New Educational App Shows Promise for Improving Pre-schoolers’ Pre-literacy Skills

UMass Amherst study finds free app enhanced at-risk preschoolers’ readiness
Child using Khan Academy Kids App. Photo credit: Khan Academy
Child using Khan Academy Kids App. Photo credit: Khan Academy

AMHERST, Mass. – As millions of families struggle to keep their children learning while schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, preliminary results of a randomized, controlled study led by psychology researcher David Arnold at the University of Massachusetts Amherst show that 4- and 5-year-olds from low income families who used a Khan Academy Kids App for three months at home achieved “substantial gains in their pre-literacy skills that brought them nearly to the national average.”

“This finding suggests that high-quality educational apps could be an important tool in reducing the SES achievement gap, which is especially exciting given that the app is free, that mobile technology is available to almost all children in this country, and that children enjoy using the app,” they add. Such apps could provide “an important and practical tool for fostering academic success in at-risk children.”

Arnold says, “Historically, the lack of equal access to technology had blocked low- income kids from having a chance at using educational software, because they had less access to computers and the Internet. But now everyone has access,” he notes, even in the poorest communities. One study found that three-quarters of low-income minority children now have their own mobile device by age 4.

Arnold adds, “Every single one of our families had mobile devices, and even very young children are on phones and tablets a lot. I don’t advocate more screen time for children, but if they’re going to be on, making it as educational and as useful as possible is a good goal.” He feels the current era is “very analogous to early days of television,” when, without much evidence, observers took sides on whether TV was “good or evil.”

The authors describe the Khan home-based learning tool as using “thousands of varied, assessed interactive activities, musical videos, virtual books and creative tools” to support building kindergarten readiness skills in two- to six-year-old children.” The app now provides appropriate math content for kindergarten readiness, but it was not ready to be included when this study was undertaken.

The unpublished results were presented as a poster at a pre-conference meeting on digital media research before the Cognitive Development Society’s 2019 meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. The paper is now under review at a peer-reviewed journal.

As Arnold points out, “Khan Academy has a great reputation for reaching millions of kids with access to educational materials. This new technology has the potential to reach an enormous number of people, and we presume that it’s educational. But I was impressed when they came to us and wanted to rigorously evaluate whether their app can help this group of youngsters.”

For this double-blinded study supported by the Overdeck Family Foundation and an anonymous donor who loaned iPads to participating families, the researchers recruited 49 four- and five-year-old children who had not yet entered kindergarten, along with a primary care giver, a total of 45 mothers and four fathers. They were mostly from urban low socio-economic status communities in western Massachusetts; about one-third of the caregivers spoke another language but were comfortable in English.

In a pretest, the researchers evaluated the children’s pre-literacy skills, then randomly assigned them to receive the Khan Kids App or two wholesome apps that did not target kindergarten readiness skills. Children were evaluated again 10 weeks later in a posttest.

For the study, the researchers reviewed recommended screen-time guidelines with the parents, then asked parents in the Khan Kids group to encourage children to spend about 20 minutes per day playing with the app. “Because we did not think it appropriate to encourage non-educational screen time, we did not explicitly ask parents in the comparison group to encourage children’s comparison app use,” they note. “In both groups, we actively guarded against overuse and increasing children’s total screen time, planning use with parents to replace rather than add to children’s screen time.”

In addition to the children’s pre-literacy skills, the investigators measured media, app and device use per family. They surveyed parents on how much they enjoyed using the app(s) with their children, their perception of the degree to which apps fostered pre-literacy skills and the extent to which the app(s) gave them ideas for teaching such skills.  

Among other findings, Arnold and colleagues report that the Khan Kids group showed “statistically and substantively larger increases in overall pre-literacy skills than the comparison group” with overall pre-literacy scores going up from the 34th percentile to almost the national average 47th percentile. Parent-rated academic interest also significantly increased for the experimental group compared to the control group.

“It’s not easy for parents to find educational apps from among the tens of thousands that are available, and some that claim to be educational are not,” Arnold says. “A big effort is needed to narrow the access gap,” he adds, pointing out that the website commonsensemedia.org does a good job of evaluating apps. “We feel this new app from Khan has the potential to help level the playing field to benefit these kids.”