finally, the methods and epistemologies of educational research have broadened to include naturalistic forms of inquiry.

Despite these caveats and multiple realities, we believe that a broad look at the research, which includes not only experimental studies but also methods such as ethnographies, case studies surveys, and formative experiments, may lead to useful insights about the use of computers with young children. Findings are rarely definitive and firm principles are hard to find. Nonetheless, at the very least, the directions and issues pursed by researchers suggest some major themes and tentative conclusions that might focus the attention of both researchers and educators on how digital technologies might be integrated into the literacy development of young children. In this chapter we outline those directions, themes, and conclusions, taking a focused look at the recent relevant literature.

A Brief History

Research on the role of computers in literacy education has had a relatively short, yet peripatetic, and sometimes tumultuous history that reflects not only often grudging acceptance of new and rapidly changing technologies but also broader shifts in perspectives on literacy pedagogy and research methodologies. A brief overview of that history helps contextualize the direction and findings of research. It also clearly illustrates the multiple realities that define what research is considered relevant by whom under what circumstances.

The earliest studies on the use of computers for reading instruction were conducted in the 1960s by Richard Atkinson and his colleagues at Stanford University (Atkinson and Hansen, 1966-7). Their goal was unapologetically ambitious, and in retrospect naive: to use a mainframe computer to deliver beginning reading instruction that would develop competent readers without the need for a teacher. Although their work laid the foundation for subsequent commercial materials, interest in using computers for early literacy development remained dormant through the 1970s due in part to the strong reaction against the Stanford project by the mainstream education community (Spache, 1967), but mainly because of the technological and practical limitations of mainframe computers.

However, with the appearance of the personal microcomputer, the early 1980s witnessed the beginning of research and publications focusing on using computers in the early grades (e.g. Alexander, 1983; Barnes and Hill, 1983; Bradley; 1982; Clements, 1983-4; Cuffaro, 1984; Hungate, 1982; Lavin and Sanders, 1982). Readiness and skill-based perspectives reflected in drill-and-practice applications dominated commercial software developed during the 1980s and into the 1990s and consequently influenced how computers were used in early literacy instruction during that period. Researchers investigated the effects of these new applications and also quickly determined that even preschool children had no difficulty acquiring the skills needed to interact with a computer (Binder and Ledger, 1985; Clements and Nastasi, 1993a; 1983b; Gore et al., 1989; Hess and McGarvey, 1987; Watson et al., 1986). It also became clear that computer-based technologies could uniquely accommodate the needs of young children in ways that went beyond conventional printed materials (e.g. special alphabetically arranged keyboards) and by eliminating the need for independent reading skills for beginning literacy activities (e.g. digitized or synthesized speech to provide directions and feedback).

Resurrecting the goals of the Stanford project (Atkinson and Hansen, 1966-7), several comprehensive computer-based curricular and management programmes referred to as integrated learning systems (ILSs) became prominent in the 1980s. One prominent ILS of this period, Writing to Read (Martin, 1986), was heavily promoted by IBM Corporation and was adopted by many schools across the US. Interestingly, it combined skills-based phonics instruction delivered by the computer with writing activities (using IBM typewriters) and children’s literature that were more characteristic of whole language perspectives. Nonetheless, it appealed more to those with a skills-based, phonics orientation than those invested in more child-centred approaches. The research conducted on Writing to Read is illustrative of an often-repeated pattern for other commercial ventures. Initially, positive results are reported from studies conducted or sponsored by the company or organization developing the programme. Then, independent researchers point out flaws in the research or conduct their own studies that produce less favourable findings (e.g. Krendl and Williams, 1990; Slavin, 1991). Amid debates about whether the research does or does not support the programme, individual teachers adapt the programme to their own needs and perspectives, often in ways that are different from the intent of those who designed the programme (Labbo et al., 1995-6; see also Bruce and Rubin, 1993).

ILSs such as Writing to Read became less popular in the early 1990s because of their expense, their lack of clearly demonstrated success (Becker, 1992), and their inconsistencies with popular views of early literacy instruction. However, as Patterson et al. (in press) have argued, ILSs experienced a resurgence of popularity in the late 1990s. This resurgence may be explained in part by the increasing emphasis particularly in the US on skills-based phonics instruction in early reading that is a consequence of politically driven initiatives aimed at promoting that perspective (e.g. the Reading First Act and the No Child Left Behind initiative in the US). However, Patterson et al. (in press) concluded in their study of the Waterford Program (, a heavily phonics-based ILS, that it too did not live up to claims of increasing achievement more than control classrooms. More importantly, they found that teacher variables including type of management and interaction patterns explained much more variance in achievement than did the ILS.

