Saturday, June 28, 2008

LeapFrog gone wrong

This should be filed under "did they really do that?" category. I'm not sure what bothers me most about LeapFrog's latest television advertisement for their TAG reading system: the ad itself or the possibility that there are actually parents out there who would be swayed by the commercial.

The commercial shows an adult standing next to a child sized table with two books and a line of children waiting to have access to one of the books. The adult attempts to interest the first child in line, a boy, about 7 years old in one of the books, a beautifully illustrated book on nature. The most prominent illustration is a gorgeous, realistic, detailed painting of a frog. The book is clearly a book about nature and animals. The child contemptuously turns his back on that book, in preference for the second book, illustrated with the crude, primary colored Sponge Bob characters because this book comes with the "magic" TAG stylus that will read the words in the book out loud to the child. The thrust of the advertisement is to convince parents to buy the "magic" book and stylus (the TAG system) for their kids.

I find this commercial disturbing. First, I am disturbed that anyone would wish to encourage children to prefer a simplistic book with crude illustrations of a commercial cartoon characters over a beautiful, artistic, realistically illustrated and scientifically informative book. Second, the more I think about what the TAG system does, the more I suspect that it discourages learning to read on ones own.

I don't doubt that the TAG system and other technology like it helps children with word recognition. The child can see the word and hear it pronounced. There are also interactive games in many of the books, in which an adult voice asks the child to touch a specific word, and thus promote word recognition. But the development of reading skill is involves far more than word recognition.

The TAG system is marketed for the age range from 4 years to 8 years. While perhaps appropriate for 4 year old, the TAG system seems woefully out of touch with what 8 year old should be doing with reading -- devouring entire books on their own. The television commercial features children at the upper end of this age range, rather than the lower end of the range.

I think about how I became interested in reading and developed proficiency. My parents, especially my mother, selected books from the library to read out loud. Some of the books I remember her choosing include Beverly Cleary's Henry, Ramona and Beezus stories, Travers' Mary Poppins series, Heinlein's Red Planet, Baum's Oz books (our favorites were the less familiar books, like Ozma of Oz), and many others. My mother would read only one or two chapters each night. While this was fine when I was 4 or 5, as I got older, I became impatient to know more. My mother neither blocked nor encouraged me, but simply had the books available in the house, where I could find them on my own during the daytime, to read ahead. By the time I was 8 years old, I was consuming entire books on my own, regardless of whether they were "age appropriate" or not. For example, I read the entirety of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women the summer between second and third grade, when I was 8 years old. This was followed in short order by The Five Little Peppers and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm as well as other young people's classics.

The parent who reads to the child a book that is interesting, but just at the upper edge of the child's reading ability, encourages a curiosity and models the skill of reading. By failing to satisfy fully the child's desire to hear more of the story, and being unavailable to read out loud every time the child is interested, parents create a situation in which children must must stretch themselves to satisfy their craving for more story.

So I wonder what happens, when the child can satisfy that desire to hear more of the story read to them at any time? If they don't have to wait for mom or dad to sit down and read to them, but can use their TAG stylus, what impetus is there for them to read on their own. Moreover, the library of books developed for use with TAG are, at this point, focused on popular cartoon characters with simplistic vocabulary and stories. Books that feature Sponge Bob, Disney's Little Mermaid, the Cars from the animated feature film, Kung Fu and Diego from TV dominate the book line up. There is one classic story (the Little Engine Who Could). I must admit that Walter the Farting dog is quite entertaining, and what child (or adult) could resist being able to produce fart noises from a book! But none of these picture books provide the challenge to stretch and learn for an eight year old.

Most of my community college students can read a sentence, or a short paragraph, and they can look for answers to question that are specific, factual, and phrased in exactly the same vocabulary as the text. But few can generalize or summarize from readings longer than a page or two, and are likely to give you a blank stare if you ask them "what is the book about?" I can't help but fear that technologies like LeapFrog's TAG will produce more rather than fewer poor readers.

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