Raising Readers in the Digital Age

Making the Most of Books, Tablets, and eReaders in Early Childhood

“Don’t eat the book Emmett!” my 3-year-old son Miles exclaimed as his baby brother brought “Peek-a-Who?” towards his open mouth.

I reminded Miles that babies explore the world with their mouths. With an exasperated but knowing look at me that said “Silly babies,” Miles settled in next to me for his bedtime story while Emmett enjoyed chewing on his board book.

We’ve known for a long time that raising readers starts early. Many pediatric clinics now hand out free books at well-baby appointments and organizations across the country are dedicated solely to the task of encouraging parents to read to their children.

Reading and yes, even eating, books puts the youngest among us on the path towards literacy.

But children today are born into a brave new digital world. How we consume, share, and tell stories is changing quickly, and children’s books are not immune to the digital revolution.

Child reading on tablet

When reading goes onscreen

Many family favorites can no longer be chewed on. Popular titles like Good Night Moon and Snowy Day have found their way to an iPad near you. Far from just taking text onscreen, these stories and many others have been transformed into highly interactive apps that promise to engage young children and boost pre-literacy skills.

While reading good ol’ fashioned paper books is still by far the most common way that adults read to children and 9 out of 10 parents agree that it is important that their children read print books, electronic books and reading apps are on the rise. The number of children who report reading e-books has doubled since 2010 and a full 58% of education apps in the iTunes store target toddlers and preschoolers.

So what does this mean?

Parents are inundated with recommendations about screen time, the loudest voice being the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) which advises no screen time for children under two years old. The most recent AAP policy statement, however, doesn’t include evidence on e-readers. They are just too new.

This means that we are left to navigate these choices without a lot of robust evidence to guide us. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some signposts on the path.

Here is what we do know:

Bridging the video deficit?

There is excitement about the possibility of interactive media being able to bridge the so-called “video deficit.” The video deficit refers to the fact that very young children (under 2-3 years old) learn much better from live demonstrations than from video. While multiple studies indicate that traditional TV and video have little educational value for toddlers (despite marketing claims to the contrary), initial evidence demonstrates that children may be able to learn from interactive media.

This doesn’t mean that engaging with interactive media is better than interacting with live adults. Ideally, interactive media should be used in addition to as opposed to instead of quality time with caring adults. For children whose screen time is currently dominated by passive media use, educational and age-appropriate interactive technology may be a very promising alternative.

Shared interactions are key

Reading together matters. Numerous studies indicate that positive and shared reading experiences predict better reading language outcomes. Literacy is especially boosted by so-called “dialogic reading.” Dialogic reading includes encouraging a child to actively participate in the story, relating elements of the story to life, and engaging with stories in ways that reflect the child’s increasing levels of comprehension and understanding.

Here is what dialogic reading might sounds like: “Big Bear has a problem to solve! How do you think he might solve it?” or “Amelia Bedelia is baking a pie. Have you ever baked a pie?” or “How do you think Brother Bear feels when his friend says that to him? Have you ever felt that way?”

When adults engage in “dialogic reading,” positive outcomes skyrocket. So the question is – what do parent-child interactions look like when we read on tablets? Unfortunately for children, parents tend to steer away from dialogic reading and towards behavior-focused language when they read e-books aloud. This is especially true when reading enhanced ebooks with more bells and whistles.

Here is what that sounds like at home: “Don’t touch that!” and “Press this button!” and “See what happens when you swipe your finger like this?”

Turns out we are so busy trying to tell our children how to use the device that we forget to engage them in the story.

Raising readers means paying attention to how you are reading and interacting. Resist the temptation to tell your child how to interact with the device and focus instead on the narrative including relating it to their lives and encouraging understanding. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy your child. Get lost in the story. It is supposed to be a book after all.

Entertainment vs. Understanding

We know that parents read differently with their children when they read e-books as compared to traditional books. But does this impact children’s comprehension of the story? Perhaps the interactive features of ebooks compensate for lack of dialogic reading. In other words, maybe the apps are teaching the children what the parents aren’t.

At least according to one study, this doesn’t seem to be the case. All 3-year-olds in this study were able to recall “superficial information” like characters and events equally as well regardless of what book type they were read. The differences showed up when children were asked to recall “deep story structure” information such as story content or sequence story events. Children read from traditional books were far more likely to have followed the story’s narrative thread.

Why is this? In addition to the disruptive effects of parents’ directive comments (“Push this!”), it is possible that distracting sound effects and movements disrupted the flow of the e-books and undermined retention. The so-called “interference effect” has been observed even when toddlers are learning words from traditional books with manipulative features so it isn’t a stretch to imagine that the bells and whistles on e-books could interfere in similar ways.

Look beyond the bells and whistles. Beware of sounds and features that distract from the story and avoid e-books that are designed to be watched as opposed to read. Quality e-books should have prompts that lead to content related interactions and images and sounds should add meaning and depth to the storyline. Good sources for reviews include Common Sense Media and Children’s Technology Review.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t benefits to e-books. Indeed it is clear that how we use them and what kinds of content we choose are the key variables. Given that e-books can be so engaging, they may be a great tool for attracting reluctant readers and could increase the amount of time overall that children are engaging with words and stories. There is also the possibility of using e-books as an intervention tool for children with specific reading challenges. Finally, it is possible that replacing passive, entertainment screen time with high quality digital activities that prompt exploration, interaction, and literacy could succeed in better preparing children for school.

Where do we go from here?

In the coming years we will continue to gather evidence about the impact of interactive media on the youngest among us and best practices for raising readers in the digital age. My guess is that far from discovering whether new tools like ebooks or apps are good or bad or agreeing on the definitive route through the digital wilderness, we will gain an increasingly nuanced picture of the pivotal role of technology in our lives.

And throughout all that discovery I am convinced that one thing will remain the same: the critical importance of reading together. So let’s not forget to approach every new innovation – electronic or otherwise – as an opportunity to turn towards our children and share in the magic of a good story.

I’m curious. What do you prefer? Paper or tablet? Let us know in the comments below.