Using Screen Time to Motivate Reading: An Interview with Susan B. Neuman

Susan B. NeumanSpeakaboos caught up with Susan B. Neuman, Professor and Chair of the Teaching and Learning Department at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University and early literacy specialist. As a leader in children’s literacy, we wanted to understand her perspective on using digital devices as a way to improve literacy and how an app, like Speakaboos, can help motivate children to love reading. She speaks to the evolution of children’s educational content, why books and screens actually go hand-in-hand, and how one’s earliest learning experience often shapes the kind of learner they’ll become.

Speakaboos: If you could tell parents one thing about the importance of reading, what would it be and why?

Susan B. Neuman: Well, the most important thing about reading is it helps children learn. It helps them develop knowledge, and there’s no better source than that for learning. What is most important is the language they will hear and the knowledge they will gain from reading.

Positive attitudes towards reading develop as a result of [. . .] early learning experiences.

You have been studying literacy for a long time. In fact, you started before digital was really an option. Now that digital screens are a ubiquitous option for children, what is your point of view regarding the use of digital devices for literacy?

When I started my career, my earliest research interest was television. I wrote a book called Literacy in the Television Age and one of the things that I focused on in that book was the potential power of television for children’s learning. In particular for children’s literacy development, that children use particular skills and strategies when they watch television and they can be applied when children go and read a book. In addition, often times there is what I call a theory of synergy, where, if you love something – let’s say for me, it’s Pride and Prejudice – you want to consume it in any form, and so there’s a synergy of media that occurs and enables children to actually learn more than with one medium alone.

The world has changed dramatically and one of the things that we now know is these digital assets are much more interactive than television was. Television had some positive attributes, but the kinds of formal features, the kinds of interactive capabilities on digital assets are just enormous and very engaging for young children. For example, interactive capabilities enable children to learn vocabulary, how to comprehend text, develop fluency through a whole bunch of different apps, and initial skills. I think we’re going to see greater gains from digital assets than researchers in the 60s and 70s saw when children watched educational television like Sesame Street.

I think Speakaboos, which has engaging stories that children are interested in, can really begin the process of learning to read.

Given your background and both your previous and current research, what positive aspects do you see about Speakaboos? What do you like most about Speakaboos?

The content. The content really matters. An awful lot of media scholars focus on the amount of time people are spending on digital devices: what they call, screen time. They don’t realize that when children have good content in front of them, it can be a learning tool. I think Speakaboos has engaging content and, as a result, it’s a very motivating medium for children to learn about stories and important content. For example, some of the Speakaboos stories focus on informational content like the “All About” stories, while others focus on developing a sense of story, or retelling. I think that can be very advantageous for learning.

Parents need to know that often times children are interested in learning about specific content, like scientific content. As an example, Speakaboos Sid the Science Kid stories have a lot of science in them. Children are really interested in learning about their world and learning about how their world works. I think that story formats of interesting content can really teach children and provide background knowledge that’s essential when they go to school. So those are some of the benefits that I see about Speakaboos.

I don’t know any other app that is focused on getting children excited about reading.

The other thing I think that parents need to understand is that it’s not either or – it’s not either books or screens – it’s very often books and screens. One medium often attracts the other in very positive ways. We shouldn’t think, “well, they’re doing screen time, they’re not interested in stories”. In fact, they are interested in stories. And screens can often promote interesting opportunities for books and offline learning.

When you first looked at Speakaboos, what did you see that you thought was valuable for kids and what did you see that you thought was valuable for parents?

I think for kids, it’s kid-like, it’s kid-friendly. It’s developmentally appropriate and that’s really, really important. When children have developmentally appropriate materials, they learn more. If things are too sophisticated for them, they don’t understand. If they can’t understand it, they don’t pay attention. So it is a waste of time when programs are not appropriate for children. It’s also child-centered and that’s really good.

I think Speakaboos, which has engaging stories that children are interested in, can really begin the process of learning to read. An awful lot of apps now are about basic skills, like learning their letters, learning their sounds, learning their numbers, and that’s absolutely fine for children, but that’s not everything. A lot of people think that children who have come to school learning those basic components are ready for formal literacy learning, but that’s not true, because a lot of what is important in literacy learning is, which children need, and the ability to understand the components of a story, or the ability to retell a story.

What do you see in Speakaboos that distinguishes it from other literacy apps?

I think that it’s a place where parents can go and feel that they’re going to be focusing on the motivational aspects of early literacy, which no one else is really addressing. I don’t know any other app that is focused on getting children excited about reading. Getting kids excited about reading is what it’s all about. We’re finding in our other research that these early literacy lessons are critical for children. We’ll talk to adults, or young adults, teens, and we’ll say, “Why don’t you read?” And they will recall their earliest learning experience, and they’ll say, “eh, a teacher made me read and therefore I hate reading.” And others will say “my grandmother used to read to me when I went to bed and now I love to read.” Those early lessons that children are getting are so critically important. They more or less stamp you in terms of whether you are going to be a literacy learner and use reading throughout your life or not.

And whether you see yourself as a reader or not.

That’s right. Positive attitudes towards reading develop as a result of those early learning experiences. That’s why it’s so important for parents to provide positive reading experiences, like using apps such as Speakaboos, to make reading an activity to look forward to, instead of a negative experience.