Going digital (part 2): Reading with children — e-books or print books?

Full disclosure: as a rule, I am a print-book fan. But I know there are some positives to the engaging and now-ubiquitous ebook format, so I reviewed a number of studies and learned a lot about the digital format’s strengths and limitations. particularly when it comes to learning to read. The research is not comprehensive, unfortunately.

There have not been enough high-quality studies done on all types of ebook experiences with young children, including Kindle-like ebooks, for example, or enough strong studies with digital formats at every age of child. Given the research that is out there, however, there are things parents should know.

Reading with children: first, one key thing to remember:

Decades of research confirm that it is the parent-child interaction — when there is direct and positive communication between a parent/caregiver and a child — that builds language and helps a child develop cognitive and social-emotional skills. 

It’s during these moments of attention that bonds are made and a child’s brain architecture grows. These language-building moments have been well-established as critical for building children’s foundational sense of safety and confidence, as well as building children’s oral vocabulary and overall knowledge.

We know from years of research with print books that when parents read to children, there are lots of opportunities for these face-to-face interactions, and that years later these early reading experiences contribute to a children’s reading and academic success.

What about ebooks? Are these same sorts of critical parent-child interactions part of the read-together experience? Here’s what I learned, and what I recommend parents think about when making the reading platform choice:

There are some clear benefits to ebooks:

  • ebooks and other digital book-reading seem to be basically more engaging for young children than print-book reading experiences. There are lots of interactive opportunities and the vivid pictures and animations are exciting to look at. 
  • Digital media allows children to access large amounts of content. This means children can learn about places and people and things that are far beyond their everyday lives. That is not to say that there isn’t similar content in print books, but it is easier to access, more entertaining, and more engaging overall when coming from vivid pictures on digital screens.

So then are ebooks actually better than print books? Not exactly…

  • ebooks are not all created equal, according to the research on best digital reading choices for children. When the ebooks have sounds and playful animations and games embedded in them, children can get more easily distracted and learn less. One study showed that children can spend up to 50% of the reading time hitting the “hotspots” to make the animations or sound effects happen. But when they have animations or types of music or sounds that add to the story line or support comprehension–assuming there aren’t too many of them such that a child gets cognitive overload–these additional features can help children learn more.
  • When a child and adult read an ebook together, research shows that the conversation can often be more about the device than about the book’s content. This is troubling because it is the conversation around book reading that promotes the most learning. We know, for example, that children grow and learn both new language and social-emotional skills when they are talking with an adult about how a character in the story feels, or whether something in the story reminds them of something that happened in their own lives. This kind of language give-and-take around a book’s content is what is so important to language building.
  • Children build social emotional skills during print-book reading, and these are the kinds of skills that help them be successful in school and life. For example, they start to manage their minds and bodies to stay with the reading even when the story challenges them or they get momentarily bored. 

So what’s my advice on reading with children?

  1. Use only print books for children up to the age of 2. As the American Academy of Pediatrics confirms, there isn’t enough data to support eBook reading for this age group, and there are too many important learning opportunities around print-book reading to sacrifice that time to the less-proven ebooks. More specifically,  given how essential face-to-face interactions are for building brain architecture during these early years, it makes sense to stick with what we know works for children under the age of two years.
  2. It doesn’t have to be all print or all eBook for children older than 2. I’d make sure to include lots of print books so that the focus is on your interactions with your child and not on the device or the features of a digital platform. Include ebooks when you want to, choosing the kinds of ebooks that broaden your child’s horizons by exposing her to new ideas and words. Also, make sure the ebooks you choose don’t have too many distractions that take away from the vocabulary-building and learning moments. Try to make sure that eBook reading is ultimately done in the same way as print book reading — with, for example, focus on content and ongoing conversations around characters and plot, etc.
  3. One more thing — and this is mostly from experience while extrapolated from the science: I suspect it might be harder to go from the regular reading of ebooks to reading the occasional print book together (as opposed to moving from regular reading of print books to occasional reading of ebooks). It takes practice for most active young children to do quiet listening and talking, and this practice is more likely to come from print-book reading. And since the research shows us that the most content-rich, language-building conversations come from print books, it seems necessary to include print regularly in the reading time at home.

In other words, children might just need to have the routine of print-book shared reading experiences to learn the regulation skills demanded for attentive and active reading, such that they savor those times together with you and stories/books, and become prepared and excited to read on their own. The quiet cuddling time spent with you and print books helps the focus be on a good story and the talk between the two of you, rather than the bells and whistles of digital features. With print-book reading as the main plan in your house, however, I think adding in ebooks would be just fine, and maybe even provide great fun and learning opportunities.  There is more to be learned about this format, however, so stay tuned.

Reading with children: Missed Part 1 of this article? Read it here.

Anderson, D.R., & Subrahmanyam, K. (2017). Digital Screen Media and Cognitive Development. Pediatrics, 140 Suppl 2, S57-S61.

Reich, S. Yau, J., Warschauer, M. (2016) Tablet-Based ebooks for Young Children: What Does the Research Say? Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics:- Volume 37 – Issue 7 – p 585–591

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