With an increase in electronic gadgets marketed to young children, many toddlers and preschoolers are now watching books on DVDs, electronic tablets, and television. It's easy to see the appeal. Classic children's stories come to life on the screen, as colorful pictures, professional music, and animated narrators engage young viewers.

But are these hi-tech methods of storytelling actually enhancing children's learning?

According to researchers at Vanderbilt University, the most important component of any story isn't how a child sees it. It's how the child experiences it.

Traditional Books

When it comes to reading traditional books face-to-face with their children, parents often find opportunities to talk about the stories and characters. As they flip the pages, mom might ask, "Why do you think Jack feels sad?" Or dad might express, "I wonder what this word means?" or "What do you think will happen next?" This type of reading is called Dialogic Reading.  It involves engaging young children in the process of reading. It can be appropriate for children of all ages, but is most effective when children have a vocabulary of at least 50 words.

Dialogic Reading encourages young children to be active learners. Through questions and interactive comments, children will be more likely to think about what they're seeing, make connections, develop new vocabulary skills - and truly enjoy the experience!

However, this type of engagement tends to be less frequent when children are watching stories on a screen. After all, it's easy to hit the play button and let the electronic story "read" itself.  

Study Results

In a study of 81 parents and their three-year-old children, researchers provided DVDs of children's stories to watch over four weeks. The children were pre- and post-tested on vocabulary words from the stories, and they completed a post-test on story comprehension.

When the parents in this study were prompted to have discussions about the content of the stories on the screen, their children scored significantly higher on post-tests than the children whose parents who were asked to simply watch the DVD, without commenting or asking questions.

Since electronic stories are likely here to stay, there are things you can do to make this type of storytelling more meaningful and enriching for your children.

Tips for Parents and Caregivers

–Be there. When you sit with your child and experience the story together, you'll both be more likely to talk about what's on the screen and enjoy a more active (and meaningful) experience.

–Ask "What" questions. Find opportunities to ask your child questions like, "What animal is that?" Or "What is that little boy doing?" This helps your child cue in to the story and notice what's happening.

–Include open-ended questions. One way to build early literacy skills and nurture your child's imagination is by asking questions that don't have definite yes or no answers. For example, "I wonder what will happen next." Or "What do you think about that?" Other open-ended starters include: "Tell me about..." and "What would you do..."  This isn't about pressuring your child to talk. It's about engaging him and sending the important message that you value his thoughts, observations and feelings. Be sure to keep the conversations playful and fun!

–Expand and build. When your child mentions something that's happening in the story, look for ways to expand on his comments in ways that relate to what he says. For example, if he points to the screen and says, "Dog," you might respond, "Yes, I see the dog, too. It looks like our dog, 'Blue.'" This can help your child's vocabulary grow over time.

–Mix it up. Sure, electronic stories can be flashy and engaging. But don't underestimate the joy of reading a great story from a traditional paper-bound book. There's nothing quite like turning pages and experiencing a great story in the palm of your hand. What's more, as a parent, you can tell a story to your child better than any paid narrator. No one knows your child better than you do. Through your words and actions, you know what grabs your child's interest to make those pages truly come alive.  

–Have fun! Whether you're reading from a traditional book or watching a story together on a screen, be sure to demonstrate the joy of storytelling with your child. One of the best (and most enjoyable) ways to nurture literacy and a love of reading is to curl up with a great story - electronic or otherwise - and enjoy it together.  

About the Author

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D.

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and speaker specializing in parenting and child development.

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