Eric Silverman

Using Computers in Pre-Schools to Teach Pre-Literacy Skills

The possibility of applying computers to education of pre-schoolers today seems an immeasurable blessing at first glance. Because a computer shows no emotions, it does not get frusterated, bored, or angry, and it does not err (assuming the programing is not flawed), it has the ability to act as a teacher of unending patience and infallible accuracy. I will show that computers have the capacity to be incredible learning tools for preschoolers. However, the computer can also serve to cause a distinct difference in the quality of education provided to children based solely on the wealth, or lack thereof, in their communities.

It should be blatantly obvious to anyone in the work force today that computers are inescapable. Even mundane jobs require knowledge of computers to use word processing and make charts from data on a computer. The question: "Should children be taught computer skills?" has been answer years ago, according to Majorie W. Lee in her paper An Electronic Preschool: Pros and Cons, with a profound "Yes."(Lee, 23) However, the question of whether or not computers are appropriate for pre-schools still exists.

To determine this, one must weight the advantages of the computer against it's disadvantages. A great deal of information on this can be derived from the research paper Computers for the Preschool: Beyond the Basics by Charlene Margot and Nancy Armstrong. They state that children are natally attracted to computers because even a child can feel a great deal of control over the computer (Margot et. al 4). What is meant by this is that it is even a four year old can be taught to turn on a computer and load up an appropriate program. This allows a sense of pride in a child analogous to their being able to spell their own name, or read the letters on a big, red stop sign. (3) This is a unique way for a child to feel powerful in a grown up world, and therefore it can quite helpful in the building of self esteem (Margot et. al 4)

Being good for the child's self esteem is not sufficient reason for a computer to be included in a classroom. The machine must also have a major effect on the child's ability to learn. So the question becomes: "How does the computer facilitate learning to pre-schoolers?"

According to Lee's the major focus of a pre-school is play (2). Play one of the most important methods through which learning takes place in the pre-school (Lee, 2). Play is not just the interaction between children, but the interaction between the children and their environment (Lee 3) Furthermore, Lee explains that adults have only a few opportunities to affect the nature of a child's play (5). First, adults can manipulate the environments of the child, the adult has control over what materials are available for the children and how the environment will be structured (Lee 5). Lee also states that adults structure the interaction patterns between children to a greater or lesser extent (5-6). In other words, adults may only set ground rules (eg. no hitting) or they may specify directly what types of interactions the children will have (eg. now I want each group to take their blocks and build a house with them). Thus, the teacher must use their influence on the play to ensure that it is educational, otherwise it is a waste from an educational standpoint.

From what was discussed earlier regarding the sense of power a child feels when using a computer, it is clear that a child will have no trouble playing with the computer. Furthermore, a field test was conducted at a nursery school to determine if the computer would be used by children if they had a choice between that and other activities. The results were very favorable. So many children wanted to use the computers' educational software that a five minute maximum had to be set for a turn at computer use, and lines were formed behind the terminals (Lee 15). It is also reassuring that children did not use the computer in lieu of socialization with other children. Lee states that the children actually branched out socially to find others to watch them play on the computer, and to watch others play (15). In addition, certain types of learning software (which I will discuss later) seems more like a game than a lesson, and therefore "tricks" a pre-schooler into learning when they might otherwise want to do less educationally productive activities.

Now that it has been established that pre-schoolers can play on a computer, it must be determined what the educational value of a computer can be. First, a computer allows a child to play with the keyboard, and get a feel for the concept of action-reaction. It may seem obvious to an adult that when we press a key on the keyboard, the corresponding letter, number or symbol appears on the screen, this is a concept that children may not understand. Also, allowing a child to explore letters on the keyboard gives the child practice in discriminating between letters (Margot et. al 5) Whenever a child is told to press a key and then looks on the screen to see the corresponding letter or number, the child is allowed a unique way to remember the shapes that are letters and numbers. (Margot, 5)

Steve Tipps and Tobie Sanders note in their paper Microcomputers for Young Children that there exist four major types of software for education of pre-schoolers (2). I will discuss the first three, Drill and practice, tutorials, and simple programming languages such as LOGO, separately, and then as a group, because they have certain similarities that may not be immediately obvious. Then I will discuss the simulation software.