Educational trends in the 1990s affected the content and direction of research pertaining to computers and the development of young children’s literacy, creating new realities. For example, pervasive use of e-mail and the World Wide Web during the 1990s made it much clearer that new conceptions of literacy and literate behaviours are needed (Leu and Kinzer, 2000). Likewise, software developers exploited the exponential expansion of computing memory and speed to create multimedia activities. For example, many CD-ROMs entered the market as multimedia versions of popular children’s stories that engaged children in a variety of interactions with the story that were not possible in printed form. And, as before, these technological developments stimulated research into these new uses and capabilities (e.g. Labbo and Kuhn, 1998). Also during the 1990s definitions of literacy began to include non-print media (e.g. Flood et al., 1997). Reinforcing this broader view was a shift towards sociocultural perspectives that emphasized dimensions of literacy related to contextual factors in school (and notably now outside school), social interactions, and the ideologies that shaped conceptions of literacy and literacy development.

Research too took a turn toward more naturalistic methods. For example, rather than investigating the immediate effects of whether hundreds of children in many classrooms using a computer-based phonics activity for a relatively short time outperformed those who used some other medium, a researcher in the 1990s was as likely to conduct an ethnographic or case study investigating how computers may affect patterns of social interaction and language complexity during writing activities (e.g. Kent and Rakestraw, 1994). There was also a corresponding interest in the process of how new technologies became integrated into literacy instruction (Bruce and Rubin, 1993; Garner and Gillingham, 1998) and how children learned with a computer not from a computer (Clements and Nastasi, 1993a). This line of research has been supported by the considerable evidence that new technologies are not readily integrated into instruction, nor do they readily transform traditional patterns of instruction (e.g. Cuban 2001; Windschitl and Sahl, 2002).

Nonetheless, counterbalancing this trend during the 1990s was an increasing politicization of reading instruction, particularly in the US and to some extent in other countries such as the UK (e.g. Beard, 2000), with central governments and governmental agencies and commissions valuing and sanctioning conventional product-oriented achievement through legislative and funding initiatives that privilege experimental over qualitative methods (e.g. the National Reading Panel in the US). In addition, that governmental influence has been relatively narrowly focused on phonemic aspects of beginning reading rather than literacy development broadly considered. Thus, as we write this chapter, we would argue that unfortunate bifurcations exist within the research community, particularly across theoretical, methodological and disciplinary lines, and that this general condition is clearly reflected in the current state of research concerning the use of computers with young children (see Leu, 2000, and Kamil et al., 2000, for additional support for this view). However, some recent studies employing new approaches to research, often using mixed methods (e.g. Karchmer, 2001; Patterson et al., in press; Reinking and Watkins, 2000), offer some promise to cross these boundaries. In addition, some researchers have advocated taking a broader ecological perspective (e.g. Bruce and Hogan, 1998) in considering how new technologies of written communication may affect reading and writing.

So, given the rapid shifts and multiple influences and realities evident during this relatively brief history, what, if anything, do we know about the role of computers in early literacy development? What have we learned from research? What themes emerge as important, beyond those we have already highlighted? What research is needed? What theoretical positions might be useful? We now turn to these and related questions.

Issues, Findings, and Theories

In this section we synthesize pedagogical issues, research findings, and theoretical perspectives by presenting five broad themes spanning the divergent historical trends and multiple realities discussed in the previous section. The themes clearly overlap to some extent, and they are certainly not the only themes that might be generated. Nonetheless, this admittedly personal list allows us to provide some structure to a broad and divergent area of research. The five themes are as follows: in relation to young children’s literacy development, computers (1) support writing, (2) contribute to the development of phonological abilities, (3) enable more independent reading, (4) foster social interaction and collaboration, and (5) transform instruction and introduce new literacy skills and awareness.

Supporting Writing Development

A growing body of research indicates that computer technology can support young children’s development of writing ability. Research has focused on how computers can support that development from the perspective of emergent literacy and process writing and through the use of word processing and other software aimed at creative expression. An emergent literacy perspective with its emphasis on creative, natural experimentation with writing (Teale and Sulzby, 1986) is well matched to the capabilities of the computer. For example, in our work (Labbo, 1996) kindergarten children who worked independently to produce stories using a software application that allowed students to express themselves with pictures and text achieved cognitive growth, child-initiated collaborative work, and development of literacy insights as they attempted to solve problems they encountered while composing. Activities involving the computer provided multimedia scaffolding not available in conventional printed material, allowing children to explore symbolic representations but also providing them with opportunities to develop conventional literacy skills such as letter recognition, directionality, punctuation, and sound-symbol correspondence (see Bangert-Drowns, 1989; Rosengrant, 1988) and on how they could represent their intended meaning in symbolic form (Borgh and Dickson, 1986; Rosengrant, 1988). Likewise, working from the perspective of emergent literacy (Teale and Sulzby, 1986), Lomangino et al. (1999) documented that many children begin to form mental connections among writing, print, and symbol making as they engage in acts of writing with computers.

