Practitioners Must Select High Quality Digital Resources

In my last post, I shared a new resource from the International Literacy Association [ILA], a position statement and research brief that outlines the role of digital resources in early childhood literacy development. At the end of the document, the ILA provides guidelines for practitioners. The first of these is designed to provide practitioners some quality measures to help them review and select digital resources for their classrooms. We recognize high quality literature because of the awards they have received–their covers sparkle, like glitter, letting you know many people agree there is something noteworthy about that particular text. High quality digital materials can also receive awards, but they don’t generally sparkle; at best there is a badge affixed at the bottom or on the side of the producer’s website! Plus, because of the rapid and changing nature of technologies, educators may not know where to find such materials or how to evaluate them.

I currently chair the Association for Library Services for Young Children’s [ALSC] Excellence in Early Learning Digital Media Award selection committee. Many of the criteria identified by ILA align well with those we look for in the ALSC award selection process, and mirror those in the ALSC Notable Children’s Digital Media criteria. In addition, the American Association of School Librarians maintains a “Best Tools for Teaching and Learning” page on their website that might help practitioners identify high quality digital media. In all cases, the following criteria should help you.

Align with curricular and learning goals

Practitioners need to ensure that the digital resources and tools they are utilizing align with their curricular and learning goals. This means that practitioners do need to review and play the application so that they can map out the curricular activities and familiarize themselves with the learning goals embedded in the digital tool or resource. This is akin to reading a book before we decide to utilize it for literature circles or a read aloud. If the practitioner is unaware of the curricular and learning goals of the application, they are less likely able to scaffold and connect the students’ learning experiences to the activities and content being explored. Telling a group of children to select “any web-based game for their grade level on [a site such as]” is neither specifically connected to the learning goals or to the current curricular explorations. As a more specific option, consider matching a specific set of digital resources onto a curricular unit of study and providing children with a “playlist” of activities, websites, digital texts, etc. to engage with.

Afford opportunities not otherwise provided by traditional resources

When considering whether or not a digital resource ought to be offered for a specific unit of study or learning task, the practitioner ought to consider the following questions. Does the addition of a digital component:

  • redefine a traditional task in a way that would not be possible without the technology, creating a novel experience?
  • significantly modify, or alter, the student’s task?
  • increase, or augment, a student’s productivity and potential in some way?
  • simply function as a direct substitute for a more traditional learning activity?

These questions are central to the SAMR model for technology integration and have proven useful for practitioners to reflect upon as they consider integrating digital components into their teaching plans. If the digital component does not modify or redefine the students’ learning or task, I often encourage teachers to allow themselves to be comfortable NOT feeling pressured or obligated to include such a component in their design of learning activities. When a digital component augments the student’s learning tasks, I ask practitioners to consider the value added to the learning experience through the digital component. If it does not significantly add something measurable to the teaching and learning process (e.g., additional opportunities to engage and receive feedback with the content, as an accommodation strategy, for example) then I suggest teachers should not feel pressured to retain that tool, resource, or activity in their curriculum plans. Digital tools that are just substitutes for things that are done with pencil/paper (e.g., responding to comprehension questions on a word document), can be done, but I always tell practitioners, “don’t fool yourself into thinking that using digital tools in these [substituting] ways are revolutionary or meeting the standards for making meaning digitally that are spelled out in the Common Core State Standards, because there is so much more to the standards than this.”

“Quality?”by dieselbug2007 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Convey accurate content

We simply should not be sharing content that presents scientific, grammatical, or historical inaccuracies to children. Given that anyone, really, can author, produce, and publish digital content these days, it is critically important that we consider this measure of quality in our vetting process. You’d be surprised how many digital videos, apps, or text-based sources contain inaccuracies. Critical consumers can assess whether the authorial or production team for a science application contained a scientist, or whether a historical application contained a historian on their team. Expert consultation often yields more accurate content.

Contain few, if any, features that distract from the content

Research has long explored the extent to which specific features of digital tools support children’s ability to make meaning, or whether features limit children’s meaning making. Studies have concluded that interactive features, especially the ones that are not tightly connected to the storyline like games or hotspots on irrelevant details, might function as seductive, extraneous materials that can distract children from the story, but “as long as they are congruent to the story, animated pictures, sound, and music do not seem to distract children from the story text. On the contrary, meaningful nonverbal additions to stories have been shown to boost story comprehension and word learning” (Takacs, Swart, & Bus, 2015, p.3). Sound effects might disrupt perception of speech when children have difficulties with verbal processing (Smeets, van Dijken, & Bus, 2012).

Contain no ads or commercialized or politicized messages

Young children (ages 0-8 years) cannot differentiate between advertisements and factual information, and therefore, advertising to them is unethical (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016). In today’s economy, it might not be easy, but it is possible. Many apps, particularly those that are free, offer advertising or in-app purchases, both of which are generally inappropriate for young children (US DOE & US DHHS, 2016). These should be avoided. Fred Rogers’ Mister Rogers Neighborhood aired on PBS for many years without any advertising or commercialized messages (King, 2018). It can be done, too, today.

Support creativity, imagination, and collaboration

Lastly, we need to seek out digital resources that offer children opportunities to engage with the full range of experiences in the digitally mediated world. This means that teachers oughtn’t just send children off to do research with digital tools and then check the “I integrate technology in my instruction” checkbox. Doing research only checks the “child as consumer of digital content” box; there are also checkboxes for child as creator and child as collaborator/participant we oughtn’t forget about. When a child is positioned as a content creator they might tell stories with puppets (e.g., Wohlwend, 2015), or robots (e.g., Kazakoff & Bers. 2014), or create multimodal, digital content using storytelling tools (e.g., Kucirkova, 2018). Finally, it’s really easy to overlook positioning the child as a collaborator/participant (e.g., Paciga, 2019).


American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communication and Media. (2016). Media and Young Minds. Pediatrics, 138(5), 1–6.

Kazakoff, E. R., & Bers, M. U. (2014). Put Your Robot In, Put Your Robot Out: Sequencing through Programming Robots in Early Childhood. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 50(4), 553–573.

King, M. (2018). The good neighbor: The life and work of Fred Rogers. Abrams.

Paciga, K. A. (2019). Emergently Digital in Grade Two: Another case of “3.6 Minutes Per Day?” 20(1), 31.

Kucirkova, N. (2018). How and why to read and create children’s digital books: A guide for primary practitioners. Retrieved from

Smeets, D. J. H., van Dijken, M. J., & Bus, A. G. (2012). Using electronic storybooks to support word learning in children with severe language impairments. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 47(5), 435-449. doi:10.1177/0022219412467069

Takacs, Z. K., Swart, E. K., & Bus, A. G. (2015). Benefits and Pitfalls of Multimedia and Interactive Features in Technology-Enhanced Storybooks A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 85(4), 698–739.

US Department of Education & US Department of Health and Human Services. (2016). Policy brief on early learning and use of technology. Retrieved from

Wohlwend, K. E. (2015). One Screen, Many Fingers: Young Children’s Collaborative Literacy Play With Digital Puppetry Apps and Touchscreen Technologies. Theory Into Practice, 54(2), 154–162.

About the author

Katie Paciga

Katie A. Paciga, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Education at Columbia College Chicago. She studies early language and literacy development and children's media.

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