Most preschool math, literacy apps not designed to help children learn, study finds

September 20, 2018, University of California, Irvine
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Most literacy and math educational apps for preschoolers are not designed to help youngsters actually learn, according to a new study from the University of California, Irvine. Few incorporate features informed by evidence-based best teaching practices or age-appropriate in-play guidance.

Youngsters under 5 process information very differently from older kids. They have shorter attention spans, less working memory capacity and more limitations in visual interpretation and are also still developing the needed for accurate touch-screen interactions.

"More than half of the on the market are for preschoolers, but little is known about how they are designed to help children learn," said Stephanie Reich, study co-author and associate professor of education. "By examining app design, we found that several different teaching tactics were utilized, but many were not optimal for how research says preschoolers learn. For example, without well-structured feedback or leveling of difficulty, children may end up relying on trial and error or playing simple games that drill the same skills with no progression."

As established by existing research, the key elements for teaching preschoolers with apps are: clarity and simplicity of goals; quality of feedback and rewards; structure of challenge; and motion-based interactions. At the start of play, clear prompts should let the children know what the task is and how to complete it. Since preschoolers are just beginning to develop reading skills, visual demonstrations and verbal descriptions of why certain actions yield certain outcomes help young learners. As for rewards, instead of just earning badges or stickers for completing tasks, unlocking skills or advanced levels of the game can make learning more intrinsically motivating – that is, it makes learning the fun part, rather than the sticker.

App design can be structured to guide children from understanding basic concepts to grasping more complex content by gradually increasing in difficulty as they progress, as well as decreasing in difficulty when they struggle. Features facilitating physical interaction, including large icon sizes and simplified touch-screen motions, can help preschoolers successfully play the game, boosting learning.

Each month for three months – as part of a doctoral dissertation in UCI's School of Education – Melissa Callaghan and Reich, her faculty adviser, selected the top 10 paid and free children's math and literacy apps from the Apple, Amazon and Google Play stores. For both Apple and Android platforms, they had to have been categorized by the stores as educational games for players under the age of 5.

Each app was evaluated for such design elements as feedback, increasing complexity, guided play, developmental appropriateness and instructive value. Most provided clear goals, moderate instructions and positive feedback, but few supplied in-play guidance on how to complete tasks, rephrased instructions if the initial ones were not understood or offered rewards that advanced learning.

"In this digital age, where the production and consumption of educational preschool apps is high, there is a strong need for research to inform how developers could best design these teaching tools," Reich said. "Our study is a starting point in creating empirical-based frameworks for creating and classifying apps that truly reach and teach a wide range of learners."

The study appears online in the journal Learning, Media and Technology. Callaghan, co-author of the study, is now a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University working on the Reach Every Reader initiative.

Explore further: Six ways that tablets really can transform teaching

More information: Melissa N. Callaghan et al. Are educational preschool apps designed to teach? An analysis of the app market, Learning, Media and Technology (2018). DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2018.1498355

Related Stories

Six ways that tablets really can transform teaching

September 5, 2018

The holidays may be over – but the debate over young people and screen time continues. And as anxious parents prepare children for the start of a new school term, many will have concerns about what exposure to technology ...

Recommended for you

Squid could provide an eco-friendly alternative to plastics

February 21, 2019

The remarkable properties of a recently-discovered squid protein could revolutionize materials in a way that would be unattainable with conventional plastic, finds a review published in Frontiers in Chemistry. Originating ...

Female golden snub-nosed monkeys share nursing of young

February 21, 2019

An international team of researchers including The University of Western Australia and China's Central South University of Forestry and Technology has discovered that female golden snub-nosed monkeys in China are happy to ...

When does one of the central ideas in economics work?

February 20, 2019

The concept of equilibrium is one of the most central ideas in economics. It is one of the core assumptions in the vast majority of economic models, including models used by policymakers on issues ranging from monetary policy ...

In colliding galaxies, a pipsqueak shines bright

February 20, 2019

In the nearby Whirlpool galaxy and its companion galaxy, M51b, two supermassive black holes heat up and devour surrounding material. These two monsters should be the most luminous X-ray sources in sight, but a new study using ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.