Standard word processing applications aimed at more advanced writers have also been made available to young children. Cochran-Smith (1991) suggested that word processing programs have the potential to support children’s ability to engage in sophisticated writing processes and production. She stated that word processors overcome ‘difficulties of print production that often preoccupy young writers, and facilitate the physical manipulation and revision of text without necessitating rewriting and recopying – tasks which are often laborious and sometimes even counterproductive for elementary school age children’ (1991: 108). One long-standing line of research has focused on the influence of word processing programs on young children’s written expression, literacy development and benefits when writing with a computer as compared to writing with pens and pencils (e.g. Cochran-Smith, 1991; Edinger, 1994; Olson and Johnston, 1989). However, some scholars have questioned the advisability of conducting research aimed at comparing paper and pencil to computer writing (Kelly and O’Kelly, 1993; Leu, 1997; Reinking, 1994) because word processing has proven by its widespread use that it is clearly superior for most purposes. Nonetheless, this generalization may not hold for young children.

Studies report mixed results on the effects of word processors on children’s literacy development and ability to write (Hunter, 1990; Joram et al., 1992); however, the overall conclusion seems to be that they are beneficial. Word processing has been found to increase the amount of children’s metacognitive, self-guiding talk, their number of revisions, and the overall lexical density and organizational cohesiveness of written products when compared to writing generated with paper and pencil (Jones and Pellegrini, 1996; Moeller, 1993). Likewise, word processing enhanced students’ abilities to maintain a specific topic focus throughout their writing efforts (Cochran-Smith et al., 1991), provided encouragement for non-motivated writers (Cochran-Smith et al., 1988), resulted in more writing (Chang and Osguthorpe, 1990; Clements, 1987; Daiute, 1988; Rosengrant, 1986), and supported children’s improvement of writing skills (Moxley and Warash, 1992). Phenix and Hannan (1984) describe how young children utilized printouts to read a legible version of what they had written by hand (the original text was extremely difficult to read).

Studies also indicate that writing with computers facilitates a process approach to writing (Calkins, 1983; 1986; Graves, 1983) by enhancing, for example, brainstorming, drafting, revising, publishing). Children have been found to gain confidence in their writing abilities (Phenix and Hannan, 1984) and to exhibit positive attitudes toward writing and writing process approaches (Bangert-Drowns, 1989; Leher et al., 1987) when using word processors and other computer-based applications that encourage and facilitate writing. Leher et al. (1987) note that preschoolers, who playfully wrote with word processors, exhibited an ability to brainstorm and collect their thoughts as they generated ideas for a topic before they wrote. Apparently, as children brainstorm, write drafts, revise, edit, and publish with a word processing program, they can focus more on managing and organizing their ideas and less on tedious or mechanical aspects of writing (Jones, 1994).

More recent studies have focused more specifically on aspects of children’s writing that may be affected by writing with computers. For example, there is some evidence that children who have access to revising tools on computer screens also have opportunities to conceptually grasp the notion that print is changeable and that composing involves the manipulation and refinement not only of text but also of ideas (Labbo and Kuhn, 1998). Fletcher (2001) reported a case study in which students who used computers made better editing decisions; however, they did not consistently utilize feedback provided by editing tools such as spell or grammar checks. Tancock (2002), on the other hand, noted that young children did not consistently benefit from spell-check options because their attempts to spell were not close enough to conventional spelling to result in a display of options for correctly spelled words. Kahn (1997) found that children writing with a computer were able to shift their perspectives from seeing writing as primarily an activity that involved the production of neatly printed text to seeing writing as centred on audience awareness, sharing information, and focusing on a particular topic.

Developing Phonological Abilities

From the earliest days of instructional computing, computers have been considered useful for teaching sound-symbol correspondences, inspiring researchers to investigate how the computer might enhance early literacy instruction in this area (e.g. Atkinson and Hansen, 1966-7). Interest in this area was spawned in part because it is relatively easy to conceptualize and program tutorial and drill-and-practice instruction in entertaining game-like formats when content can be specified as a hierarchy of discrete skills, as is typically the case for learning letter names and the sounds. Despite cautions from many literacy educators that drill-and-practice applications may undermine the goals of early literacy instruction (e.g. Clements, 1999), others have pointed out that such applications can play an important role in developing phonological abilities (e.g. Barker and Torgesen, 1995).

The research literature provides considerable support for the contention that computers can contribute to the development of phonological abilities. Much of that literature involves investigating applications in which the computer provides audio support for children who have not yet become fluent decoders. For example, using the computer to generate synthesized or digitized speech and isolated speech sounds has been an ongoing area of software development and research. Several of these research efforts have led to commercial products (e.g. Hint and Hunt based on research by Roth and Beck, 1987) or have investigated the effectiveness of commercial products (e.g. Barker and Torgesen’s 1995 research on Daisy Quest and Daisys Dilemma). The underlying assumption of these efforts is that the computer can enhance individualized instruction and provide independent practice in learning various phonological aspects of written language. Studies that have demonstrated increases in phonological awareness using this capability with a variety of populations include Foster et al. (1994) and Reitsma and Wesseling (1998) with emergent readers; Wise and Olson (1995) and Barker and Torgesen (1995) with developing readers experiencing problems in learning to read; Barron et al. (1998) with neurologically impaired children; Lundberg (1995) with special education students; and Ho and Ma (1999) with Chinese dyslexic children.

