Methodological approaches to research young children (0-8)’s digital literacies and practices: Comparing trends in the DigiLitEY Database and relevant literature reviews

Version 2 (updated on 24 April, 2019)

David Poveda and Mitsuko Matsumoto, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain)

In this blog post we present the trends in methodology in researching digital literacies and practices of young children as captured in the DigiLitEY Research Methodology Database that Working Group 5 of the DigiLitEY COST Action has created. The database is a collaborative review and research tool in which authors and researchers can input the reference to their works and of others concerned with the subject and provide extended details of methodological aspects of the studies (Access the database input tool here). In addition, the database is publicly accessible and can be downloaded or associated to on-line search tools or plug-ins in third-party websites (See here an example of how this third-party use).

This short piece examines current trends and discusses these in comparison to relevant literature reviews on methodology published in recent years. As of April 2019 the database contained more than 350 entries from research studies and reports conducted across 38 countries with the oldest paper published in 1993. Methodological choices in this database are broken down as reflected in Figures 1-3 below. A quick glance of these trends suggests a preponderance of qualitative research studies (51%), later broken down into different approaches, and a preference for observational data (62%) in the available studies. And, reflecting the preference for qualitative methodology, the sample size used in the studies is more often under 50 participants, while studies that have small sample of under 10 participants occupy 20% of all the entries.  

Forms response chart. Question title: Please indicate the descriptor(s) that best fit the research design of the study reported in the publication: . Number of responses: 363 responses.

Forms response chart. Question title: Sample size. Number of responses: 363 responses.
Figures 1-3: Research design and procedures of studies in the DigiLitEY Research Methodology Database (April 2019)

Most of the studies were conducted in a single country (more than 90%), and the countries with more entries are USA, Portugal, UK and Australia in order (see Figure 4 below). The great majorities of the studies (72 %) were conducted in school settings (either preschool/nursery or primary school), followed by studies that have been conducted at home settings (see Figure 5 below). The database targets studies that are relevant to the digital practices and literacies of young children (aged 0-8), and the age of participants is peaked at 5 years old, and the studies that include participants aged 2 or less are scarce (less than 24%) (see Figure 6 below). It should be noted that the database include studies in which adults are the sole participants, such as survey or interview studies with parents of young children or teachers of children between 0-8 years of age.

Figure 4: Country cases

Note: Label “SC” is used when a study is conducted in more than one country.

Figure 5: Settings of the study

Note: Some studies have been conducted in more than one setting. Thus the total number of settings aggregated is over the number of studies registered.

Figure 6: Ages of participants

A comparison of the trends in the Database with the methodological portrait drawn in other literature reviews

As research on the digital practices and literacies of young children is a research area that has grown substantially a number of critical literature reviews and research synthesis have been published in recent years. These works generally fall into two categories: (a) reviews with an explicit focus on methodological questions that mirror, at least partially, the goals of the DigiLitEY Database; (b) literature reviews of a substantive research area from which methodological trends can be extracted. We have examined closely the key pieces from this literature and drawn a number of comparisons between the patterns in the DigiLitEY Database and the portrait available in recent published reviews.

Reviews with a primarily methodological focus:

(a) The above trends seem aligned with the methodological review by Faulstich-Orellana and Peer (2013) on early childhood literacy research. Drawing from 123 research articles published between 2000-2010 in the area they found that 64% followed a qualitative research design and young children with most qualitative studies drawing from naturalistic observations.

(d) Burnett (2010) examined studies on technology and literacy in early childhood settings in the 2003-2009 period. Her review included 36 reports and she states they included a variety of methodologies, including case studies, ethnographies, discursive analytic studies, randomized trials and action research. However, just over half of the studies (19) were quasi-experimental studies focused on assessing particular approaches.

(e) Miller et al (2017) in the most recent general methodological literature review focused on digital technologies and children 0-5 provide a detailed analysis of 60 reports published between 2011-2015. They report that approximately 33% of studies follow a comparative design, almost 32% are descriptive studies while other research designs, such as intervention research, formative/design-based, correlational or measurement validation studies contributed less than 9% to the overall sample. Also, about 10% of the examined reports constituted literature reviews or meta-analysis.  

Research reviews that allow to identify methodological trends:

(d) Kumpulainen and Gillen (2017) review research specifically focusing on the home digital literacy practices of young children and discuss 32 empirical reports (and one review paper) published between 2005-2015. An overview of the methodology of these studies, as reported in the abstracts and methods sections, shows that around 37% of the reports had a markedly qualitative design and, of these, the vast majority (10 out of 12) drew from and examined observational data. So, while the overall qualitative-quantitative distinction may be distributed differently, naturalistic observation stills plays a visible role in this research sub-topic.

(e) Kontovourki et al. (2017) review research conducted in early childhood education settings, informal settings and teacher training, and discuss 126 reports published between 2000-2015. Their own methodological assessment states: “The studies reviewed in this paper are primarily of a qualitative nature, with research methodologies ranging from case-study research to action research and ethnographic studies. Fewer studies utilised methods such as surveys and questionnaires, randomised controlled experiments, quasi-experimental, representative, mixed-methods and comparative designs” (Kontovourki et al; 2017, p. 7).

