iPads and Kindergarten students’ literacy development

Peer reviewed article

This research article explores the impact of play-based learning on language and literacy development in this action research article. He also explores how selected apps can enhance student learning.

Matthew Jones, Assistant Principal at Wiley Park Public School

Evidence based practice: assessment for learning

Key to the effective implementation of the ‘Early Action for Success’ strategy in schools will be the use of Best Start Kindergarten assessment and ongoing monitoring using the Literacy and Numeracy Continuums.

The ‘Best Start Kindergarten assessment’ that is used in NSW public schools assists teachers in gathering consistent, accurate and reliable information about each student’s knowledge, skills and understandings. It enables teachers to plot all students’ starting points for literacy and numeracy teaching and learning on the Literacy and Numeracy Continuums. Individual student’s progress will be monitored and assessed against the continuums across the K-2 years.

Early Action for Success: Implementing the NSW Literacy and Numeracy Action Plan,

NSW Department of Education and Communities, June 2012, p.5

The introduction of interactive tablet technologies, such as iPads, to classrooms in Australia is a growing phenomenon (Goodwin, 2012). ‘Many children are entering school with a wide range of information communication technology (ICT) skills because they have been developing them since birth’(Prensky, 2001).

It has been argued that schools need to embrace new technologies and use this resource to enhance meaning making in early childhood literacy provisions (Burnett, 2010, p. 265). Further rigorous research into the impact of digital texts on student engagement in educational settings and children’s literacy is needed (Burnett, 2010; Goodwin, 2012).

In February 2012, I began a project which examined the impact of technology on Kindergarten students’ literacy development in a low-socioeconomic community. Child-initiated play needs to be restored to Kindergarten because ‘complex forms of socio-dramatic play vastly enhance language development’ (Miller & Almon, 2009). As oral language is a critical element of the early years of learning and impacts on reading comprehension (Munro, 2011), the project focused on the impact of play-based learning and its role in language development. I therefore examined how iPads could be used in play-based situations to enhance oral language and communication. In particular, the Play School Art Maker app and quality picture books were used to develop the students’ oral language and reading comprehension, as demonstrated by their ability to tell and retell a story.

Contemporary theory and literacy development

The development of literacy is a social practice and literacy is learned in social contexts. Children who enter Kindergarten bring with them a wide range of multiliterate practices (Turner & Turbill, 2007). ‘Practitioners in early childhood education need to embrace literacy as social and cultural practice where educators acknowledge children’s multiple literacies such as bilingual experiences and literacies of popular culture and technologies’ (Jones Diaz, Arthur & Beecher, 2000). Language is a semiotic system that constructs meaning (Hammond, 2001; Gibbons, 2002). Students ultimately need to build an understanding of how language works for different purposes and different audiences. Language learning is also a rapid process and requires the teacher to be aware of how best to support and scaffold this development.

English language learners come into school with a range of levels of fluency in English. The use of talk is a major means by which students encounter new language and learning (Rossbridge & Rushton, 2010). It is crucial that teachers provide opportunities for students to be immersed in the rich linguistic environment of the English language, especially through the reading of authentic texts (Gibbons, 2002). Teachers need to be equipped with the knowledge of how texts are created and how the grammatical choices made by the writer create meaning.

The context

Wiley Park Public School is situated in south west Sydney. It has over 530 students, with 514 students developing English as an additional language (EAL). My Kindergarten class consists of ten boys and ten girls, who entered formal schooling with a range of literacy skills. When the Best Start Kindergarten assessment was administered, 100% of these students were placed in Cluster 1 (Best Start Level 0) for Reading Texts, Aspects of Speaking and Comprehension. The assessment analysis revealed that these students:

  • demonstrated little variation of pace and volume when speaking
  • gave an incomplete retell of a story
  • were unable to read any words in a sentence
  • were unable to predict a next event in a story.

One of the most useful items of information gathered from the Best Startassessment was that most of the class had entered school with limited awareness of print. This indicated that these students were still working towards achieving skills which many other students develop in a preschool context.