A longitudinal study by Reitsma and Wesseling (1998) is noteworthy. They investigated the effects of computer-based activities designed to increase phonological awareness with children who moved from kindergarten to first grade in the Netherlands. This study offers strong evidence that computer-based activities can develop phonological awareness, because it took into account multiple factors: (1) computer application factors (e.g. programs that specifically target phonemic blending activities administered outside of the classroom focus on the computer screen as a learning environment); (2) child factors including not only phonological ability but also literacy factors in the home based on extensive interviews with caregivers; (3) classroom teacher factors (e.g. classroom observations and teacher questionnaires); and (4) impact and durability of the training (e.g. follow-up testing to determine children’s decoding and word recognition abilities and transfer of learning to tasks without the computer).

We believe that this comprehensive and rigorous approach (e.g. a comparison group that used the computer for vocabulary instruction) that employs quantitative and qualitative data gathered longitudinally is exemplary, and thus this study provides especially convincing findings. Further, their findings offer three important insights that are consistent with previous research. First, the computer learning environment offered a successful approach to supporting children’s development of foundational skills. Children trained in phonological awareness skills using the computer gained significantly more in blending skill abilities than control group children. Secondly, the classroom learning environment influenced children’s acquisition of basic skills. Thirdly, the skills gained were durable and transferable outside of the initial learning environment. When post-tests were administered to children at the six-month stage of first grade, children who engaged in the computer-based activities remained significantly better decoders.

Thus, there is considerable evidence that computers offer effective instructional options for helping young children acquire phonological abilities. Some of the studies highlighted in the following sections add support to this conclusion.

Enabling Independent Reading

Digital texts can provide various supports during independent reading that are not available in printed texts. They may employ diverse media effects including speech, sound, animation, movies, and rapid links to diverse textual and graphic representations. For example, children reading a story in digital form might click on an unfamiliar word to hear it pronounced or to obtain its meaning; they might select an option to hear the entire story read aloud by the computer; or they might click on objects in an illustration to see them animate. Together these capabilities remove some of the barriers to independent reading and comprehension that are inherent in conventional materials. Thus, digital texts may be less difficult to read and understand, and they may be more engaging, and thus more likely to be read independently by young children.

The widespread introduction of CD-ROM technology in the 1990s gave considerable impetus to this area of computer use, particularly in the development of computerized versions of popular children’s books. Two series of books on CD-ROM were introduced respectively by Discis Books (1990) and Living Books (1990) during this period. Such stories and capabilities were and are quite popular in schools and homes and widely used, and they have begun to migrate to the Internet. But what does the research have to say about the use of such capabilities and their ability to facilitate independent reading and learning among young children? Can children who interact with digital texts with various supports and media effects develop (or perhaps lose) a sense of story structure, gain foundational concepts about printed and digital reading and writing, increase vocabulary, incidentally acquire sight words, read more independently?

Unlike areas of research involving computers, the research investigating computer-based activities to enhance independent reading and comprehension has been guided by theoretical perspectives (Reinking, 1998). For example, Salomon et al. (1989) saw the computer as a ‘reading partner’ that helped children read in their ‘zone of proximal development’ in the Vygotskian (Vygotsky, 1978) sense. They found that children were more often able to read and comprehend texts when the computer provided support during independent reading in the following categories: modelling, activating relevant cognitive processes, and offering guidance.

Using the computer’s capability to allow children support during independent reading has led to increases in conventional reading skills. For example, Reitsma (1988) found that Dutch children who used the assistance available in electronic passages learned target words more readily than children in a comparison group (see Olson et al., 1986, for similar results with learning disabled students). More recent work with eight-year-old children in Canada (Miller et al., 1994) indicated that children who engage in multiple readings of electronic text over time access word pronunciations less frequently, a finding which may indicate growth in word recognition rates and abilities. Other research conducted along these lines of inquiry suggests that listening to an electronic story helps young children develop a sense of story, extends vocabulary, increases knowledge of words, enhances story comprehension for children who read below grade level, and enriches concepts about print (Lewin, 1995; McKenna, 1998). These findings indicate the potential of talking books to introduce very young children to foundational concepts about print.

