A Snapshot of Kids’ Language and Literacy Apps (Part 2)

A Snapshot of Kids’ Language & Literacy Apps (Part 2)
This post is part of Seeding Reading, series of articles and analysis https://dev-edcentral.pantheon.io/seedingreading by New America’s Ed Policy Program and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. See also the Learning Tech section of EdCentral. (New America)

About a month ago, we released a sneak preview of the literacy app analysis that we’re conducting with New America to discover more about the apps that families and educators are using to help children learn to read and communicate. As part of this preview, we provided a quick summary of our approach to this analysis of language- and literacy-focused apps for children ages birth to eight.

Today, we are excited to share even more of our findings. In our previous post, we looked only at paid apps in the iTunes, Google, and Amazon App stores--those that are sold for $.99, $2.99, etc. This set of apps made up 66 out of the total sample of 183. In this post, we describe four interesting trends that showed up when we looked at both free (an additional 59 apps) and paid apps together. Note that these findings are part of an early, descriptive analysis and not a report on statistical significance.You can find the description of how we determined this sample in our last post here.

Finding # 1: Less than half of popular language/literacy apps reveal information about their development team

In the 2014 Learning at Home report produced by The Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a majority of parents surveyed said they would like more information about good digital media to support their child’s learning (Rideout, 2014). This led us to wonder: when parents look for high-quality apps that will teach their children how to read, are they able to find information in the app store itself about the development team behind a particular app? To what extent are parents likely to encounter information about education or literacy experts involved in app development? With these questions in mind we reviewed the paid and free apps in the sample to see whether they included information about the development team either in the product description or affiliated producers’ website (we found most of this information on the producers’ websites).

We determined that less than half of the paid and free apps provide information about their development team, and thus most do not offer parents and educators a valuable piece of information for evaluating these purportedly educational apps. As shown in Figure 1 below, a slightly higher percentage of paid apps had information available about the development team, compared to apps available for free. The percent of apps that indicate that education or child development experts participated in app development is smaller still: 32% of paid and 20% of free.

A Snapshot of Kids’ Language & Literacy Apps (Part 2)
Figure 1 (New America)

Notably, however, these proportions are quite high if you look only at apps that have published information about the development team. Specifically, of the apps that do have information available about the development team, 78% of paid and 60% of free apps had education or child development experts as part of the team or consultants. On the other hand, only 7% of the paid and 15% of the free apps with information on the development team mentioned a literacy expert or consultant on the team (3% and 5% of the full sample, respectively). This lack of information reflects a concern regarding “barriers to innovation” raised by Klopfer and colleagues (2009) in their Moving Learning Games Forward report. Specifically, the authors contend that since there have been limited reporting on game data for educational games, the field has become “locked into commercial industry data” (p.19). These findings, combined with documented desires by parents for more information about educational media, suggest that releasing information about education, child development, and literacy experts involved in app development could help parents and educators make more informed decisions about apps.

Finding #2: Basic literacy strategies are still the most common overall for both paid and free apps, but advanced skills are becoming more common for both

As described in our last blog post (part 1), we see a trend from 2012 to 2014 toward paid apps promoting advanced literacy skills like vocabulary development and reading comprehension, at least as far as we can tell by reading the product descriptions written by the app developers. The 2012 data came from an app scan led by Cynthia Chiong that showed a focus on basic literacy skills such as identifying letters of the alphabet. (For more, see Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West).  Our next step was to compare the specific language and literacy skills targeted in our 2014 sample of paid and free apps. In that analysis, our findings are similar to what we saw with paid apps alone: a trend toward more advanced skills but an especially high proportion of children’s apps that target basic alphabet and letter sound knowledge, rather than reading comprehension, storytelling skills, or grammar.

Another striking finding, clear in Figure 2 below, is the lack of differences between paid and free apps in the rates that each specific language and literacy skill targeted. Based on our experience with the free apps so far, we have noticed that many offer limited content for free, while encouraging users to pay to unlock additional content. Thus, the marketing descriptions for the free versions of these apps may really be referring to the content that isn’t free. As we continue our analysis, we are examining the pay structure of the apps in our sample and will investigate how different pay structures may be related to the descriptions and actual content of apps.

