Early Childhood Hub

Paper books or e-books? Children need both

Written By: Natalia Kucirkova
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Natalia Kucirkova, Professor of Children’s Reading and Development, The Open University

When faced with the question of whether children should read on screen or on paper, many adults turn to traditional paper books. Yet when we ask children, we see that e-books motivate children to read, especially those who don’t enjoy traditional paper reading (Picton, 2014). For children who are developing their reader identities and acquiring reading skills, e-books have several practical assets that position them ahead of print books.

Advantages of e-books

E-books are low-cost to produce and thus cheaper to buy or easier to get for free (Baron, 2021). E-books are readily available on devices that low-income families already have in their hands, and can be read both online and offline (e.g. https://storyweaver.org.in/offline/read) . E-books can be easily shared when physical contact is not possible, as we saw during the pandemic, but as also often happens during illness, war conflict or displacement. The display of e-books can be customised in terms of the brightness and font size to the child’s preference and, with the increasing use of algorithms, also to the child’s gradual progress through the text (Kucirkova, 2018).

Given this added value of e-books, reading on screen is popular among children with lower ability or motivation to read on paper (Picton, 2014). Indeed, for children with special needs, reading difficulties or little history of reading at home, digital reading is the default without many alternatives.

Low quality of popular e-books

The problem, however, is that the quality of texts available for children’s digital reading is currently much lower than that on paper. Many popular digital books are designed with distracting ‘bells and whistles’ features that take the child’s attention away from the story, interrupt conversation between parents and children when they read together and overwhelm children with fast-paced content.

This has direct consequences for children’s learning. In our recent meta-analysis of previously published research on digital picture books for young children aged one to eight years, we concluded that, without the right design, digital books are inferior to print versions in terms of children’s story comprehension and vocabulary (Furenes et al., 2021). However – and this is a crucial point – our results are significantly moderated by the quality of design of the tested digital books.

The quality of books can be measured in several ways, including the quality of content, literary text or illustrations. With digital books, the quality of their design is essential. In the meta-analysis, we categorised the quality of e-books in terms of digital enhancements that are story-related and not story-related. Those that are story-related improve children’s story comprehension and learning of vocabulary because they direct the child’s attention to the story and its learning elements. Story-related enhancements can take various forms – for example, there could be a prompt question for the child that makes them reflect on the story content, or there could be a word that is highlighted as it is being spoken aloud. The enhancements that are not helpful for story comprehension are hotspots and mini-games that distract and overwhelm children.

Beneficial e-books

The meta-analytical evidence helps us to distinguish between e-books of high and low educational quality. E-books that have voiceovers, mini-games and additional features that are not related to the story are not helpful for children’s story comprehension (Furenes et al., 2021). On the other hand, e-books that contain features such as zoom-in on images, highlighting of words and music that enhances the story are of higher quality.

Award-winning e-books often have some additional creative features – for example, when children can move characters around the screen to perform actions described in the story (e.g. ‘Can you help Little Red Riding Hood find the path to Grandma?’ and the child needs to move the character across the digital page). Children may remember a story better if they can physically manipulate story elements, and such books may also stimulate children’s empathy.

Incorporating e-books into the classrooms

The use of e-books in classrooms requires an effective combination of the so-called TPACK (Brueck and Lenhart, 2015): content (suitable e-books, digital texts and stories), pedagogy (the educators’ teaching skills) and technology (access to tablets or other digital devices). Digital books can accommodate the need for reading content that is responsive to different reading pace and need in classrooms (Serafini et al., 2016), as well as different languages spoken by the children but not necessarily their teachers. Teachers and Early Years practitioners could capitalise on the unique features of e-books that support children’s motivation and interest to read. These include the possibility of combining reading and listening, such as texts read aloud while the child silently follows the text or audiobooks accompanying wordless images (Larson, 2015).

Parents’ involvement in e-reading

Parents are often sceptical about the potential of digital books for helping their children’s learning, and they strongly prefer print books for children’s reading at home (Strouse and Ganea, 2017). This is understandable considering that reading digitally is not the same as reading a print book. Reading digitally demands a different repertoire of skills, including different ways of tapping, pressing and swiping pages. However, observational studies from homes show that story-making as part of digital reading can bring families together around a literacy activity. Reading digital books that parents and children can create themselves supports parent–child bonding and contributes to a positive atmosphere at home.

The bottom line

Print books are, and will continue to be, important for all children’s reading, but as children grow up and learn the first letters and words, it is important that they are exposed to a variety of formats and variety of stories. This is about not only diverse story plots but also diverse story formats, such as e-books or story apps. The earlier that children are exposed to such variety, the better that they are likely to become at making discerned choices about the books that they like to read. The more that they read, the more that they learn about others and about literature. This often leads to children’s own production of texts. It is this exciting cycle of create–read–share, and not a binary digital/print reading, that we should be promoting among the future generation of readers.

Key takeaways

  • The potential of e-books for children’s learning is high if they are designed well
  • Well-designed e-books can contribute to children’s vocabulary growth, comprehension, engagement and enjoyment of the story
  • Instead of propagating a false dichotomy between print and digital books, it is better to start asking which books work best for which children and families – the purpose of reading is essential in these considerations
  • For a balanced reading diet, choice is key, but not all readers can choose how they read; displacement and lack of skills or resources often make digital reading a favourable choice over paper reading
  • The quality of most popular e-books presented on screen, especially literary fiction and children’s digital books, is lower than that of most popular print books – this makes the two formats difficult to compare and limits readers’ options of reading for pleasure
  • Children and adults have different reading expectations, needs and experiences; the design of digital reading materials and the effects of digital reading on children are therefore different for young and adult readers.
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