In a recent series of experiments McKenna and his colleagues (McKenna, 1998; McKenna et al., 2001; McKenna and Watkins, 1994; 1995; 1996) investigated young children reading digital versions of children’s books. They termed these books ‘talking books’, because the computer provided audio reading of the text, the pronunciation of unfamiliar words, and phonics analogies (e.g. comparing ‘bat’ and ‘cat’) depending on the condition. They viewed these forms of assistance as ‘electronic scaffolds’. However, specifically they were interested in determining if and under what forms of assistance kindergarten and first-grade children might acquire phonological and sight word knowledge while reading high quality children’s literature. Among the findings that emerged from these studies are that providing pronunciations alone does not enhance phonological awareness, that children who have little knowledge of the alphabetic principle do not benefit from phonics analogies, and that increases in sight word knowledge are related to increases in phonological awareness.

Another major line of theoretically grounded research includes studies using qualitative methods to investigate children’s interactions with stories in digital form, delivered via commercial CD-ROMs. In our work (Labbo and Kuhn, 2000) in this area we employed Wittrock’s (1986) generative learning model as a qualitative case study frame for understanding a kindergarten child’s meaning making processes and story comprehension. Extending to electronic narratives Armbruster and Anderson’s (1984) notion of considerate and inconsiderate expository texts, we were interested in determining what features of the electronic texts enhanced children’s interaction with the story in relation to their recall of the narrative. Findings indicated that considerate CD-ROM talking books enabled the child to cohesively retell the story and utilize meaning making processes that chained together complex affective, cognitive and metacognitive processes. Inconsiderate CD-ROM talking books interfered with the child’s comprehension as evidenced by a fragmented retelling. Furthermore, interactions during reading generated passive viewing and suspended efforts to make meaning. We surmised that when teachers wish to support children’s comprehension of story with electronic stories, it is vital to determine if the content and multimedia features are congruent or incongruent with the narrative (see also Scoresby, 1996; Smith, 2001).

Lewin (1996) has also raised concerns about the use of talking books for young children’s literacy development. She wondered about the long-term consequences if children become so dependent on the computer to pronounce unknown words that they do not begin to develop adequate word recognition strategies. She raises concerns that talking books might result in fewer thoughtful interactions and more passive viewing behaviours (see Carroll, 1999). On the other hand, researchers continue to report benefits of talking books (Matthew, 1997; McKenna and Watkins, 1994; 1995; 1996; Talley and Lancy, 1995). However, contextual factors may often outweigh the benefits of even the most carefully designed and research-based application. For example, Talley and Lancy’s (1995) study of children in a Head Start programme indicated that CD-ROM talking books were useful if they were integrated as an enhancement to an existing developmentally appropriate instructional programme.

Fostering Social Interaction and Collaboration

Social interaction and collaboration are valued among those interested in developing young children’s literacy, and that view has been frequently supported by sociocognitive views of literacy development as proposed most notably by Vygotsky (1978). Although some have expressed concerns that computers may reduce first-hand social interactions, that concern has not been supported in research involving the use of computers with young children in schools. In fact, when computers are integrated into classroom instruction in more than perfunctory ways, they have been shown to enhance significantly social interaction and collaboration, often involving reading and writing activities.

For example, early research indicated that word processing activities increased young children’s collaboration during writing (Bruce et al., 1985; Hoot and Kimler, 1987; Phenix and Hannan, 1984) and that children who are more capable or knowledgeable may scaffold less able children’s literacy development and ability to write (Tharp and Gallimore, 1988). Wild and Braid (1996) noted that collaborative or cooperative computer-related word processing experiences foster children’s engagement with meaning making, cognitively oriented discussions, and task-focused talk. Dickinson (1986) found that computer monitors provided a shared viewing platform that made children’s writing more public, accessible and readable for peers. Thus, as children shared computer composing spaces, computer composing tools (e.g. keyboards, mice), or writing goals they felt more accountable to discuss their writing plans, to elicit ideas and to respond thoughtfully to the writing of others.

More recently Lomangino et al. (1999) delved more closely into the nature of children’s computer-related collaborations by exploring three case studies of child dyads. They reported inconsistencies in children’s ability to successfully collaborate. For example, during computer collaborations, many children’s interactive conversational patterns consisted in large part of a struggle for control about using technology tools and whose ideas to include. Children’s friendship relationships and status in the class also influenced the tone and benefits of collaborations. Liaw (1997) conducted a related study investigating interactions among third-grade students who had limited language proficiency (LEP) while they were engaged in reading computerized versions of books that made available various types of assistance: corners to show page turn, music and sound effects. The children’s comments began by focusing on computer functions. However, after several sessions, talk shifted to story content, leading Liaw to conclude that, ‘regardless of their grade levels and English language proficiency levels, the LEP children used English to read, command, suggest, question, respond, explain, express emotion, express opinions, and describe images and actions’ (1997: 69).