Drill and practice programs are exactly what their name implies. They ask a child a series of questions, and give immediate feedback based on the child's response (Tipps et. al 2). These simulate normal question and answer sessions, except that the computer can keep a running total of all the responses given by a child during one session or over multiple sessions with the computer (Tipps et. al 2).

The tutorial is similar to drill and practice, except that it does more than simply tell the child whether they were correct or not. The tutorial will make an attempt to teach children the correct answers to questions which are answered incorrectly (Tipps et. al 3) For example, the tutorial might show a child three objects: a book, a penny, and a stop sign, and then ask the child to click on the object that is a circle. If the child is not correct, then the computer might draw a rectangle on the perimeter of the book, an octagon around the stop sign, and a circle around the penny, and then repeat the question. If the child is still incorrect, the computer might draw a circle and say (a state of the art computer will have voice capabilities) "A circle looks like this.", and then ask the question a third time. It the child is still incorrect, the computer could give the child the correct answer, and then put the question back into memory to ask it again later. A good tutorial will not allow a lesson to end until all questions have been successfully answered (Tipps et. al 3).

LOGO is a type of programming language designed for young children. It involves a very simple command structure, a child needs only three or four commands to direct the computer to draw pictures on the monitor (Tipps et. al 11). If these three or four commands were the only ones available, LOGO might be just another interesting development. However, Tipps explains that,

"LOGO is one of the most powerful computer languages invented. What makes it different is that it grows in power with the needs of the individual [user]. As the children design more elaborate pictures or projects, the language changes and expands." (13)

Thus, as the child is able to understand more advanced concepts such as what an angel is, Logo has the capability of translate these concepts into programs. For example, a circle can be drawn by a series of small movements and small turns, in many steps, or it can be drawn in one step by telling the computer what a circle is and then telling it to go ahead and draw one.

These three applications of computers have some very important similarities in how they teach children pre-literacy skills. Before I go any further, it behooves me to describe what I mean by pre literacy skills. Let's say that John Doe, a five year old, is going into a day of kindergarten. The lesson planned by his teacher today is how to properly draw the letter 'a'. The teacher might start the lesson by saying something like this, "First, put your pencil above the top line on the left side of the paper." If John has not yet grasped the concepts of top, above and left, then he will not be able to learn to write, if only because he can not even understand the directions (Margot, 5). Also, visual discrimination plays a large role in pre-literacy skills. (Margot 7). Children often have difficulty with certain letters, most noticeably 'p', 'q', 'b', and 'd' because they are all shaped like circles with a tail pointing in different directions (Margot 7).

So how do these computers and their applications fit in? They fit in because they have the ability to help a child understand the pre-literacy concepts (Margot, 6). First, simply dealing with a computer helps children to understand spacial relations and action-result chains (Margot 6). A child will find a direct relationship between what they do ("I pushed an 'a'") and what they see ("There's an 'a' on the screen where it used to be blank!") The child discovers that keys are left and right of each other on the keyboard, and they can begin to grasp the concept that the monitor is in the horizontal plane and the keyboard is in the vertical plane (Margot 6) . Also, because good computer programs will always move displays from left to right (Margot 8), children who use a computer will find it more natural to begin reading and writing on the left side of a page, and then progress to the right.

