Out With The Old, In With The New? Benefits of Reading to Children from E-Books versus Print Books
By Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel
In March, we featured a weekly digest describing the many benefits of reading to children. We have seen that both children’s literacy skills and socio-emotional health are boosted when someone reads books to them on a regular basis. Now, a recent study published in May 2017 by Strouse and Ganea (1), has revealed an additional factor that may further increase the cognitive benefits children can gain from being read to: Reading from an e-book instead from a traditional print book!
If you are a nostalgic book lover like me who loves independent book shops, the smell of a new book, the feel of a book you open for the first time, and the cozy feeling of being sucked into the book by turning its pages at an ever-increasing speed, your heart may have sunk a bit when you found out about this new finding. But I’m yet unwilling to give up my romantic print book appreciation, and therefore, decided to take a closer look at their study.
Toddlers aged between 17 and 26 months were randomly assigned to one of two groups. In one group, their parents were instructed to read two electronic picture books to them; in the other group, their parents were asked to read two printed picture books to them. The content of both book types, electronic versus print, was exactly the same: depicting farm and wild animals. The same animal was shown on two pages. For example, on the first page children would see a sheep and on the second page a lamb (i.e., adult and baby version of the same animal). The e-book version had additional gimmicks that you would usually find in electronic versions such as sound effects, animations, and automatic voiceover that read the text. The print books were created from the e-book images to create identical content, but obviously without the electronic features.
The study took place in the laboratory. Parent and child were left alone in a room and the parent was tasked with reading to their child. Afterwards, a surprise test was administered in which the child was asked to correctly identify animals they had seen in the book/e-book. Some animals were completely new to them, i.e., they had just learned about them through the book/e-book. Other animals were familiar to them, i.e., they had been able to recognize them before the study. This was done to check if children were complying to the study procedure.
What was measured? The researchers were interested in learning performance as well as many facets of behavior during the parent-child reading phase. Learning performance was measured by testing if children would be able to correctly identify unfamiliar animals that they had been exposed to through the book. In addition, a range of behavioral variables was observed during the reading phase such as how the child paid attention to the book, their availability for reading, positive emotions, participation in page turning, and production of content-related utterances. Furthermore, parent’s behavior during the reading phase was assessed, too, to check whether parents would behave differently while reading an e-book versus a print book.
Before diving into the results, let’s quickly take a look at the authors’ predictions. Based on previous findings, they expected that children in the e-book condition would state fewer content-related comments and engage in less pointing behaviour than children in the print book condition. However, they predicted that children being read an e-book would display more attention, be more engaged, and show more positive emotions towards the medium. Finally, they expected children in the e-book condition to show lower performance in the animal identification test.
Parents and children behavior during the reading phase
Duration: It turned out that parents spent more time reading to their children from the e-book than from the printed book. Therefore, in all later analyses, the researchers later control for this factor, but it is something to keep in mind.
Parent behavior: Parents showed more pointing behavior and read more text in the print book condition than in the e-book condition. The latter finding is to be expected because the e-books featured automatic voiceover. Other than that, parents’ behavior did not differ between the two conditions.
Child behavior: Children produced more content-related comments and turned more pages during the reading phase in the e-book group compared to the print book group. Children showed more positive emotions, were more attentive, and made themselves more available for reading in the e-book condition.
Children’s learning performance
Let’s turn to the big question: Who was able to identify more previously unfamiliar animals during the test phase? Answer: Children in the e-book condition.
Exploring explanations for the finding
You may have noticed that the researchers of this study had assessed a wide range of behavioral measures. They were eager to examine if any of these factors could explain the beneficial effects of e-books on learning performance. In technical terms: They were interested in the mediating factors between book format and learning performance. Indeed, they identified two variables that fully explained the effect of book format on performance, namely making oneself available for reading and paying attention. This can be interpreted as follows: Children in the e-book condition showed increased attention to the book/higher availability to be read to which, in turn, led to better performance later in the test.
Conclusion and personal implications
Toddlers aged 17 to 26 months displayed more engagement and attention towards the e-book than towards the print book and this led to increased learning performance in a surprise object identification task. There are a couple of important aspects to point out here.
- Children in this sample had more experience with old-fashioned printed books than with e-books. Thus, there could be a simple novelty effect triggered by the e-books that attracted their attention and engagement.
- Although parents displayed more pointing behavior and reading of the text in the print book group, it could not outweigh the more exciting animations and sound effects featured in the e-book. Particularly, in this age group these features easily trigger children’s attention – likely more so than the parent’s usual pointing and reading behavior.
- A big question mark is the longevity of the observed benefit of e-books. Once toddlers get used and habituated to the animated features in e-books, it is quite possible that the performance benefit disappears or even reverses. A reversal of the effect is thinkable as e-books may invite more passive behavior over time (2).
- One aspect that the researchers point out is that sound effects and animations in e-books will only be educationally enhancing when they emphasize and reinforce content-related details. Often e-books come with fancy multimedia effects that are rather distracting because they focus on non-related details. In that case one would not expect it to be useful for learning.
- Since this was a laboratory study, it would be important to replicate and investigate this effect in an authentic environment over a longer period of time before drawing strong conclusions.
My personal implications from this study: I like the study because it is thought-provoking and invites further reflection upon how we use new media as educational tools with very young children. I applaud the researchers’ assessment of a wide range of behavioral measures that provides a better picture of the link between book format and performance. It makes me think that if parents are able to fill this link with their own enthusiasm (which in turn may increase children’s attention) while reading a print book to their children, the advantage of the e-book over print book would decrease, disappear, or – as mentioned above – even reverse. This may particularly be true when taking a longer-term perspective. At this point, this is just a (rather personal wishful) speculation.
My bottom line: While I appreciate the wonderful aspects of electronic devices when it comes to parenting (educational apps, e-books, videos etc.), I feel that they must co-exist alongside old-fashioned media like wooden building blocks, coloring paper sheets and pencils, and printed books. I personally believe that the true enrichment comes from incorporating tech and non-tech components in a child’s education. Therefore, my concluding remark is: In with the old, in with the new!
(1) Strouse, G. A., & Ganea, P. A. (2017). Parent-toddler behaviour and language differ when reading electronic and print picture books. Frontiers in Psychology, 8:677.
(2) Strouse, G. A., & Ganea, P. A. (2017). A print book preference: Caregivers report higher child enjoyment and more adult-child interactions when reading print than electronic books. International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction, 12, 8-15