‘Being, Belonging and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF)’ defines play as a ‘context for learning through which children organise and make sense of their social worlds, as they engage actively with people, objects and representations’(2009, p. 46). The majority of students who entered Kindergarten at Wiley Park Public School did not experience an early childhood education setting and many may have had fewer play-based opportunities before entering school. It is these experiences that help to develop print awareness.

It was evident from the beginning, when the iPad was introduced, that the students already had prior knowledge of this type of technological device. They were familiar with a touch screen format. They knew how to navigate between different apps and demonstrated simple problem solving strategies if something did not work. The students often commented that their parents had iPhones or mobile devices that featured a touch screen. Little guidance was needed as the students themselves explored how to navigate through different apps. This suggested that technology was already an important part of their daily lives.

Popular culture has a powerful impact on children. It offers many potential contexts, ideas, characters and narratives for children to use and innovate on in their own play (Jones Diaz, Arthur & Beecher, 2000). Early childhood educators therefore need to fully embrace literacy development as a social and cultural practice and build upon children’s literacy experiences as crucial starting points from which teachers can engage and extend literacy learning (Jones Diaz, Arthur & Beecher, 2000). The new technologies have impacted on children’s literacy learning; their implementation can be supported through ‘collaborative multimodaldialogue’ (Wolfe & Flewitt, 2010, p. 397). That is, through appropriate and supported interactions between children, adults and multimodal texts.

Teaching with apps to develop language and literacy

It can be argued that traditional childhood play has to some extent been replaced by time spent on computers, interactive whiteboards (IWBs) or iPads and similar tablet devices. This play represents a new form of symbolic play in which children treat screen images as concretely as they do the manipulation of blocks and toys (Verenikina & Herrington, 2008). Early childhood educators need to focus on the importance of using developmentally appropriate information communication technologies (ICT) resources to encourage children to play, explore, investigate and problem solve and which will promote communication and interaction (Downes, Arthur & Beecher, 2001).

The Play School Art Maker app was chosen as it is a free application that is based on the ABC television show Play School. It utilises and recreates the look and the feel of the program. The main characters are very familiar to children and adults from around Australia. Big Ted, Little Ted, Humpty, Jemima and other toys are presented in different costumes to match the various settings. There are seven themes or settings from which students can choose, such as the farm, the beach or the moon, or users can import a background image. From there, students can very simply create pictures, animated movies and digital slideshow narratives using any character or craft item. There are also puzzles to solve.

This exciting app has other interactive features which support student engagement with learning. For example, the app can capture, record and share the students’ learning and excitement. It also supports and enhances learning that is student initiated and which involves interaction, choice and decision making. The range and depth of possible experiences for each student is dependent on the quality of the adult interactions with the students to ensure the app is being used to its full potential. The positive impacts on student learning rely on the teacher’s understanding of literacy and language development and how this can be furthered through explicitly taught activities, such as the retelling of a narrative.

Making connections

Reading and understanding become easier when the students are familiar with the content and can make connections to prior learning. Before reading an unseen text, teachers can assist students to build up field knowledge of the topic by exploring vocabulary and concepts, enabling the students to access meaning. Through planned and guided talking and listening opportunities, students can come to a shared and jointly constructed understanding. Duke and Pearson (2002) call these conditions rich talk about a text. Gibbons (2002, p. 87) also argues that the more time a teacher spends on pre-reading activities, the more likely that students will read for meaning.

During-reading activities can have a different purpose. They ‘bring the text to life – students need to see that print has meaning and is not simply a functionally empty experience’(Gibbons, 2002, p. 87).

Planned and spontaneous after-reading experiences use the original text as a springboard, challenging students with ‘an opportunity to respond creatively’(Gibbons, 2002, p. 91). Making texts talk (Lemke, 1989) means learning to speak a text’s thematic patterns. Students having opportunities to restate texts in their own words is an important aspect in developing their comprehension skills.

In particular, the following Talking and listening and Reading outcomes were addressed during the project:

TES1.1 Communicates with peers and known adults in informal situations and structured activities dealing briefly with familiar topics.

TES1.2 Demonstrates basic skills of classroom and group interaction, makes brief oral presentations and listens with reasonable attentiveness.

