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This is a follow-up to a post that I wrote a few months ago about educational videos that promise to teach language skills to children. In that post, I talked about a study that found that there was no difference in language and cognitive abilities in 1- and 2- year-olds who were repeatedly exposed to the Baby Wordsworth DVD (part of the Baby Einstein series) and those who did NOT watch the videos.

At the end of the 6 week period, all kids were tested on whether they were able to understand and produce the words that were actually featured in the DVD (e.g., ball, table, chair, fridge etc).  However, kids who had watched the DVD did not know these words any better than those who did not watch the DVD. In fact, all the children showed vocabulary gains but watching the Baby Wordsworth DVD provided no added benefit.

Finally, the finding that was the most intriguing was that those infants exposed to the DVD at an earlier age (closer to 12 months) had lower overall language scores at the end of the 6 weeks than those exposed to the DVD at a later age (closer to 24 months) or those not exposed at all. It appears that early exposure to the DVD can actually negatively impact language development. What could be the reason for such an effect?  One possibility is that because the DVD was available, presumably as a teaching tool, parents might have ended up talking less with their children.

Does this mean that children learn nothing from educational television programs? The answer is more nuanced than a simple yes or no.

In another study, the same researchers examined parents’ and toddlers'( 12- to 25-month olds) talk and viewing behavior while co-viewing an educational infant DVD focused on teaching language. An analysis on parent talk revealed three groups: High, Moderate, and Low Teaching Focus parents. The High Teaching Focus parents presented the greatest variety of words highlighted in the DVD, were most likely to label or describe what was on screen, and had the least amount of non-DVD related talk. Children of High Teaching Focus parents had the highest degree of engagement with the DVD. These children also said the greatest number and variety of target words and were most likely to say new words during the co-viewing session. The higher the teaching focus of the parents, the higher was the kids’ engagement with the DVD and their use of new words while co-viewing.

So it seems like educational DVDs are best utilized when the parent is also highly engaged and focused on teaching while viewing the DVD with the child.

Finally, there’s another interesting caveat. Yet another study found that toddlers (2.5- year -olds) were able to learn a new word if they interacted with the speaker or if they “eavesdropped” on an interaction between the speaker and another person—even when that interaction happened on video. The children didn’t learn the new word when the adult speaker (on video or in person) just talked about the toy but failed to interact by handing it to another adult. So it seems like the way in which educational programs are designed also plays a role in how effective the programs are. Televised scenes depicting interactions between people in the context of a new word might be more effective than an adult speaking to the screen.

To conclude, I think the bottom-line is that the value of educational programs for children (especially those aimed at language development) depends on the following factors:

  • The age at which the programming is introduced. Very early exposure might be connected to less parental interaction with their children, thus negatively impacting later language development.
  • Parental engagement with the programming while co-viewing it with their children. Higher parental engagement is related to higher children’s engagement.
  • The actual design of the educational programming. Programs depicting social interactions with on-screen characters might end be more effective in helping children learn

Sources:

Fender, J. G, Richert, R. A., Robb, M. B., & Wartella, E. (2010). Parent teaching focus and toddlers’ learning from an infant DVD. Infant and Child Development, 19, 613-627.

Richert, R. A., Robb, M., Fender, J., & Wartella, E. (2010). Word learning from baby videos. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 164, 432-437.

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