From television to tablets and everything in between, today’s children are exposed to screens more than ever before. Just those under 8 years old get an average of two hours screen time per day, and while we’d like to believe all of it is as educational as possible, not all screen time is equal. Kids on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder typically end up with less educational material to work with and subsequently fall behind once they start school. A new study, however, has found a common smartphone app may help parents bring their kids back up to to speed — at least when it comes to reading.

Previous research has not only shown that more middle class children download apps than low-income kids (49 percent vs. 30 percent), but also that more of the apps they download tend to be educational (80 percent vs. 57 percent). This is only one contributing factor to the school readiness gap that plagues impoverished children around the country. A lack of being read to or singing and learning songs also contributes, and it all amounts to a child who is unprepared for kindergarten when the time comes around — an effect that, among 50 percent of kids, can lead to scores in math and reading below “basic” levels.

Hoping to intervene, researchers at New York University found a currently available app called Learn with Homer, which teaches children to associate letters with their sounds — called phonological awareness — could bring children from low-income families up to speed. “Guided use of an educational app may be a source of motivation and engagement for children in their early years,” said study author Susan B. Neuman, a professor of childhood and literacy education at NYU Steinhardt, in a press release. “The purpose of our study was to examine if a motivating app could accelerate student learning, which it did.”

For the study, the researchers split 148 preschool students into two groups: one participated in training with Learn with Homer, while the other used an art and activity app. Over 10 weeks, the students played with the apps for 10 to 12 minutes each day with a moderator present. Each student then underwent a number of literacy tests that were meant to see how well they scored on measures of phonological awareness.

The researchers found those who played Learn with Homer scored higher on phonological awareness and were also better able to identify print concepts. “Given the importance of phonological awareness and how it contributes to school readiness, using digital resources in a highly controlled setting, like a school classroom, may substantially help to close the ‘app gap.’”

Aside from educational apps, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children spend only an hour or two each day with high-quality screen time. Otherwise, they should be outdoors playing, reading, engaging in hobbies, or using their imaginations for free play.

Source: Neuman S, Strom C. At The American Education Research Association’s Annual Meeting. 2015.