Using digital tablets in pre-school settings – what does the research say?

Touch-screen tablets are not only being used in primary and secondary classrooms, pre-schools are also employing the technology as a literacy learning tool.

Griffith University's Dr Michelle Neumann and Professor David Neumann have reviewed current research in this area, exploring teaching strategies and the impact tablets are having in early years settings.

As the Digital Education Research Network (DERN) reported recently, Michelle Neumann has also carried out her own study into young children and screen time in a home context.

The Queensland academics' review of the literature, published in the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, looks at dozens of studies that have been carried out in pre-school settings across the world, and offers pointers for future research.

Using the technology

In terms of the skills needed to use tablet devices such as iPads, research has shown that the majority of pre-schoolers can open apps on their own, finger trace on the screen, swipe to turn eBook pages and use story making apps independently.

Neumann and Neumann's literature review found, in addition to independent access, pre-school educators are using tablets for whole class and group work, including scaffolded instruction, through apps such as iWrite, Doodle Buddy and Drawing Pad. This scaffolding extends to skills such as pinch and zoom or stretch.

‘… it has also been noted that tablets allow children with limited letter-shaping ability to write because they can use the pop-up keyboard to type words,' the authors add.

Letters can be moved around on the screen and the portability of devices means youngsters can get up and move around the classroom looking for words and letters. Drawing and painting apps allow pre-schoolers to change the thickness of brushes and colours and use stamps.

Digital versus traditional

So, how does the tech stack up against traditional methods? The academics say, according to current research, there are pluses and minuses when comparing digital to paint.

On the plus side, continuous touch movements are more frequent with iPads and youngsters were able to keep their focus because they didn't have to keep going back to the paint palette to reload their brush or dip in their finger. However, it was suggested they may not be able to have the same sensory awareness with digital - the feel and consistency of the paint, and differences in touch pressure (pressing down hard with a pencil, for example). ‘Therefore, it is suggested that both non-digital and digital tools are needed to support a greater range of tactile experiences.'

The Queensland authors also point to studies from 2013 showing 'tablets and literacy apps do not significantly improve literacy skills (phonemic awareness, alphabet knowledge),' although they caution that those studies do have their limitations and call for further empirically designed studies to clarify the impact of digital devices on emergent literacy development in pre-schools.

Strategies to support learning

Summing up, they say parents and teachers need to be given strategies to scaffold learning and it really is a case of choosing the most appropriate resources for each task.

‘The research to date suggests that tablets and apps may have potentially positive and negative effects on children's emergent literacy development. For example, a tablet may be a more effective tool to foster children's letter shaping ... Alternatively, reading a paper-printed storybook may be better at fostering aspects of emergent literacy than reading an e-book on a tablet due to an app's distracting features.'


Neumann, M.M., and Neumann, D.L. (2015). The use of touch-screen tablets at home and pre-school to foster emergent literacy. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy. Prepublished December 2015, DOI: 10.1177/1468798415619773

Further reading

Neumann, M.M. (2015). Young children and screen time: creating a mindful approach to digital technology. Australian Educational Computing, 30(2).

When selecting devices to support teaching and learning in your classroom: What factors do you take into account? What learning outcomes are you hoping to achieve? Is it the most appropriate resource for the task?