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Digital technologies and children’s language and literacy development

Last week Professor David Messer visited the University of Stavanger and gave a guest lecture on the use of digital technologies and children’s development.

Professor David Messer

"I am impressed with the University of Stavanger. I think it really benefits from being a young university. There is an enthusiasm to do something a bit different, and what has been achieved is significant. Already there is some really good research and interesting projects,” Professor David Messer says when talking to him in the reception area at Ydalir Hotel. 

Communication, language and technology

Messer is interested in communication and language, and these themes have stayed with him throughout his whole career.

“Also over my career my interest in children who have disabilities and difficulties with language has increased. These children have included those with autism, Down syndrome, dyslexia and reading difficulties, developmental language disorders and intellectual disabilities, with there being current research projects on the last three groups,” he says.

Another central theme in his research has been technology. Messer explains:

“I have had an interest in using technology in ways that would help with development and schooling. Children’s use of technology is often viewed negatively, but there is the potential to use technology to support creative activities, and where possible, for this to take place in the context of social interaction. Technology also can be used to provide ‘expert’ support for children and young people with special needs."


On Tuesday 3 September Professor David Messer gave a guest lecture on the use of digital technologies and children’s development. 

App for language and literacy development

Messer and Natalia Kucirkova have developed a free app called “Our Story”.  The app helps to develop the skills children need when they start reading. He describes:

“You can use the photos on your tablet or iPad to make your own digital picture book. For each photo, you can add text, sound and put all the pictures together in a sequence. Families can have great fun creating and reading a personalised story.”

There is currently a project at the University of Reading to use this app to help children eat more vegetables.

“The app stories will be about a specific vegetable. Families will be able to download the stories from the web. The goal is to see if the stories when being read to children will have an effect on their food preferences. I find it really satisfying when research is useful to the field of practice, he says smiling.

Engaged in different projects

Messer is involved in other projects. He explains enthusiastically:

“In one project, we are looking to help children who have pragmatic language difficulties. These children may not be very good at expressing their ideas and explaining things to other people, or understanding what other people are saying to them. We are using a very simple task where one child, the navigator, can see a map with barriers and treasure. Another child, the driver, sees the same map but without the barriers and the treasure. They have to communicate with each other and work together to get to the treasure. By carrying out this task, they start to explain things better and become better at listening to each other. We have just finished a feasibility study to check that we can recruit enough children. The next stage is to run a bigger study.”

Another area of interest is executive functioning.

“Executive functioning involves higher order thinking, and it involves being able to inhibit or switch behaviours. It also involves memory when you have to be able to remember and process information simultaneously. These sorts of processes can be seen as different from intelligence. We have been interested in looking at executive functioning in children with language difficulties, and these children often have both lower levels of language and executive functioning. Another project suggests that practice in remembering and processing information helps children with language difficulties to increase their comprehension of language,” he says.

Need more education about the use of digital technologies

Messer ends with some reflections on digital technologies: “I think there are great dangers with children being left alone with smart technology, or parents and carers focussing on smart technology instead of talking with their children; social interaction is so very important for human development and especially language development. On the other hand, we cannot isolate children from technology. So there needs to be more education of children and parents about the dangers of digital technologies, and more efforts to find ways to use the pull of digital technologies to encourage activities which support children’s social and creative development.”

Text and photos: Linda Berg Kjærås