RES1.5 Demonstrates developing reading skills to read short, predictable written texts on familiar topics.

RES1.7 Demonstrates an emerging awareness that written and visual texts convey meaning and recognises that there are different kinds of texts that serve different purposes

(English K-6 syllabus, 2007. See also ESL steps: ESL curriculum framework K-6, 2005.)

Data collection

The data was collected by teacher observation. The students were also supported to record themselves with the iPads as they enacted a retelling of the story with the characters provided in the app. The data was continually analysed for further teaching points and lesson ideas.

To support the students to understand each text, lessons contained a range of planned and programmed before-, during-and after-reading experiences. Some of the before-reading activities used to develop field knowledge and vocabulary included:

  • predicting the subject matter of the picture book
  • discussing key images and words
  • responding to short video clips related to the topic.


After the Best Start assessment was completed the comprehension aspect of the NSW Department of Education and Communities’ Literacy Continuum K-6 was examined for teaching points and lesson and learning goals. Students were placed in clusters. The cluster allocations were examined for student groupings.

The initial learning goal, based on the Best Start assessment data, was for students to give a sequenced retelling of a story when prompted. Initially, two to three comprehension and oral language lessons were conducted each week to support achievement of this goal. Suitable quality picture books, matched to the themes from the Play School Art Maker app, were chosen as a stimulus. The picture books chosen as most appropriate to the task were Pamela Allen’s ‘Grandpa and Thomas’ and its sequel, ‘Grandpa and Thomas and the Green Umbrella’, Margaret Wild and Jane Turner’s ‘There’s a Sea in My Bedroom’, and Jez Alborough’s ‘The Gobble Gobble Moooooo Tractor Book’.

During-reading activities consisted of reading the text aloud to the class, using appropriate pausing and expression, and adding appropriate comments (think alouds) to enhance meaning. Students were asked to make connections to events from the text by identifying similarities with their own experiences. Each picture book was always read a number of times during the week before the actual app-enhanced lessons.

The next stage of the lessons consisted of after-reading experiences. The students were encouraged to choose from a variety of activities related to the book or theme. These included:

  • developing drama by using finger puppets to re-enact the story
  • playing in the sand tray with artefacts from the story, such as shells and small toys
  • drawing pictures to identify the stages of a narrative: the beginning, middle and end of a story.

Using the iPad

One of the learning experiences was working with the teacher using the iPad and the Play School Art Maker app to retell the story). Fluid and flexible groupings were a key feature of every lesson. Three or four students at a time, depending on ability and cluster allocation, worked on the app with the teacher for a period of ten minutes. While this was occurring the rest of the students were engaged in other related experiences of their choice. When working with the teacher and the iPad, the students were explicitly shown how to create a scene using the characters and props from the app and how to make the characters move and talk to tell a story.


Retelling a narrative is a complex task especially if students do not know how to identify what happened in the beginning, middle and end of a story. In additional lessons, the students had to be taught the metacognitive strategy of visualising: making mental images during the reading of a text using the teaching strategy of ‘sketch to stretch’(refer to Teaching Comprehension Strategies: Curriculum K-12, NSW DET, 2010, p. 6).

Various passages were read from the current picture book and students drew pictures related to what was read. This activity complemented and sometimes extended the previous retellings. The skills were practised and consolidated using the pictures students had drawn. A graphic organiser was then introduced to scaffold the students while they retold the story with the iPad.

Explicit scaffolding

Editor's note (August 2021):
Unfortunately, 3 videos previously published in this section are no longer available online. Broken links to external sites have been removed. Apologies.

Restating the narrative in their own words was an important aspect of the students’ developing comprehension skills. The purposeful use of expression, intonation and extended statements was also taught explicitly as, initially, the students were using babble to narrate their movies. The students were shown how to create a cohesive oral recount using grammatical features such as

In the beginning …, and then …, Next … and After that …

The students were encouraged to use scaffolds as a support in the use of a variety of appropriate vocabulary drawn from the texts.