Computer programs are available to assist with specific types of skills. Margot refers to a program called Kindercomp that has a number of different games. One of these games, called "Match" a pattern appears on the screen, and the child must find an identical pattern from three very similar ones. (7) Another program that Margot refers to is called Moptown. With this program, "children are encouraged to observe with increasing detail and decide how to make a 'match'." (7)

LOGO enables a child to practice these skills in a simple environment. If a child were to command the 'turtle', a triangle that represents the drawing pen in a LOGO environment, to move to the left, the child would see not only the actual direction of the turtle's motion, but a line may be drawn in that direction, further reenforcing the concept. In this manner, a child will see for themselves if they understand these ideas. If the child gets the picture he wants, then he was successful in learning the appropriate spacial relations concepts, otherwise the child is encouraged to go back and practice until the desired results are achieved and the concepts are understood (the two are synonymous, that is part of the benefit of LOGO)

Simulations are the last major type of software that is commonly used to educate pre- schoolers. Instead of teaching a specific skill, a simulation is designed to allow users to develop strategies to "outwit the computer." (Tipps, 4) The simulation gives it's user a general problem, and then allows a great deal of freedom in how the problem is solved. One simulation used for pre schoolers is called "Cookie Factory" (Tipps, 4). The user of this program must decide what type of cookies to make each day, realizing that it costs more to make a chocolate chip cookie than a sugar cookie, price the cookies, and advertise (Tipps, 4). After each "day", the computer decides how many cookies will be bought, and automatically determines what the profit or loss is for the day (Tipps, 4).

The simulation is a method of enabling students to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills. Most simulations seem more like games than learning tools to children, but teachers have learned that their value in allowing children to practice reasoning skills is quite valuable. Although few simulations exist for pre-school aged children (Tipps, 5), it is probable that many will be developed in the near future.

It seems that there should be only one question left in anyone's mind as to whether or not computers belong in the pre-school, and that is: what do parents think? A computer may be a wonderful addition to a pre-school, but until parents agree, it makes no practical difference. Charolette Scherer has done research on this topic, and states some findings in the report Parent Perceptions of the Importance of Computer Knowledge for Young Children.

Her findings are very promising. First, she showed that nearly all parents believe that it is important for their children to use a computer in class at the pre-school age (Scherer, 11) In addition, most parents believe that it is important for their children there is little difference in parents minds as to whether boys, girls, or both are taught on computers, views are not gender specific (Scherer, 10)

There can be no further argument; it is clear that the computer is a valuable addition to the pre-school classroom. So valuable, in fact that "children exposed to computers. . .will be better thinkers, more logical, and better able to write and compute [than children not exposed to computers]" (Lee, 21).

The great benefit of the computer causes one unfortunate problem that ought to be dealt with. Because computers are so expensive, not all pre-school and kindergarten programs are able to obtain them. In fact, Lee cites a study by the University of Minnesota which states that students in the nations 1200 most affluent schools are four times more likely to have access to computers than the students in the 1200 poorest schools (23)

This would not be a problem if alternative teaching methods were as good as teaching with the computer. But the fact is, because computers play such a profound role in everyday modern life, this is not the case. This problem is so bad that it threatens to create an intellectual gap that coincides with socio-economic gaps (Lee, 23). This means that children who are in lower socio- economic classes are likely to obtain a lower quality education that those of higher socio-economic classes(Lee, 23). What is meant by lower quality is that even though the poorer students will have learned significant information, it will not be as useful in the job market as the information obtained by those who are in a higher socio-economic class.

The implications for pre-schoolers is just as significant. Those children from more affluent families who have computer instruction will have a more solid base of reasoning and pre literacy skills than those who do not have access to computers (Lee, 23) Thus, the children from more affluent families will have a higher chance of success in future schooling than children from poorer families.

How can this problem be avoided? The solution that seems the easier is to simply cease the use of computers in all pre-schools. This is, however, unacceptable. There is simply no reason to deprive some children of computers just because others do not have the benefit of their use. This is simply "cutting off the nose to spite the face", as the old saying goes.

No, there is no easy answer, and a complex one is beyond the realm of this paper. Further research is necessary in this topic in order to provide a satisfactory solution. But whatever the answer is, it ought to be effective on a national basis, so that all children have the opportunity to benefit from the use of a computer at an early age.

Works Cited