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Pre-schoolers developing ‘multiliteracy’ skills on touchscreen devices

Researcher suggests we may need to rethink school curriculum

OTTAWA, May 30, 2015 — A study of preschoolers in Canada and Australia shows that they are exceptionally adept at touchscreen devices—to the point where they have developed a range of ‘multiliteracy’ skills that include voice, the written word and computer ability.

The researcher who did the study – a former kindergarten and Grade 1 teacher – says the children’s new abilities mean we may have to rethink the way we teach the generation that is growing up with portable touchscreen devices.

Suzanna Wong, now a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, studied the ability of children between the ages of 3 and 5 to use touchscreen computers. She is presenting the result of the study at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa.

Wong wanted to know what the children were learning before coming to school—and in particular what amount of their learning was coming from ‘traditional’ methods such as colouring books and crafts, and what amount was digital.

She found children and their parents were mixing old and new methods with ease.

She described the case of a five-year-old boy who had been given a box of Lego with a Star Wars spaceship he could build. His first reaction was to look at the instructions in the box. The instructions were graphic images that contained no words. When he found he didn’t understand them, he ran into his bedroom to look in a Lego book he had. Then he grabbed his portable touchscreen computer and went to YouTube. Within minutes he had found a video that showed how to assemble the spaceship. “He put those three sources of information on the floor in front of him and put his spaceship together,” says Wong.

“I just didn’t think children would be doing that!” she adds. “Children are searching for information online like you and I!”

And she says that they are doing it without knowing how to read—or at least, how to read as it has traditionally been understood. Wong says children understand what icons and colour coding mean, and even if they can’t read in a traditional sense, they recognize visually what words like “Download” or “Free” mean.

The devices themselves change the way they approach literacy. Wong describes how one boy took her iPad while she was talking with his mother, found the game Poptropica, and began playing it.

She asked him later how he’d found the game, since he did not know how to spell it. The boy explained that he knew how to search, and he knew the first three letters were P-O-P; when he typed those in, the computer suggested various things, and he recognized Poptropica among the suggestions.

“These children are so digitally literate!” says Wong. “Are schools ready for this? How are we going to plan a curriculum for these very sophisticated computer users?

“My overall impression from my observations of the children is that they are like adults in many ways, because the tools allow them to do things like adults. “They don’t really need to know how to spell. With some devices they can even speak into the microphone.”

And she adds that the devices are so portable, they are easy for children to use. That, she says, means children are not passive recipients of this technology; they use it to create.

And they did create. Even as she studied them, the children used her own iPad to snap pictures of her. “I’m starting to discover some interesting photos of me in Photo Booth,” she says.

 You Suzanna Wong will be presenting this research on June 1 at the 2015 Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa. This presentation is called “Preschoolers’ Home Multiliteracy Practices Using Touch Screen Digital Devices” and will take place at 8:30 am on the University of Ottawa campus in the LMX building, room 403.

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About the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences

Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Congress is the largest interdisciplinary conference in Canada, and one of the largest in the world. Now in its 84th year, Congress brings together 70+ academic associations that represent a rich spectrum of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, including literature, history, theatre, film studies, education, music, sociology, geography, social work and many others. Congress 2015 is hosted by the University of Ottawa. For more information, visit

About the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences promotes research, learning and an understanding of the contributions made by the humanities and the social sciences towards a free and democratic society. Established in 1940, with a membership now comprising 160+ universities, colleges and scholarly associations, the Federation represents a diverse community of 85,000 researchers and graduate students across Canada. The Federation organizes Canada’s largest academic gathering, the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, bringing together more than 8,000 participants each year. For more information, visit

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