Computers have also been used to enhance interactions among young children through sociodramatic play and learning centres. Learning and development through play have long been recognized as an important component of early childhood classrooms (Glickman, 1979). Young children naturally engage in play, and their play with peers in early childhood classrooms may involve complex role playing, decision making, and socially negotiated problem solving that make important contributions to their cognitive, social, and emotional development (Morrow, 1990; Neuman and Roskos, 1992). Some educators have raised concerns that computers may not afford adequate learning environments for children to playfully engage with literacy learning in developmentally appropriate ways (Elkind, 1996; Healy, 1998). However, we believe that research supports the possibility that computers can be integrated into learning environments in productive ways that capitalize on young children’s natural eagerness to learn through play (Freeman and Somerindyke, 2001; Gillen, 2002; Labbo et al., 1996; Smith, 2001), and that indeed young children are capable of various forms of play that involves computers (Escobedo, 1992).

An example from our own work (Labbo et al., 1996) illustrates the possibilities for enhancing literacy development of young children through sociodramatic computer play. We used a cardboard model of a computer as a prop in a centre set up as a flower shop. The children first went to an actual flower shop to learn how the computers were used, which included correspondence, printing greeting cards, creating signs, and so forth. In the classroom, students pretended they were running a flower shop at the play centre which included telephones, order forms, and the computer as literacy. Children playfully mimicked the workplace literate activities they had observed in the real flower shop, which we believe reinforced perceptions of a computer as a natural tool for literacy.

Insights about computers and play can be found in a year-long qualitative study conducted by Smith (2001) on her 2.5-year-old son, James. Her analysis revealed that James’ playtime with CD-ROM stories developed his conceptual and practical understanding of various links and symbolic modes. She explained that, while the sequence of the story pages and presentation of CD-ROM talking book text is not altered, various multimedia effects and information links offer differing story paths. Smith notes that her son’s non-computer playtime was just as likely to involve pretending to be a hypertextual screen object as it was to involve pretending to be Batman. Interestingly, James’ computer experiences extended to other life events. For example, he told his mother that he used a ‘dream mouse’ to click and stop a bad dream.

A promising line of research on the role of culturally responsive, playful computer learning environments is provided in a formative, exploratory study. Pinkard (1999) evaluated two computer games that were intended to build on the out-of-school language play engaged in by many young African-American children. When the seven-through 10-year-old children, who enjoyed rap music, playground chants, jump rope rhymes, and clapping games, participated in the games created by the researcher, they encountered language activity with which they were already familiar, but that focused on more conventional literacy skills such as phonological awareness. Results indicated that students were highly motivated to play with the programs, and they progressed in sight word knowledge as measured by delayed post-tests.

Another natural way to integrate computers into instruction is to use them in less socially oriented classroom centres. However, some educators have cautioned that using computers in classroom learning centres does not constitute an appropriate learning environment for young children because the computer exacerbates the limited opportunities using oral language in interaction with others (Healy, 1998; Henninger, 1994). Those who take this perspective are likely to view children’s computer work in centres as an isolated, solitary activity involving low-level skills. Indeed, that may be the case, but we do not believe that it must be.

For example, Kelly and Schorger’s (2001) recent six-month study examined the number of utterances made by 25 kindergarten children during free time play in computer and in traditional centres (e.g. blocks, classroom library, art, and sociodramatic play). Findings indicated that there were no significant differences in the majority of the children’s mean length of utterance. The researchers posited that when children use computers as a self-selected activity, their language is as rich, expressive, and regulatory as is the language they use in more traditional centres. In a related line of inquiry, Freeman and Somerindyke (2001) used an observational approach aimed at understanding whether four-and five-year-old children could serve as mutually supportive peers in accomplishing computer activities. They found that children assumed mutually supportive roles including offering assistance in using a mouse and in sharing strategies for navigating through computer applications.

Our own qualitative investigations suggest that when children are given ample time, individually and collaboratively, to playfully explore computer applications during their centre work, they have occasions to learn keyboard functions (e.g. making upper-case letters), action schemes (manipulating a string of computer operations to accomplish a goal), and vocabulary terms (e.g. metalinguistic knowledge that enables shared problem solving: Labbo, 1996). However, we also found that five-year-old children’s attempts to collaborate indicated that teachers play a key role in setting up a context that allows for all children to benefit (Labbo et al., 2000).

In sum, these studies indicate the rich possibilities that computers offer for fostering social interaction and collaboration. Computers can be incorporated into playful activities, and there is some evidence that doing so may contribute sub-stantively to language and literacy development. However, successful implementation and tangible benefits are dependent on a variety of contextual factors.

Transforming Instruction and Introducing New Literacy Skills

Among those who write about the use of computers in education there is a common view that educators have been slow to integrate technology into instruction and that they have been slow to recognize the desirable and needed transformations that new technologies afford (Cuban, 2001; International Society for Technology in Education, 2002; Leu and Kinzer, 2000). Papert (1993) went so far as to compare the typical school’s stance towards computers to white blood cells attacking an invading virus. Yet, in our view, we see the computer making gradual, but steady, inroads into instruction with many teachers integrating technology more fully into their instruction and also recognizing the need to address the new literacy skills that are increasingly evident in everyday life. In this section we highlight what we see to be some of the more promising and needed areas of transformation in light of relevant research.

