Learning to Read Today: Emojis, Photos, and More

Technology dominates every aspect of our lives: how we work, how we live and how we communicate. A recent study in the Journal of Early Childhood Research examines our communication and looks at how it is affecting children learning to read.

In previous times, written communication was generally only composed of words as the building blocks to get meaning across.

Today, communication is “multimodal,” in that one’s thoughts and feelings are expressed with more than just words. With the rise of smartphones came the ability to use more variety of communication modes, too, like voice, video, or photo. For example, you may simply send an emoji to summarize a feeling, add an emoji to a text message to convey tone, or post a photo with a phrase to share a moment. 

According to the study's author, this “visual mode,” or the form of expression using images, shouldn’t be viewed as inferior but rather as a mode necessary for everyone to understand and master. Given this necessity, she claims that the shift to this new more diverse way of communicating has “educational implications” and must be examined as part of young children’s learning and introduction to the written word.

In order to understand how young children interact with the visual mode, the author worked with a group of children ages 3 - 6 years over a six month period.

Her research method was simple: she gave the children cameras and had them take photos of printed words in their environment.

In addition, she tagged along with the children on occasion, so that she could check on their understanding of the text they were photographing.

As the author analyzed what she was observing from the children, she put it in context of  earlier research which established two “worlds” in young children’s reading development. The “first world” encompassed the student’s “physical environment,” while the second was the “world within books.” This study aims to move forward thinking on how these two “worlds” support and interact with each other, focusing on the literacy of today, which includes more than just printed words.

The pictures taken by the children and their conversations with the author reveal that when text was placed in a location that interested them, they were more likely to photograph it. For example, a participant who loved trains took the most photos of signs, ads, and announcements when he was in train stations.

In this way, students’ willingness to learn to read and move into the “world within books” depended on their interest in the physical environment around them. Universally, the students were more attracted to text that included imaginary images, such as animal cartoon characters.

As for the children’s comprehension, it varied. They used context clues to understand and were typically thrown off if images contradicted words’ meanings. However, just as young readers learn the meaning of capital letters and punctuation, the author reminds us that these young children will start to understand what symbols in the visual mode represent.

In sum, this research gives educators insight into the power of interest to drive learning and comprehension, not only of the visual mode, but also of traditional printed materials used when learning to read and in academics overall. Engagement is a key component to effort and achievement.

StepUp Summary:

StepUp's approach to learning readiness is based on neuroscience research on the way neural networks are created and strengthened. It has been shown to increase engagement as well as reading, math, and handwriting skills. By combining rhythmic exercise with academic drills, StepUp students achieve greater fluency when learning to read. For example, students do fast picture naming and rhyming as they move to a rhythm. On-time naming is an important visual-verbal processing skill that indicates mastery of new words and their meanings.

Furthermore, children who perform StepUp exercises develop better coordinated eye movements. Eye teaming (skills controlling how we use and aim our eyes together) are essential for seeing visual detail and for tracking left/right through rows of print while learning to read.

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