Research review stating a “methodological agenda”:

Finally, other literature reviews that turn to methodological issues, rather than report methodological trends, present their assessment of research needs and preferred methodologies to respond to emergent research issues:

(f) Kucirkova et al. (2017) provide a narrative literature review of young children’s writing with and on screens. They draw from studies published between 2010-2017 and develop a systematic coding scheme to examine 80 research reports on the topic. As a conclusion to their review they stress the importance of conducting research that moves beyond simply providing “pictures of practices” and draws from repeated observations and (ideally) longitudinal research.  

(g) Marsh et al. (2017) present a narrative review of young children’s online and offline digital literacy practices that concludes by stressing two methodological lines of inquiry relevant for policy and emergent digital practices. First, they underscore the importance of large-scale survey studies to document access to digital technologies, particularly from understudied populations, such as national contexts outside of Europe, United States or Australia or children with a variety of special needs. Second, emergent digital technologies such as more accessible eye-tracking technologies, wearable video-cameras or virtual reality, open up methodological opportunities that should be taken up in future research.


In short, while research on the digital literacy practices of young children is still an area where further research is needed, there are a number of methodological and literature reviews (and tools) that suggest distinct patterns and changes over the last decade. These patterns should be interpreted with two caveats in a numerical approach to methodological trends. First, methodological preferences are quantified on the basis of published reports but several of these reports may stem from the same research study and data-set – thus, more than report how “frequently” a particular research design is used, the review might be indicative of what types of projects are more “productive” in terms of generating and publishing findings. Second, categorization of research into different classes and types of studies is a contentious issue both in terms of how the classification is built (e.g. drawing from an analytical grid, from existing theoretical-methodological traditions, from particular research design issues, etc.) and who classifies (e.g. the authors of the study through self-labelling/classifying their research vs. the authors of the review drawing from their particular classificatory grid). The reports cited above take different stances in relation to each of these issues, so we might have to be prudent in terms of how they can be aggregated to provide a coherent portrait of research trends. With these precautions in mind, the following trends are suggested:

(1) Existing research draws from a variety of methodological approaches but is rather homogenous in terms of the populations under study, as most studies focus on culturally-dominant, middle-class abled children  (Miller et al; 2017, Marsh et al; 2017).

(2) Within this methodological diversity, over the last decade, qualitative and observational studies of young children’s digital literacy practices, occupy a consistently privileged position. However, drawing from existing reviews it is not clear how (or if) this position has shifted in one or another direction over the last ten years (cf. Faulstich-Orellana and Peer, 2013; Burnett, 2010; Miller et al; 2017).

(3) Calls for methodological innovation and exploration are embedded in several of these reviews. This forward-looking approach draws from a combination of interrelated factors including: the methodological possibilities of emerging digitalized technologies, changes in the epistemological lens through which children and literacy practices are understood and transformations in the relevant research and policy contexts.

More generally, in this comparison between different sources that review current research it seems that the information that, so far, has been fed into the DigiLitEY Research Methodology Database is generally aligned with relevant reviews published in English-medium academic resources. This might help validate the utility of the tool to identify research tendencies (in quick and straightforward manner and with constantly updated data). In addition, we could add that the literature corpus of the database is currently substantially larger than that discussed in existing reviews (and continues to grow) and probably is more geographically diverse than what is more often captured in the published literature.     


Burnett, C. (2010). Technology and literacy in early childhood educational settings: a review of research. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 10 (3), pp. 247-270.

Faulstich-Orellana, M. and Peer, K. (2013). Methodologies of early childhood research. In: J. Larson and J. Marsh, eds., Handbook of early childhood literacy. London: Sage, pp. 633-652.

Kontovourki, S; Garoufallou, E; Ivarsson, L; Klein, M; Korkeamaki,  R.L; Koutsomiha, D; Marci-Boehncke, G; Tafa, E. and Virkus, S. (2017). Digital literacy in the early years: Practices in formal settings, teacher education, and the role of informal learning spaces: A review of the literature. COST Action IS1410 Report.

Kumpulainen, K. and Gillen, J. (2017). Young children’s digital literacy practices in the home: A review of the literature. COST Action IS1410 Report.

Kucirkova, N; Wells Rowe, D; Oliver, L. and Piestrzynski, L. (2017). Children’s writing with and on screen(s): A narrative literature review. COST Action IS1410 Report.

Marsh, J; Mascheroni, G; Carrington, V; Árnadóttir, H; Brito, R; Dias, R; Kupiainen, R. and Trueltzsch-Wijnen, C. (2017).  The online and offline digital literacy practices of young children: A review of the literature.COST Action IS1410 Report.

Miller, J. L; Paciga, K. A; Danby, S; Beaudoin-Ryan, L. and Kaldor, T. (2017). Looking beyond swiping and tapping: Review of design and methodologies for researching young children’s use of digital technologies. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 11(3), article 6.


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