Communicating via e-mail is now ubiquitous in modern nations, providing many opportunities for personally meaningful reading and writing. Likewise, the World Wide Web puts people easily in contact with diverse information and individuals worldwide. With the increased availability of computers and Internet access in schools, even young children now have opportunities to communicate and to locate information online. For example, e-mail has encouraged exchanges between students around the world (Garner and Gillingham, 1998; Tao and Reinking, 2000; Tao et al., 1997), and Zhao et al. (1999) observed that the Internet offers a high level of connectivity that is an especially appealing avenue for literacy instruction. They stated, ‘Connectivity relates to the capacity for communication among peers and between students and experts as students access information beyond the classroom walls, but also enables seamless data sharing across activities’ (1999: 5). For example, e-mail and the Internet have the potential to engage students in reading that is inherently meaningful, which is not only motivating but also provides opportunities to practise and reinforce developing reading skills in authentic contexts.

Garner and Gillingham (1998) present a good illustration of this potential, although their research involved mostly students beyond the primary grades. They present six case studies of e-mail use by teachers in diverse settings. They documented how e-mail exchanges between students in one typical American classroom and students in Alaska provided an opportunity to experience writing in a context that promoted sociocultural understandings. They also documented how elementary school children gained new literacy skills. For example, students learned to embed topics in ongoing exchanges to create a meaningful context for their geographically, and often socially, distant correspondents; how to delete irrelevant details; and how to be appropriately responsive to messages.

That e-mail may be a useful activity for the development of literacy in the young can be seen in Yost’s (2000) first-person narrative documenting e-mail use by kindergarten. She reported a progression in the way that she employed e-mail. She began by allowing the few children whose parents had e-mail accounts to send notes home (e.g. reminders about overdue library books etc.). Later, when she realized that all of the families had access to e-mail, it became an integral part of her kindergarten literacy curriculum. Children engaged in more writing, but they also needed to be provided with choices about, for example, what type of spelling they would use, when they would send messages, and what they would communicate. Interestingly, she found that after pre-service teacher educators volunteered to type children’s dictation, many children withdrew because they felt writing had become an obligation. We believe more research along these lines would provide important insights into how e-mail might be incorporated into activities in the preschool and primary grades and into what factors seem associated with positive outcomes for literacy development.

Internet access supports inquiry projects, and integrated, thematic cross-disciplinary activities, which are an influential way to invite children to learn about and share relevant content while employing all of the language arts. When children’s purposes are to assemble and communicate knowledge from various resources (print based and screen based), they are likely to become more strategic and self-directed. Such approaches have great potential for integrating computers into the fabric of classroom life and for leveraging the power of multimedia to enhance children’s electronic literacy development.

For example, in our own work (Labbo et al., 1995) we investigated children’s opportunities for literacy development when a class of nine-year-old children in Taiwan exchanged e-mail questions with their counterparts in an American classroom. The third-grade students were motivated to frequently exchange electronic messages, which was more affordable, accessible and quicker than placing telephone calls or sending letters. The topics of children’s exchanges focused on material culture (e.g. lifestyles, food choices, parents’ careers, typical school day).

On the other hand, when Upitis (1990) explored the use of e-mail as a cross-cultural communicative tool, she found that teachers initially thought of the communications in terms of contrived and traditional paper and pencil activities. When Canadian keypals were paired with students in Boston, children wrote introductions in a traditional letter format. Furthermore, the teachers selected topics and projects they thought would be interesting. Children quickly lost interest because it did not allow them to become personally invested in authentic communication for authentic purposes. However, interestingly, after the project was abandoned, children initiated their own e-mail correspondences that entailed a series of exchanges focused on playfully pretending and role playing messages from creatures from outer space. Upitis concludes that educators need to make ‘A distinction between really needing a tool and creating a use for a tool, arguing that too many contrived projects rely on the second option’ (1990: 92). This finding again illustrates that sometimes subtle contextual factors and variations in implementation may determine the success of any computer-based activity.

Karchmer (2001) reported on 13 K-12 exemplary teachers’ perceptions of how the Internet influences their literacy instruction. Insights from semi-structured interviews indicated that the Internet did influence the elementary teachers’ decision making and instruction, and they reported devoting a great deal of time to locating appropriate and accurate Internet materials. Appropriate materials were considered to be within a range of reading levels present in their classrooms, include audiovisual aids or digitized speech to support children’s comprehension, and connect to class themes. A kindergarten teacher reported, ‘The biggest problem are Web sites with too much text. I find sites with graphics. Pictures [and] any kind of animated graphics are very intriguing to my students’ (2001: 455). Most teachers reported publishing students’ work on the Internet, which they believed was beneficial to literacy development.