These video clips show the typical progression from student narration that is little more than babble, early in the project, to one towards the end which demonstrates a more successful retelling, with some purposeful use of expression, intonation and extended statements.

[Video unavailable: example of student narration early in the project]

[Video unavailable: example of student narration later in the project]

In these video clips, the students use a seaside background and Play School characters to work in small groups as they retell the story of Pamela Allen’s ‘Grandpa and Thomas and the Green Umbrella’ with the iPad. The Play School Art Maker app allows them to record their efforts so that the final product can be replayed and critiqued.

[Video unavailable: Wiley Park Public School students recording their efforts]

Next, three students demonstrate a range of skills and confidence levels in using the iPad to retell ‘The Gobble Gobble Moooooo Tractor Book’ by Jez Alborough with farm-related characters and vocabulary. A graphic organiser scaffolds the students to remember to use the typical three-part structure of a narrative to sequence events when retelling a story.

By the middle of the year, 75% of the class had moved into the next learning cluster and were working towards retelling a story without prompting. These students are able to orally recount a story using appropriate language features and vocabulary. They are beginning to identify the various stages of a narrative.

As of August 2012, there were six students in my class in Cluster 3 (30%), eleven in Cluster 2 (55%) and three in Cluster 1 (15%). At this time last year, a similar cohort of students had 26% still in Cluster 1.


The easy and accessible nature of the Play School Art Maker app ensured that these Kindergarten children were developing their literacy skills, not just their ability to use an iPad.

The iPad has had a significant impact on the students’ level of engagement in the classroom. The students displayed sustained interest and attention when working with the iPad to retell stories. They were engaged in both the device and the task itself, especially in the ability to play back their recorded movies when reflecting on their learning.

This tablet technology helped the teacher to scaffold literacy learning and can be a powerful medium for meaning-making. It was also used in an integrated way to track and record student learning, supporting assessing and ongoing planning to address observed learning needs.

Ongoing student-centred learning

The iPad and the Play School Art Maker app became additional tools for scaffolding student learning and allowed them to construct meaning in a play-based situation. The technology enabled the students to restate the text in their own words and create their own texts. The app facilitated the creation of an environment in which the students could successfully interact with the technology and the teacher through dialogue. Interactions and guidance from an experienced teacher is central to literacy development, especially when technology is involved (Wolfe & Flewitt, 2010). The teacher enabled the students to use vocabulary related to the books and scaffolded their capacity to retell stories sequentially.

There has also been a shift from teacher-centred learning to student-centred learning where the teacher takes on the role as a facilitator and the students become the leaders in the learning process (Goodwin, 2012). The iPad has become a major feature of our classroom.

Other Kindergarten teachers at the school are also very interested in the technology and its ability to aid students’ literacy development. The iPad is now used on Friday mornings during the play-based learning sessions in which all of our Kindergarten classes are involved. The students use the same app to retell a story that they have heard at the beginning of the session. It is also used during most literacy and mathematics sessions and during independent learning experiences.

Some of the other apps regularly used on the iPad are interactive ebooks, including traditional children’s tales in the Kidzstoriesseries, such as The Ugly Duckling’ and ‘Goldilocksand the Three Bears’. Digital versions of well recognised picture book titles, for example Rod Campbell’s ‘Dear Zoo’ and Linley Dodd’s ‘Hairy Maclary’ series, are popular.

The iPad goes beyond the limited, more traditional listening post sets and adds layers of interactivity to the ways in which students and teachers use picture books. The iPad enables further interaction, communication and discussion. There are many apps from which to choose to help support the language and literacy development needs of the students.

Qing Xie, Support Teacher (Learning and Support), Wiley Park Public School, says:

When used effectively and purposefully, interactive multimodal iPad applications have allowed our teachers to better scaffold, engage and support the Kindergarten ESL students in their receptive and expressive oral language development at our school. The Play School Art Maker app has been an effective tool for the students to use when retelling stories. Particularly powerful has been the storyboard sequencing facility, when used after a modelled reading experience, and the instant feedback when using the recording and playback functions. After using this app, students were able to gain deeper understandings of how to manipulate oral language in an engaging, hands-on way.

