You’ve Got to Do It: Young Children, Emergent Digital Literacy, Voice Commands

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This blog post is from Katie Paciga, Ph.D. an Early Career Research Fellow at the Fred Roger’s Center and here at the Technology in Early Childhood (TEC) Center at Erikson Institute. In addition, she is a Assistant Professor of Education at Columbia College.

You’ve Got to Do it is a song written by Fred Rogers and was featured on Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Part of it goes like this:

You can make-believe it happens, or pretend that something’s true.
You can wish or hope or contemplate a thing you’d like to do,
But until you start to do it, you will never see it through
‘Cause the make-believe pretending just won’t do it for you.

You’ve got to do it.

Every little bit, you’ve got to do it, do it, do it, do it
And when you’re through, you can know who did it
For you did it, you did it, you did it

In the television program, Mr. Rogers used these lyrics as a tool to encourage children’s natural exploration of the world. Specifically, he encouraged children to try things they found challenging. Things that appeared to be easy for others, but not so for them–like reading a book or riding a bike. Fred Rogers knew that children need support and encouragement to develop new skills. He knew that pretending is hard work, but that it is necessary work for young and learning children.

There’s a long line of research documenting and theorizing about how young children become literate with traditional (i.e., not digital) materials (see Teale and Sulzby’s landmark text and all that have cited it thereafter). Some folks have begun to theorize about how children pretend with digital technologies and interactive media, and how that pretending contributes to something a few of us in this niche of academia call emergent digital media literacy (e.g., me; Marsh and colleagues; Wohlend). Just like Fred Rogers suggested, kids are now trying out challenging activities that require foundational literacy skills (e.g., phonemic awareness, letter recognition, concepts about print, oral language) and digital media literacy skills. These activities are carried out with, or mediated by, technology–coding, robotics, or sending/receiving electronic messages are a few examples.

On October 6, 2015, BMO Harris released a 31 second television commercial (see embedded video, at top of post) titled “Mobile Cash.” In it, a young, blonde, girl (we’ll call her Lucy) dons a yellow sweater and carries a cellular phone. Lucy seems to point the phone at objects in her immediate environment – a refrigerator, a cat, a television. At the same time, Lucy verbalizes a command. To the refrigerator, “ice cream.” To the cat, “kittens.” To the television, “Cartoons? Please?” Each command is met with no response from the object, until Lucy approaches an ATM with her mother. At this time, the girl points the phone with the the QR scanner open at the ATM screen showing a QR code. Lucy successfully activates her family’s account and then requests, “money.” Lucy is surprised and pleased when she sees the result–a pile of cash in her hand.

See, Lucy had no problem with the pretending part. She wished and hoped for many things in the commercial. But her developing understanding of the voice command function and the contexts and purposes for which it “works” did not produce her desired outcomes–ice cream, kittens, cartoons. She started to do it, but needed some adult support to actually get the desired outcome–what she was asking for from an object via voice command.

I can tell whoever wrote the ad understood a little about child development because they got many parts of Lucy’s characterization right–that children pretend, that children can be frustrated when their attempts are not met with success (e.g., the pleading Lucy did with the cat for kittens), that adults can be integral parts of supporting children’s understandings about the world, that children are proud when they achieve their goals. I know this is a fictitious representation of how children act in the world, but my children play Siri all the time, so it’s not too far-fetched.

My first reaction to this commercial was “How cool is this? They’re showcasing the child’s use of voice command functions! What a great way to send the message that these devices and the software contained can be useful for empowering children to achieve their goals in society.” Then, I thought, “BMO is exploiting, for their commercial purposes, the child’s limited of understanding of the contexts in which voice commands function.” Then I had to dismiss that, because that’s how advertising functions, right? Finally, I started to think about the power of relationships in learning about the purposes and functions of technologies as tools for being a part of contemporary society. For the first part of the commercial, there is no adult involved in Lucy’s exploration of voice command, but when the parent does step in, Lucy realizes that she did it, and there’s meaning there for her. (I wish it wasn’t about money, though.)

In sum, this commercial presents the notion that the voice command function can be empowering for young children, but the child does not realize that power until the adult assists with bringing the child to a context appropriate for using the voice command, opening the QR reader app, and suggesting the child use her voice to achieve her goals. Without that help, I argue the child’s understandings of the purposes, contexts, and results of this one piece of digital media literacy, voice command, are not actualized. Fred Rogers said, “There is no scientific or technological advance that is either good or bad in itself. It is only as we human beings give meaning to science or technology that they will have a positive or negative thrust.” Adult supports for the child’s developing understandings about technology and media can help ensure the meaning of the technology and media contributes, in positive ways, to the child’s development and her place in the world.


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