Review of Research on Media Literacy and Young Children Literacy: A Report to the Ready to Learn Initiative

September 1, 2007

Since 1994, when Congress allocated significant resources to support the development of the Ready to Learn initiative, policymakers, educators, and many adults who care for children have had an abiding belief that publicly funded media can support young children's learning. A decade later, the Ready to Learn initiative is in its third phase, and the notion that electronic and now digital media can be effective tools for teaching the skills children need to succeed as students and, ultimately, as citizens has persisted. The belief that media, with the support of outreach efforts, can improve young children's school readiness by arming them with literacy skills has held particular potency. And while the mandate has remained the same-to create high-quality, noncommercial programming that serves low-income children and their families-the current Ready to Learn phase places considerable emphasis on evidence of effectiveness.

As the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's summative evaluation partner from 2006 to 2010, Education Development Center, Inc., in collaboration with SRI International, will undertake research to determine the effectiveness of the Ready to Learn intervention currently in development. As a necessary step before beginning this new study, researchers thought it beneficial to review research that has investigated media's effects on young children's prereading and reading skills. This report is the result of our efforts. The aim was to look for clues from past interventions and research designs that may inform how we approach our study. We wanted to ground our work in the lessons that Ready to Learn and media focused on literacy have taught us and to identify gaps in the current knowledge base.

This review has three specific goals:

  • Inform the Ready to Learn community about effective uses of electronic media in addition to television.


  • Identify the characteristics and settings of the studies reviewed that can inform the Ready to Learn community about the likely challenges of implementing interventions in field settings.


  • Inform the design of a randomized control trial by identifying the range of measures, contexts, and likely sizes of effects for specific measures and outcomes.


Among the report's findings, a key insight from the review is that interventions using different media show effects on literacy, but the effects are not the same across studies. Positive effects were found for interventions that used television, computers, and talking books as media of instruction. At the same time, there were examples of interventions in each of these categories in which children did not show greater improvement than children in comparison groups. The sizes of effects varied with respect to the type of outcome measured as well.

The review also found that using several different media in the same intervention can produce small effects when led by an instructor who receives extensive professional development. The effects of media synergy were small but significant in several literacy domains, and they were evident in studies where television was coupled with print curriculum implemented by teachers in preschools or day care centers. The teachers in the studies with positive results had extensive professional development, and print and television elements reinforced each other.


Scott Strother