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Parents should use phone and tablet apps with pre-school children to close literacy gap, education secretary says

The divide in school readiness among children is a ‘profound issue’, says Damian Hinds

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Wednesday 20 February 2019 01:33 GMT
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Education secretary Damien Hinds launches campaign highlighting importance of early-years learning for social mobility

Poorer families should use smartphone and tablet apps with preschool children in a bid to close the gap in basic literacy and communication skills among those entering school, the education secretary has said.

There has been growing concern about the amount of time that young children spend on digital devices, with experts recently advising parents to implement a digital curfew for their children.

But Damian Hinds has urged parents to use screen time constructively – with free subscriptions to educational apps aimed at children as young as two in areas where school readiness is worst.

The Department for Education (DfE) announcement comes after Mr Hinds said last year that it was a national “scandal” that young children are still arriving at school unable to speak or read properly.

Mr Hinds acknowledged that some games on smartphones and tablets can be “diverting” for children – which is why he argues that apps with educational benefits need to be identified.

More than a quarter of four and five-year-olds lack the early communication skills, such as being able to talk about events in the past or future, expected by the end of reception year, DfE figures show.

Mr Hinds, who has pledged to halve the number of children starting school without vital literacy skills by 2028, admitted that the word gap had perhaps been “exacerbated” by some technology.

But he added the “Sesame Street effect”, which shows that the TV programme had an educational effect on children who watched it, suggests that toddlers can also learn from apps and screen time.

As part of the government scheme to boost literacy, disadvantaged families with children aged two to four, will receive free access to quality learning apps for phones and tablets in up to 12 pilot areas.

Thousands of families in the north of England will be sent tips via text message, educational toys and books as part of the programme to help boost children’s language and literacy skills at home.

Mr Hinds described children’s early development and gaps in school readiness as a “profound issue”.

On average, disadvantaged children are four months behind in their overall development at age five. By the time they take their GCSEs they are, on average, 19 months behind their peers in attainment.

He said: “Screens can be an easy distraction for children, but harnessing the power of technology to support early communication and development means that we have another tool in our arsenal to help young kids develop those skills.”

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Author Philip Pullman previously said that parents needed to get off their mobile phones and speak to young children to boost their vocabulary.

It came after early years experts suggested that children had poorer language skills because parents were too distracted by their digital devices to help them out.

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