Study: Cooney Center finds holes in language & literacy app market

A new study from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center is reading between the lines when it comes to children's literacy apps, which are found to be chock full of disparities in educational value as well as roadblocks to being discovered.
December 9, 2015

A new study from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center is reading between the lines when it comes to children’s literacy apps, which are found to be chock full of disparities in educational value as well roadblocks to being discovered.

The Cooney Center and the New America Foundation’s study entitled Getting a Read on the App Stores: A Market Scan and Analysis of Literacy Apps was conducted over an eight-week period in 2014 as it scanned the most popular literacy- and language-focused app descriptions, as well as their content values across Apple, Google Play and Amazon app stores. It amounted to a review of 183 apps from among lists of the Top 50 educational paid and free apps in the various app stores and those that had recently won critical acclaim from expert review sites. (Interestingly, nearly half the apps were available in all three markets – the Apple, Google Play and Amazon app stores - while just under a third were only available in one singular market.)

Among the key findings is that roughly 40% of app descriptions targeting under-eights provide little or no specific age range or intended target age group. When target-age ranges were listed, the majority (90%) listed preschool-age children as at least part of the target audience. In fact, the study indicates a predominant focus on the preschool and kindergarten demo, as the most commonly encountered skills outlined in descriptions included proficiencies like alphabet knowledge, phonemic awareness and understanding upper vs. lowercase letters.

The study also shows that fewer than a third (29%) of the apps included a mention of their underlying educational curriculum, while less than half of the apps provided information about their development teams. The percentage of apps that mention a child development, education or literacy expert involved in app development ranged from 36% of Top 50 Paid apps to 20% and 18% of Top 50 Free and Expert-awarded apps, respectively. Any kind of app testing is even more rare, as 24% of app descriptions mentioned research testing, which referred overwhelmingly to usability or appeal testing, rather than testing focused on learning efficacy.

In terms of commonalities, interactive hotspots, which make noise or animate when touched, and narration are recurring features in children’s language- and literacy-focused apps. A full 92% of the apps surveyed also contain some form of animation. However, few popular language- and literacy-focused apps are explicitly designed to promote joint-media engagement, as the majority of apps lack various explicit functions that allow children to share content or connect socially through the app, or to co-use it with others. In all, fewer than 10% of apps allowed users to contact or share content with others, through social networks, email or text, or directly through the app.

While nearly 80% of literacy apps provided information specifically for parents, the information varied greatly - which is something developers can and should remedy, according to the report. In an effort to incite industry change, The Cooney Center calls for accepted standards that set specific criteria for guiding an app’s placement into the educational category, which could guide developers’ classification of their apps and help assure consumers that they do indeed have educational value.

Similarly, the report reaffirms the stance that a uniform or easily comparable way of delivering information within and across app stores could help parents and educators compare apps and make informed decisions, adding that parents and educators looking for children’s educational apps would benefit from more detailed information about the apps’ content and how they actually ended up on the “Top Educational” lists in the first place.

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