Is reading from an electronic screen just as good as reading from a paper book for my child?

Have you seen the You Tube videoAngry child thinking a book is a tablet app. in which a one-year-old child swipes the family iPad screen to make it work? Then she does the same to a magazine but it doesn’t “work.” She pinches the magazine and swipes back and forth across the picture but the image on the page does not change. In frustration she presses hard with her index finger, still with no results, and then just to be sure, she presses her finger against her leg to see if her finger is working.

Even at one-year-old, children are using electronic devices to learn. It’s a given. Does it help? Does it harm? Most of the research comparing electronic reading with old-fashioned book reading uses older children or college students as subjects, so it is difficult to apply the results precisely to younger children. Even so, here is what some of the research shows.

  • A book has a physical presence that an electronic device does not. The reader knows intuitively how big the book is, how hefty the book is, and how many pages have been turned or still need to be turned. A little child can figure this out quickly even before he can talk.
  • An ebook’s physical size, by contrast, is difficult to gauge. Is it 24 pages or 48 pages long? All ebooks books “weigh” the same. If you are at location 304-6 out of 4020, what does that mean? A bar across the bottom helps to show that 7% of the book has been read, but since you can’t “see” the turned pages, what does 7% mean? Most books for little children are not more than a couple dozen pages, but can children tell that? Do they have any sense that they are halfway done?
  • Old-fashioned books allow an intuitive navigation of the text. You read an idea on page 33 that reminds you of something you read a few pages earlier, on the top of a left-handed page.Indian girl on the floor reading a book. You can easily go back to just the left handed pages and reread the tops while holding your finger or a bookmark in the place where you left off. If a child suddenly notices a tiny frog on page ten, he can go back quickly to find out if there is a frog several pages back by flipping pages.
  • Ebooks also allow you to go back, but you need to check every page since there are no left and right-handed pages. Ebooks don’t allow for flipping back without skipping pages, or for scanning ahead. And if you forget how to go to the beginning of the book, or to chapter 2, you need to stop and go to the electronic device’s directions. Little children can’t do that. Ebooks do not allow for easy highlighting or jotting down notes, though this is not important for young children.
  • Research shows that reading from old-fashioned books leads to more serious and focused reading and more retention. Because of books’ easy navigability, older students approach handheld books seriously, and they absorb more.Boy on floor reading an ebook on his tablet.
  • Reading ebooks, on the other hand, is a more casual experience. Kids browse, scan through a document, look up keywords and tap a hyperlink before finishing a document. They often read information once without rereading it. Do little kids see this distinction between old-fashioned books and ebooks? It’s hard to say without more research.
  • Books with tiny type faces or books read in inappropriate lighting can strain eyesight and even lead to wearing glasses in young children.
  • Onscreen books’ typefaces can be increased in size, and most ebooks come with an internal light to create sharp contrast for easy reading—both real advantages. But the screens can also cause glare leading to headaches and blurred vision. Time in front of a screen needs to be monitored.

Nooks, iPads, smart phones, notepads and other electronic devices have been around for only a few years, so much more research will be done on them, including research on young children. Also, manufacturers are improving the technology to meet the shortcomings of past versions, so a newer version might be more kid-friendly than an older version. My Kindle purchased just four years ago seems like a reading machine compared to the latest Kindle Fire which downloads apps, plays games, lights up internally—and allows me to read books.

Unlike us, little children today are growing up using old-fashioned paper books and electronic screens at the same time, much like a bilingual child uses two languages interchangeably. An engaging storybook with a good story and excellent illustrations might be just as attractive as an online book if read and shared enthusiastically by Mom.

We shouldn’t fear the new technology but rather search out what it can do better than the old-fashioned book. Can it read a story aloud to a child? Can it allow the child to match rhymes with a swipe of his finger? Can it allow the child to email his voice reading a book to Grandma?

So should you encourage your child to read from a screen? Sometimes, especially if you are guiding him. Are onscreen materials just as good as old-fashioned books? Some are, some are not. Each offers real advantages.  –Mrs. K

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