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Some Comments About Literacy and Educational Apps

DFGC4B Two Brothers playing on an iPad

I’ve been in the field of English language arts – as an undergraduate, a high school English teacher, graduate student, and now as an assistant professor – for well over a decade. During that time, one thing that has puzzled me is the comparison of reading and math test scores. When comparing test scores, I typically draw from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) because it allows me to look at student performance longitudinally, by student characteristics, and by geographical area. (For anyone interested in this data, I highly recommend NAEP’s Data Explorer, which can be accessed by clicking here.) I used NAEP to pull 4th graders’ national test scores for reading and math from the early 1990s to current, as shown in figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1. 4th Graders’ Reading Test Scores from 1992-Current


Figure 2. 4th Graders’ Math Test Scores from 1990-Current



When I look at these two graphs, I can’t help but notice how stagnate the reading scores are as compared to the growth in the math scores. (Please note, these scores are aligned to a scale and not a grade level, but Lubienski & Lubienski [2006] contend that 10-11 points roughly equals a grade level). While reading scores have increased by about five points on the scale, math scores have increased by about 29 points. The issue then becomes why. Why are we seeing growth in math at significantly different rates than reading?

When preparing for a graduate class I’m teaching this coming fall, I decided to use Diane Ravitch’s (2013) book titled Reign of Terror: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. In it, Ravitch addresses the disparagement between reading and math scores. “Reading is influenced to a larger extent by different in home conditions than mathematics. Put another way, students learn language and vocabulary at home and in school; they learn mathematics in school” (p. 53). I couldn’t agree more. Students learn language from so many different sources – their family, peer group, popular culture, and, yes, school – versus math that is learned typically only in math class. This phenomenon gets at the overarching point Ravitch makes in her book: poverty affects education. Students from affluent and middle class homes are exposed to more and higher quality language experiences than students who come from low-income homes. As it pertains to educational apps, the “So What” question must be asked. So what can educational apps do to help this situation? That an answer is easy, have students describe their experience using the app.

When students use an app, they are having a language experience. Typically, this experience is between the student and the device. Teachers from all subject areas and parents can do a few simple things to expand that experience so it is not an isolated language experience. They can ask questions such as:

  1. What are you doing with that app?
  2. What was your favorite part about using that app?
  3. Does that app remind you of another app, video game, or book you read?

Allowing students to think about their experience and then express themselves either orally or in writing represent a good starting point for using apps to build students’ reading abilities. The app itself may not be an app for reading, but the way a teacher or parent harnesses the app’s potential for reading can change its purpose completely. The example questions are some ideas for changing an app from being a standalone activity to a literacy experience.

I hope these ideas resonate with you as have with me. If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you. Please comment below or shoot me an email to info@appedreview.com.


Lubienski, C., & Lubineski, S. T. (2006). Charter, Private, Public Schools and Academic Achievement: New Evidence from NAEP Mathematics Data. National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education. Retrieved on July 5, 2015 from http://epsl.asu.edu/epru/articles/EPRU-0601-137-OWI.pdf.

Ravitch, D. (2013) Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. New York, NY: Vintage Books.