We believe more research is needed to investigate not only how teachers of young children use computers in transformative ways, but how they come to understand and accept new roles, responsibilities, and opportunities in light of now common digital forms of written communication. One way that this may occur is by seeing computer-based activities as a logical extension of the long-standing pedagogical perspectives and roles associated with teachers of young children. Two examples are sociodramatic play and classroom learning centres, to which we now turn.

Future Directions

As we move into the twenty-first century, diverse viewpoints and many controversies continue to permeate discussions of the computer’s role in education and child development. For some, the steadily increasing role of computers in education, the empirical evidence, and the future potential of computers in classrooms represent an epic journey that will profoundly transform literacy and promote new educational paradigms that offer educational benefits for children (Bolter, 1991; Clements and Nastasi, 1993a; 1993b; Gilster, 1997; Leu, 1997; Papert, 1993; Sheingold, 1991; Tapscott, 1998). These advocates extol the capacities of computers to open new vistas of learning for youngsters who may use computers to go on virtual field trips to Mars, to conduct inquiry projects with students in geographically and culturally distant classrooms, and to publish their multimedia work for a worldwide audience on the Web (see, Leu, 1997). Their enthusiasm and confidence are often grounded in a reality that supports a transformation of instruction toward more progressive, child-centred instruction (e.g. International Society for Technology in Education, 2002). Other enthusiasts, with a more teacher-directed and curriculum-based reality, see the benefits of computers in terms of their potential to deliver instruction more reliably and individually, especially for children experiencing problems in developing conventional literacy skills (e.g. Olson et al., 1997).

For others, the same unfolding chronicle of educational computing is a story of unrealized promise and credible dangers (Barnes and Hill, 1983; Bikerts, 1995; Clements, 1987; Elkind, 1987; Healy, 1998). Such views are even held by those outside of the educational arena. For example, medical authorities, albeit with little evidence, caution that computer games may promote violence, dangerous stereotypes, lowered self-esteem, and a passive, sedentary lifestyle (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2000). During the previous two decades, the tensions that exist between outright pessimism and unfailing optimism concerning the use of computers in classrooms have been especially apparent in the realm of early childhood literacy education (Clements, 1987; Clements and Nastasi, 1993a; Cuban, 2001).

In this chapter we have argued that a sufficient body of research currently exists to provide guidance for researchers and practitioners about what constitutes useful, necessary, and appropriate early literacy instruction in relation to digital technologies. However, we also acknowledge that some research in the area of young children’s computer-related literacy development is exploratory and continues to emerge. Thus, findings are not definitive and clearly more research is needed, especially given the rapidly changing landscape of digital communication. Taking a historical perspective, we have noted that conceptions of relevant research have persistently changed as computer-based technologies have evolved; as perspectives on early literacy have shifted; as qualitative research methodologies and related theoretical perspectives have gained recognition among researchers; and as educators have begun to realize that digital forms of literacy activities change virtually everything about conventional print-based conceptions of literacy instruction. Furthermore, we have taken the perspective of multiple realities (Labbo and Reinking, 1999) that takes into consideration the contextual complexities involved in addressing the role of computer technologies in early childhood classrooms.

It is clear from our review of relevant research that many forces come into play when considering the effects of computer technologies on young children’s literacy development. Computer learning environments are complex and influenced by various factors including children’s literacy abilities, features of computer applications, the use of computer applications within larger classroom contexts, and the nature of learning conditions set up by teachers. Thus, it is also clear that context counts when it comes to effective use of computers in early childhood classrooms (see Kamil et al., 2000; Leu, 2000).

Teachers play a key role in orchestrating and determining the overall influence of computer technologies on children’s literacy development. When viewed as an integral component of classroom instructional life, computers do not serve as a standalone centre where children, connected to individual headphones, work in isolation at the mercy of never-ending worksheets presented on a computer screen. It is imperative for pre-service teacher education programmes and in-service teacher professional development efforts to emphasize the potentially transformative role that computers can play in young children’s literacy development; however, such training is likely to have little effect unless relevant factors pertaining to children, to computer applications and aspects of the technology, and learning environment are taken into consideration.

The field would benefit from more research agendas that acknowledge the multiple factors and multiple realities that may affect useful and appropriate uses of computers in the development of literacy among young children. This is no small challenge. New technologies such as hand-held computers, e-books, and other wireless, portable devices that are emerging at the time we are writing this chapter reflect a constantly changing technological landscape. Even more important and unpredictable is the way we incorporate these devices into our social worlds and how in turn we conceptualize reading and writing and our goals for developing literacy. The evolution of newer technologies also requires the thoughtful identification of theoretical constructs and practical principles of instruction that may be applied across various classroom contexts. We look forward to the next chapter in this unfolding story, and we hope that we have contributed in a small way here to addressing the challenges facing researchers and practitioners who are seeking informed guidance in addressing how computers can contribute to the development of literacy in young children.