Children’s language ability is a foundation skill for all learning. Children who have a wide vocabulary and are confident speakers stand a better chance of developing their reading and writing skills and doing well at school in the future. There is a wide research consensus that parents’ role in children’s language development is indispensable and that it is not about one specific activity being better than another, but rather how parents engage with their child during an activity. Parents can, for example, talk to children during meal times, shared book reading or watching TV. They can also teach children new vocabulary and the purpose of communication when using language apps.
There are numerous ways in which parents can support children’s language and communication skills and the use of apps can add to the many strategies parents use. For example, asking open-ended questions, making supportive comments and linking objects in the environment to the child’s personal experience, are important all-time language-supporting techniques. Speaking to your child face-to-face, and getting on the same level (for instance sitting on the floor together) can also help reinforce language-learning as your child can pick up visual and emotional cues from your expressions.
Today, touchscreens are an integral part of many households, including homes where other material resources might not be available or accessible, and there is evidence to suggest that good quality digital resources can be beneficial for children’s learning. Touchscreen apps have thus become an important part of children’s communication, and are used by children independently or with their families.
As with any type of media for children, what’s appropriate (in terms of the content and how you use it) will depend on your child’s age and stage. Generally, the younger the child, the more structure, support and shared time with an adult is required to help the child get the most out of any touchscreen activity; time spent using a screen should also be limited. As children get older they naturally become more independent and will spend longer on activities (although grown-up interaction and time-limits are still necessary).
Language apps are software programs specifically designed to support children’s language development. They include language word games, with word search activities or flashcards, as well as apps that teach children foreign languages and contain animated dictionaries. Some apps aim to support children’s communication by involving the parent/main caregiver in the games. For example, The Easy Peasy app , supports language learning through play and is currently used by some UK schools and parents.
The advantage of using a language app is that it might contain some prompts and suggested questions that parents can consider when they talk with their children. Apps are available on portable touchscreens (smartphones or tablets), which means that they can be used in places where other resources are not available, such as, for example, when waiting at doctors or doing grocery shopping. Your child is likely to be engaged in a conversation that involves a language game, because of the highly attractive design of children’s apps. Many apps come with engaging sounds and images, which draw children in.
As with all resources developed for young children, the quality of the app- and its linguistic input- matters. Avoid apps that use automated voiceover with inappropriate or incomprehensible accents. Favour apps that provide the child with prompts and space for them to respond (for example by recording their own voiceover). To find some examples of language apps for 0-5-year olds, have a look at the Literacy App website select the category “speaking” and access a carefully curated list of apps. For children with more advanced language skills you can explore apps that connect language development to early literacy skills and combine language with letters and phonological awareness.
As part of their work into improving early learning opportunities for children in the UK, the charity Save the Children UK has recently collaborated with Hackney Learning Trust to look into how language-learning apps can benefit children’s language development. They have developed a prototype game for children aged 3-5 that aims to teach new vocabulary and language through engaging characters, interactive activities and songs.
Earlier this year the University of Edinburgh conducted an independent evaluation of the prototype with children and families, to evaluate whether it could be effective in helping children to learn and understand new words. They found that the prototype game led to significant language acquisition, as well as being a fun and engaging experience for children. The team also noted how important it is for apps to be properly tested in this way during their design phase, to ensure they’re having real impact for children’s learning and development and to provide reliable information for parents and carers. Save the Children and Hackney Learning Trust’s work into this area is continuing.
Five tips for using language apps with your child: