Tag Reading SystemDo you remember when LeapFrog, the educational technology company, had a huge hit with the LeapPad? It’s a device that many people feel helps older preschool and early elementary aged children gain early literacy skills. The LeapPads were bought by huge numbers of parents, and many found their way into preschools and school and public libraries. LeapPad sales peaked in 2003, bringing the company $330 million that year.

Sales of LeapFrog products have sagged since then, so the company has announced the new Tag Reading System, described in this New York Times article. The Tag, successor to the LeapPad, will launch this summer; I checked on the LeapFrog site, and you won’t find it there yet.

It’s a device with a pointer like a fat pen that allows children to touch words and illustrations in the series’ books and listen to characters say those words aloud or (on the illustrations) make smart remarks. The special Tag books will be imprinted with special dots that the “pen” reads when it comes into contact with the book. Several of the books planned for the system are books we already know, such as Ian Falconer’s Olivia and two of Jane O’Connor’s Fancy Nancy series:

Ms. O’Connor, who described herself as “not a very pro-technology person,” was a skeptic at first, but has since come around.

“Sometimes it might be easier for a child who is struggling not to have a parent breathing down their neck,” she said. “You get stuck, you tap a word. The only expectation is coming from you, the kid.”

If you read the story to the end, you’ll learn that LeapFrog has set the Tag Reading System up with a critical Web component. It will recommend to parents, after they’ve reported that their child has completed certain books the company sells, other LeapFrog books or products. Hey.

Will we be seeing these in libraries? Who knows? But I wouldn’t be surprised. List price for the basic Tag Reading System will be $50; additional books will cost $14 each.

I think that the question to be asked is: Why? Do we really need a tech toy like the Tag, or the LeapPad, or any of the new Fisher-Price early literacy toys or software, to teach kids how to read? No, we don’t, but kids love novelty and parents with too little time will always want to keep their kids occupied with something “educational.” I’d prefer to give them a big box of Legos myself, to help them grow up to manipulate the world.