Future Tense

Confusion and Disarray in the Education Aisle of the App Stores

What’re you learning there, kids?

Photo by Pavel L Photo and Video/Shutterstock

The touch-and-swipe interface of the digital marketplace makes it feel so easy. Looking for an app to teach your 5-year-old how to read? Flick your finger over to the education aisles of the App Store (or Google Play, or the Amazon Appstore), and press “buy.”

In reality, putting your finger on the right app takes a lot more effort. Glossy graphics belie a confusing mess. Since developers choose where to put their wares, many of them select the “education” section with little evidence that their products are educational. Their products might be better labeled as entertainment, but because they include characters that sing the ABCs, they reside in that borderland yet to be defined. It’s as if you arrived in the grocery aisle of Target to find packages of soap next to the boxes of cereal, which are jumbled in with jars of paprika and applesauce. In fact, the disorder is even worse because the packaging for the applesauce and the soap might lead you to think they are the same thing.

In 2012, in a report published by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, we named this bazaar the “digital wild west.” Two years later, our research teams went back to the app stores to conduct a deeper analysis. We explain the results in Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens, a new book and website for parents and educators, and in a report forthcoming this fall. Findings show that the marketplace is teeming with early literacy products that are disorganized, mismatched, and missing labels that could help consumers make better choices.

Why does this matter? First there’s the question of truth in labeling. Developers have an obligation to adhere to educational principles and tenets of child development if they are going to lead parents into thinking that children may learn something. Apps may look cheap ($2.99 here, 99 cents there), but those costs add up, especially when the purchases are made for siblings and multiple devices or by educators for use with 20 kids in a classroom. What’s more, in the physical world, if that container of applesauce happens to be full of soap, you can return it for your money back. Ever try to return an app?

The mismatch also matters because of the pressing need for young children to gain skills in language learning and early literacy and advance into strong readers by third grade. According to data from the Nation’s Report Card, more than two-thirds of fourth-graders in the United States cannot score high enough on literacy tests to meet the proficient mark. Fixing this problem—by helping teachers and parents find materials with a research base in language development and reading comprehension—is increasingly important, especially as children are spending more time with touchscreen tablets on a daily basis.

In our app-store study, Sarah Vaala and Anna Ly of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop scanned the Apple, Google, and Amazon app stores and downloaded scores of apps. They analyzed nearly 200 apps targeted to children ages 0–8, with emphasis on early literacy and the top 50 most popular apps in the education sections of those stores.

They soon discovered that few apps were labeled to help parents find particular products for particular ages. Instead, they were often vaguely described as being for “young children,” not recognizing there is a large difference between the needs of a 3-year-old and the needs of a 6-year-old. In fact, 40 percent of app descriptions in stores or on websites gave no discernible age range for the target users at all. Only 11 percent provided parents with an age range that spanned three years or less (“this app is for 3–5 year olds,” for example). This means parents may be paying for apps that are way too easy, or way too advanced.

Vaala and Ly compared the most popular apps with those that appeared on websites that apply some expertise and curation to the process of finding apps, including Common Sense Media, Parents’ Choice, and Children’s Technology Review. They found a disconnect between what the experts liked and what became most “popular” in the app stores. Also interesting: The experts put a premium on creativity and art (such as using drawings to express ideas) but found those kinds of apps to be rare in the “most popular” lists in app stores.

The science of reading, recently distilled in the excellent book Raising Kids Who Read, shows that children develop into readers by advancing through skills that grow in complexity, from producing and distinguishing between basic sounds to reading fluently and understanding what is read. Among the apps Vaala and Ly examined, however, this range was hard to find. For example, among free apps, more than 50 percent focused on teaching children to recognize the letters and sounds of the alphabet. Less than 10 percent of free apps focused on reading comprehension, and even rarer were skills like reading fluency (the ability to read without stumbling over certain words) and self-expression.

Looking inside the apps, they found other shortcomings. Very few allowed for children or parents to form social connections around the stories or games they were playing, few allowed for content to be shared among family members, and even fewer were explicitly designed to promote moments with parents and children learning from media together. These social interactions build foundational skills for being good readers and critical thinkers, and contrary to conventional wisdom, this kind of social interaction is, in fact, possible with digital technology—for instance, Skyping and reading a book with Grandma.

App stores need to do more to promote apps that encourage this deeper learning. For example, they could become stricter about what it takes to be part of their “education” sections and push developers to take the “education” label seriously. In the physical world, there are whole industries focused on the placement of products on the shop floor and regulations around packaging. It’s time for the equivalent digitally, with parents and educators first in mind.

Until then, it’s not only buyer beware, it’s “buyer, don’t expect miracles.” Apps can’t make up for the social interactions, content knowledge-building, and storytelling that parents and educators can and should be doing with children every day.