A Snapshot of Kids’ Language & Literacy Apps (Part 1)
Figure 2 (New America)

Finding #3: Apps claim to teach 2-3 different language and literacy skills

We were also curious whether language- and literacy-focused apps tend to address only one specific skill, or instead target several language and literacy skills, like those in Figure 2 above, in tandem. That is, how many different language and literacy skills are typically targeted within a single app? We found that, on average, most paid and free apps claim to teach between 2 - 3 language and literacy skills each (shown in Figure 3 below).

Notably, 9% of paid and 15% of free apps did not mention any specific language and literacy skills in their descriptions. Of those, 20% (3 apps) mentioned that children would learn general language or literacy skills (such as “Helps toddlers learn foundational literacy skills”), and 80% mentioned no language or literacy skills per se but included descriptions of language and literacy-focused teaching activities or strategies (such as letter tracing activities or sounding out phonemes) That is, they didn’t specifically say what children would learn from using the app but did describe language- and literacy-focused content within the app. ((Note that mentioning at least one of these in the app description-- language and literacy skills or teaching strategies-- was a criterion for inclusion in our sample. We plan to describe more about the teaching strategies in later posts))

We found that a minority of apps -- 19% of paid and 25% of free -- focused solely on only one language or literacy skill. Rather, the bulk of apps mention between 2 and 7 different skills in their descriptions. As shown in Figure 3 below, these findings suggest a spectrum of the extent to which apps are dedicated to teaching just one or two targeted skills to an assortment of six or seven language/literacy skills. One area of future exploration for this work is to see whether teaching a greater number of language/literacy skills in a single app is preferred, increases the likelihood of an award, or changes the app rating, compared to focusing on just a few skills.

A Snapshot of Kids’ Language and Literacy Apps (Part 2)
Figure 3 (New America)

Finding #4: User ratings vary across apps that provide particular skills

One area that parents and educators look at when evaluating an app is how it has been rated by other users on a scale from 1-5. We decided to explore the ratings to see if we can find some insight as to what impacts them. As a first step, we did a bivariate analysis, calculating the average rating of the apps that targeted certain skills compared to those that do not (for example, comparing apps that claim to teach spelling, compared to all other apps). We limited our analysis to skills that at least 10 apps targeted, ending up with the seven most popular skills. The average rating was highest for apps that offered sight words (4.26 out of 5.0), followed by apps that teach lower- and uppercase letter knowledge (4.21). As shown in Figure 4 below, these were also the two skills that showed the biggest differences in ratings based on whether they were targeted in apps. Conversely, ratings were lowest for apps that offered basic reading (4.01) and decoding and vocabulary (3.98). In fact, we found a trend suggesting that apps that claimed to teach vocabulary tend to be rated slightly lower than apps that do not claim to target this skill (4.02).

These patterns could mean several things. One possibility is that parents think they need resources that help teach sight words and lower- and uppercase letter knowledge, and thus perceive the greatest value in these apps. It is also possible that parents are not as pleased with the apps that target skills like basic reading and vocabulary. That is, apps that target certain skills may be doing a better job than those that teach other skills. In our next level of coding, we will be able to check out what exactly is offered in the paid and free apps as well as the awarded apps. Doing so could potentially tell us more about what is behind these ratings and the apps themselves.

A Snapshot of Kids’ Language and Literacy Apps (Part 2)
Figure 4 (New America)

More to come...

We are still just scratching the surface of our full app analysis, but we wanted to take a break from our coding and analysis to share some of the intriguing insights we are already encountering within the data. This analysis provides just a snapshot of the vast ecosystem of language-literacy-focused apps that are out in the marketplace. We will continue to release interesting bits and pieces of our work over the next few months, and will be releasing a paper and a book on Seeding Reading in 2015. The report and book will each provide greater detail regarding our methodologies and complete findings, which limited blog space precludes. We welcome feedback along the way and appreciate your support in the mission of helping parents and educators navigate through the educational and digital landscape."


Sarah Vaala is a research associate at Vanderbilt University, where she is currently focused on developing mobile and internet tools to boost problem-solving skills among teens living with chronic illness.