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Communication, Language and Literacy Home Learning App Competition

By Olivia Dickinson

Early last year, the Department for Education set up an expert panel to assess apps that would help young children with their communication, language and literacy before they start school. I was the Deputy Chair, and I was enthusiastic about the role and the panel, as I felt the DfE understood the reality of how much time children nowadays spend on their parents’ smartphones or tablets, and this was a way to ensure that time was time well spent. As Professor Jackie Marsh, the Chair of the panel, said on launch:

Young children are immersed in a digital world from their earliest years and have access to many apps on tablets and smartphones. There is a need to identify the features of high-quality apps that support their learning and to offer parents, carers and teachers guidance on how to select and use apps effectively.”

Having worked in digital production and user-research for pre-schoolers for many years, as well as having a child of my own just when apps and touch screens were becoming the norm, I know how rewarding, fun and beneficial interactive experiences are for young children, and there’s a place for them alongside reading to or with your child, watching TV with your child and playing and talking to your child.









But the process of opening up the apps competition, evaluating the apps that were submitted and then deciding the final list raised more questions than answers. I suspect I and others know some of the answers, but this blog is to raise those questions and challenge app developers, app publishers, early years educators, policy makers at DCMS and DfE to come up with some answers, and to show where the possible gaps in the market are.






I’m sure each of us on the panel had their favourite pre-school app that they hoped would apply. I have fond memories of Penguin’s Peekaboo and Happy Babies from Ladybird Baby Touch; Nosy Crow was mentioned by some of us (Bizzy Bear apps and their award-winning fairy tale adaptations); Toca Boca’s exploratory apps have set the bar high for young children, as well as their subsidiary Sago Mini. Apps from some of the more popular pre-school TV characters and channels were expected to be in there, and we also hoped for some surprises of immersion, playfulness and word play, like some of the best picture books that are on the market. Sadly, we were disappointed that the majority of apps submitted were focused on phonics, and many were school-focused rather than designed for use in the home. The competition was about home learning and we’d really hoped that more apps would be submitted that are aimed at supporting early language and literacy development in the home.







Why were the majority of submitted apps focused on phonics? Do app developers no longer make playful apps for the very young? Partly yes – Nosy Crow stopped making apps a couple of years ago, though their apps are still available in the iOS store; Penguin’s Ladybird Baby Touch apps are no longer available in the app store (I have tried to get hold of someone at Penguin for an answer on their app strategy). But there must be others!





Did other app developers, who did not apply, not know about the app competition? We’d love to know how app developers learnt about the competition, and how it could be more widely publicised.

Did they know, but couldn’t spend time and effort in applying? Feedback has said the process was quite long winded, and at least one app developer I spoke to said they had started but not finished applying. How many other app developers gave up?

Did app developers know about the competition, but felt that this ‘home learning environment’ competition was not relevant to them? If so, why not? What would need to change if this competition was repeated?








The last challenge to app developers is that there is a gap in the market for digital experiences that promote social interaction between the child and others in the home learning environment. Inevitably, there was some critique of the competition from those who saw it as promoting 'screen time', and who think that 'interaction' ought to be fulfilled by reading books, playing with non-digital toys, talking and turn-taking with your child. Nobody on the panel would advocate doing fewer of those activities, and the DfE’s Hungry Little Minds campaign is actively promoting just those activities, but the reality is that young children are on screens, and the DfE wanted to make that ‘screen time’ as beneficial as possible. There is great potential for the creation of apps that can foster interaction between children and parents, becoming another tool in a parent or carer’s toolkit alongside books, talk and games. However, some developers misinterpreted the ‘interaction’ category, interpreting it as referring to features of the app that fostered interactivity between the app and the child user. Instead, think of the best picture books, the best soft learning in pre-school TV, the best interactions between child and adult, and think about how can that be translated into the best digital experience for pre-schoolers to help their language development. Sadly I think we all know the answer to that one: the business model for making kids’ apps is not sustainable and until it is, those gorgeous apps we’d hoped for will be few and far between.


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