Articles Digital Media and Language Development Featured Image

Published on August 9th, 2013


Digital Media and Language Development

By Dr. Christina Tausch, PhD; Kathrin Rees, PhD Candidate; Sarah Justine Leduc-Villeneuve, B.Sc.; Dr. Aparna Nadig, PhD and Dr. Susan Rvachew, PhD, S-LP(C)
This article has been republished from the Summer 2013 issue of Communiqué.
Please note that this article was originally published when Speech-Language and Audiology Canada (SAC) was called the Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists (CASLPA).

Parents today hear many conflicting messages regarding their children’s exposure to digital media. Some sources proclaim the benefits of e-books and educational games for their child’s oral and written language development. Other sources decry the dangers of too much “screen time” for their child’s mental and physical health. Speech-language pathologists are faced with the challenge of addressing parents’ questions and concerns with evidence-based information.

The evidence is clear regarding the importance of shared reading as a means to promote language development. We know from decades of research that child language and cognitive development are dependent on rich adult language input, especially before 3 years of age. Shared reading provides particularly rich exposure to contextualized and decontextualized language. Storybooks create a bridge to discussions about events in the child’s own life that further enrich the child’s oral language development. Conversation combined with print exposure provides a foundation for the emergence of literacy skills.

Studies also show that the child’s role in initiating and maintaining interactional turns with their reading partner is just as important as adult language input. Therefore, speech-language pathologists can promote language development by teaching parents and child-care workers to use dialogic reading strategies such as those demonstrated in the video associated with this article. When adults use these techniques, all children benefit, including middle-class children with typical or impaired language skills and children from impoverished home environments. Recently, we demonstrated that dialogic reading can be a useful part of an intervention for children with developmental phonological disorder.

Increasingly, children experience stories in video or digital formats, for example, through television or e-books. Based on research studies of the last 10 years, the American Academy of Pediatrics has repeatedly discouraged media use for children under 2 years of age and, similarly, the Canadian Pediatric Society councils parents to limit their child’s exposure to these types of media. The Academy raises concerns about adverse health and developmental effects and cites studies revealing that screen time significantly decreases the time that children spend actively interacting with adult caregivers.

Although the Academy’s research review is primarily concerned with television and does not deal specifically with e-books, parents have clearly been impacted by its broader message and have generalized it to areas where the research is lacking. Surveys reveal that some parents are reluctant to use e-books, even with older children, because of concerns about excessive exposure to screen time. Although parents can strive to limit their child’s exposure, digital media is omnipresent in modern society. Therefore, a parallel approach to the issue can determine how to use these tools so that their desirable qualities are enhanced and their drawbacks are limited. Can e-books be designed so that conversational interactions between parent and child are encouraged rather than discouraged? Can animations in the electronic stories be designed to enhance story comprehension and minimize distractions from the narrative?

We recently received funding from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council to study shared reading interactions when adult-child dyads are using e-books versus standard books. This project, directed by Susan Rvachew, aims to create guidelines for the development and use of e-books for children at home and at school. A partnership between industry (Tribal Nova), non-profit (Centre for Literacy) and research (Child Phonology Lab, Psychology of Pragmatics Lab) sectors ensures that our research findings will be mobilized rapidly to benefit Canadians. One way we will share information about digital media will be through our blog. We hope that you visit to learn more about this topic.


Click here to watch JoAnne reading “Splat the Cat” to Thomas, using Wh-questions, open-ended-questions and a distancing prompt to promote her child’s engagement and language development.


About the authors:

Christina Tausch.jpg

Dr. Christina Tausch, PhD

Christina Tausch is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the school of communication sciences and disorders at McGill University. She is currently employed as the project coordinator for the project “Impact of digital tablets on shared reading interactions and outcomes.” Her research interests include language acquisition in monolingual and bilingual contexts, literacy development, reading intervention, AAC, and counselling individuals with communication disorders and their families. She received her PhD from Louisiana State University in 2012. Her dissertation focused on a syntax-based reading intervention to improve reading comprehension in English as second-language learners.

Kathrin Reese

Kathrin Rees, PhD Candidate

Kathrin Rees received her training as a special education teacher with a focus on developmental language disorders from the Pädagogische Hochschule Heidelberg/University of Heidelberg, Germany. She taught at a school for special education in Freiburg, Germany and simultaneously worked in diagnostics and counseling for a centre for language development in early childhood. Her dissertation work will examine how typically developing, language impaired, and bilingual preschoolers engage in shared reading contexts.

Sarah Justine

Sarah Justine Leduc-Villeneuve, B.Sc.

Sarah Justine is a research assistant at the school of communication sciences and disorders at McGill University, where she also majored in neuroscience. Her final undergraduate thesis in Dr. Nadig’s lab examined how initiations, responses of joint attention, and spontaneous imitation contributed to expressive language in typically developing children and in children with autism spectrum disorders. Her main interests are language, brain and technology.

Aparna Nadig

Dr. Aparna Nadig, PhD

Aparna Nadig, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the school of communication sciences and disorders at McGill University. Her research focuses on the development of social communication skills and on language and communication in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Recently her lab has investigated early word learning processes in ASD and in typical development, prosody and conversational exchange in speakers with ASD, and the effectiveness of a newly-developed transition support program for young adults with ASD.

Susan Rvachew

Dr. Susan Rvachew, PhD, S-LP(C)

Susan Rvachew, PhD, S-LP(C), is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at McGill University. Her research focuses on phonological development and phonological disorders and the promotion of effective interventions to treat phonological disorders in children and prevent reading disability in this population. She is the author of Developmental phonological disorders: Foundations of clinical practice (Rvachew, S., & Brosseau-Lapré, F. (2012))

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