Parents should turn to smartphones, iPads and Kindles to get young children interested in reading amid concerns that growing numbers of infants are rejecting books, a major charity has warned.
Research by the National Literacy Trust has found that technology can have a “new and important” role to play in getting children as young as three to read.
The study said that poorer children in particular could benefit from using touch screens alongside traditional books to generate more interest in stories.
Almost three-quarters of under-fives currently have access to technology such as smartphones and tablet computers in the home and the trust insisted that it should be exploited as a basis for reading.
The conclusions came as a separate study from the charity Booktrust warned of a “worrying cultural divide” in England, with poor adults much less likely to read books than those from wealthy families.
Teachers have previously claimed that children’s attention spans and concentration levels are shorter than ever before because of addiction to screen-based entertainment.
Davina Ludlow, director of daynurseries.co.uk, a childcare guide, said its own surveys of parents found the majority were opposed to the use of technology.
“In a recent poll, only one in four of the respondents thought children benefit from using ICT in nurseries,” she said.
“Our poll showed that the majority of people clearly want to see early education and childhood play protected from this technological change.”
The trust insisted it was not advocating the use of technology instead of books but wanted parents to use both.
Jonathan Douglas, trust director, said: “Technology is playing an increasingly crucial role in all our lives and the ways in which children are learning are changing fast.
“It is important that we keep abreast of these changes and their impact on children’s education. When parents read with their children, whatever the medium, they increase their child’s enjoyment of reading which brings life-long benefits.”
The trust – in conjunction with the publisher and education company Pearson – surveyed just over 1,000 parents with children aged three to five.
Almost all children – 99.7 per cent – had access to books in the home and 73 per cent could use some form of touch-screen device.
Some 2.4 per cent of children failed to read at all and 13.3 per cent only looked at stories once or twice a week.
Researchers said that young children who had access to both touch-screen technology and books at home were more likely to enjoy reading and perform in line with national targets for their age than those who could only access books.
In all, 77.4 per cent enjoyed reading if they had access to both, compared with 70.8 per cent who only read printed text.
Some 100 per cent of poor children underperformed in early years assessments if they read using books alone, compared with just 54.5 per cent used a combination of books and technology. Among children from wealthier backgrounds it made no difference how they accessed stories.
The study said that only a fifth of nurseries or childminders used technology but suggested that numbers should grow in the future to boost children’s education and exposure to reading.
Researchers said “technological devices such as smartphones and tablet computers can offer a new and important route into reading for three- to five-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds”.
Julie McCulloch, head of primary marketing at Pearson, said: “Technology is an integral part of today’s childhood. We look forward to continuing to explore how we can harness its power to establish a lifelong love of reading in children.”
The conclusions come despite claims from leading scientists that exposure to too much technology – without human interaction – can damage development.
Sally Goddard Blythe, director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester, said: “The essential ingredient in preparing children for reading is the engagement of an involved adult in the process, irrespective of the medium used for reading.
“Conversation, listening to the music of language, matching sounds to images, learning what new words mean in the context of a story and anticipation for what is coming next, lay the foundations for reading.
“Whether it is turning the pages of a book or swiping a screen, human involvement is still the key.”