References and further reading

ABC.net.au, Play School Art Maker app, ABC Kids, accessed 14 January 2018.

Alborough, J. 2010, The gobble gobble moooooo tractor book, HarperCollins, London.

Allen, P. 2005, Grandpa and Thomas, Penguin Group (Australia), Camberwell.

Allen, P. 2009, Grandpa and Thomas and the green umbrella, Penguin Group (Australia), Camberwell.

Burnett, C. 2010, ‘Technology and literacy in early childhood educational settings: a review of research’, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 247-270.

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations for the Council of Australian Governments, 2009, Being, belonging and becoming: The early years learning framework (EYLF), Commonwealth of Australia, Barton.

Downes, T., Arthur, L. & Beecher, B. 2001, ‘Effective learning environments for young children using digital resources: an Australian perspective’, Information technology in childhood education annual, pp. 139-153.

Duke, N. & Pearson, D. 2002, ‘Effective practices for developing reading comprehension’, What research has to say about reading instruction (3rd ed.), pp. 205-242.

Gibbons, P. 2002, Scaffolding language, scaffolding learning: Teaching second language learners in the mainstream classroom, Heinemann, Portsmouth.

Goodwin, K. 2012, Use of tablet technology in the classroom: Phase 1 iPad trial, NSW Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre (CLIC), Strathfield.

Hammond, J. (ed.) 2001, What is scaffolding? Scaffolding teaching and learning in language and literacy education, Primary English Teachers Association (PETA), Newtown.

Jones Diaz, C., Arthur, L. & Beecher, B. 2000, ‘Multiple literacies in early childhood’, paper delivered at Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE), Sydney University.

Lemke, J. 1989, Making text talk: Theory into practice, College of Education Ohio State University, Columbus, OH.

Miller, E. & Almon, J. 2009, Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why children need to play in school, Alliance for Childhood, College Park, MA.

Multicultural Programs Unit 2005, ESL steps: ESL curriculum framework K-6, Multicultural Programs Unit, NSW Department of Education and Training.

Munro, J. 2011, Teaching oral language: Building a firm foundation using ICPALER in the early primary years, ACER Press, Camberwell.

Next Practice team, NSW Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre (CLIC) 2012, ‘Tablettechnology in the classroom’, Scan vol. 31 no. 2, pp.35-41.

NSW Department of Education and Training 2011, Literacy Continuum K-6 Literacy Teaching Ideas: Comprehension, accessed 14 January 2018.

NSW Department of Education and Communities, 2010, Teaching comprehension strategies: Curriculum K-12.

Prensky, M. 2001, ‘Digital natives, digital immigrants’, On the Horizon, vol. 9 no. 5, pp. 1-6.

Rossbridge, J. & Rushton, K. 2010, Conversations about text 1: Teaching grammar using literary texts, Primary English Teachers Association (PETA), Marrickville.

Rushton, K. 2004, ‘Using texts from key learning areas in the literacy program’, Scan vol. 23 no. 2, pp.17-21.

Simpson, A. & Walsh, M. 2012, ‘The impact of technology on reading practices for 21C learners’, Scan vol. 31 no. 1.

Turner, M. & Turbill J. B. 2007, ‘Kinder kids: learning to read in the 21st Century. Critical capital: teaching and learning’, AATE & ALEA National Conference 2007, Canberra, pp. 1-20, accessed 14 January 2018.

Verenikina, J. & Herrington, J. 2008, ‘The affordances of computer play in young children: a preliminary study’, Proceedings of the Second Emerging Technologies Conference 2008, University of Wollongong, pp. 197-205, accessed 14 January 2018.

Wild, M. & Turner, J. 1984, There’s a sea in my bedroom, Penguin Group (Australia), Camberwell.

Wolfe, S. & Flewitt, R. 2010, ‘New technologies, new multimodal literacy practices and young children’s metacognitive development’, Cambridge Journal of Education, vol. 40 no. 4, pp. 387-399.

Keywords: digital stories; student-centred learning

How to cite this article: Jones, M. 2012, ‘iPads and Kindergarten students’ literacy development’, Scan 31(4)

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