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Can Children Benefit from Reading E-books?

Some features increase story comprehension, while others hinder it.

The other day, my husband and I were talking about how the way that we use technology has changed in the past few years and will continue to change over time. My husband pointed out that our subscriptions to newspapers and magazines were one way that our use of technology had perhaps already become old-fashioned. When he commutes to work on the subway, he rarely sees anyone else (certainly not anyone younger than him) reading paper copies of The New York Times or Sports Illustrated, but there are many things we both really like about having the “real” version of an article in front of us, rather than reading from a tablet.

As younger generations do more and more of their reading online and on electronic devices, one of the most common questions I hear from parents during our reading workshops is some variation of “should I let my kid read on my iPad?” I find this question so difficult to answer, for many reasons! There is not yet a great or conclusive body of evidence out there to answer the question, especially if you are looking for a nuanced answer about what particular skills are fostered or hindered by using technology, how technology affects children of different ages, and how different technology tools affect skill development in different ways.

In addition, there are lots of other factors to consider – parents often ask this question because their children are begging to read on the iPad and reluctant to read an old-fashioned book. In that case, I’d rather see a child read an e-book than not read at all, even if reading the e-book weren’t as beneficial for them as reading the print version. Finally, I am always a bit afraid that giving the green light for electronic reading means that kids will be left alone with technology, rather than supported through that experience the same way they would be if they were sitting on a parent’s lap and reading a book together.

All to say, I don’t think there is any short answer to this question, and I don’t think there is just one answer to this question. Each child and family is different, so parents need to weigh all of the information out there and then do what works best for them. Because I try to help families do just that, I was really excited to come across an article recently published online in Review of Educational Research that examines the effects of technology on the reading development of preschool and elementary school children.1

This paper provides a pretty broad answer to the question of how technology-enhanced storybooks affect literacy development because using a meta-analytic approach means that the authors compared studies that examined different types of technology and different outcome measures. However, they examined findings across 43 studies and more than 2,000 children, which means that we can feel fairly confident that the findings hold up to scrutiny and could be replicated. Their goal was to examine how reading the same story in two formats, technology-enhanced vs. old-fashioned print, affected skill development. Here are the big take-away messages from the article:

  • Technology-enhanced storybooks tend to include both multimedia features such as animated illustrations, music, and sound effects and interactive features such as hotspots that children can click to access games, questions, dictionaries, etc. Across studies, the authors found that multimedia features helped children better comprehend stories and words, but that interactive features distracted them from listening to the story.
  • Exposure to technology-enhanced storybooks leads to greater benefits, but also greater problems, for children from a variety of disadvantaged backgrounds. Children from low SES backgrounds and/or from immigrant, bilingual families benefited most from the multimedia features of technology-enhanced storybooks, likely because the additional information presented nonverbally helped enhance their background knowledge, and thus, comprehension of the story. But interactive features distracted them somewhat more than their more advantaged peers.

Technology-enhanced storybooks seem most likely to help children develop story comprehension and expressive language skills – in other words, skills that can be built through conversation and listening to stories. However, these books did no better job than traditional books at helping children develop early literacy skills like phonemic awareness or letter and word recognition.

These findings make me feel confident giving parents the same tips I’ve given for quite a while now about how to responsibly use technology to build literacy skills. They include:

  • Remember that technology can be helpful as a supplement to the language and literacy activities you already engage in with your child, and harmful as a replacement for the language and literacy activities you already engage in with your child.
  • For now, assume that technology-enhanced stories are most effective at strengthening story comprehension skills, rather than those skills that require kids to focus their attention on the words on the page.
  • Stick to technology tools that include simpler multimedia features, rather than those with many interactive features that can distract your child from the main point of the story.
  • Supervise technology time, so that you can help your child learn how to use those features wisely and when to ignore them. Having a good sense of what he or she is reading about electronically will also allow you to ask follow-up questions and help clarify points that confused him or her.
  • Think about your child’s individual needs, interests, and background when making decisions about the best way to strengthen his or her literacy skills.

That’s the shortest answer I can give to this complicated question, unless I fall back on my mother’s sage advice whenever a new recommendation comes out: “everything in moderation.” Yes, times and technology are changing, but I’m not ready to say goodbye to my Sunday paper just yet.

[1] This article is a meta-analysis, meaning the authors did the hard work of finding lots of studies that examine this question and then analyzing the results across studies. If you are in the mood to check out the full text and read the nitty-gritty details, you can check out “Benefits and Pitfalls of Multimedia and Interactive Features in Technology-Enhanced Storybooks: A Meta-Analysis” by Zsofia K. Takacs, Elise K. Swart, and Adriana G. Bus here;…).

But, if you are reading this post on a smartphone and your time is short, please allow me to summarize for you. :)

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