Are E-Books Good for Young Readers?

June 01, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Parents and Families, Research & Studies

According to a new “quick study” by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, print books aren’t that passé after all. Despite the increasing popularity of basic and “enhanced” e-books— those that can support highly interactive multimedia experiences—the study finds that many of these enhanced mediums are distracting to young readers.

These “distractions” include non-content-related discussions when parents and children are reading an enhanced e-book rather than either a story on a basic model of e-reader or a print book. The study, “Print Books vs. E-books” by Cynthia Chiong and Lori Takeuchi, also suggests that these non-story-related conversations may lead to less effective parent-child storytelling, or “co-reading” experiences, and limit child comprehension of basic narrative details. Their research also found a slightly lower ability among children to recall plot elements in enhanced e-book stories, compared with traditional print and basic e-book models.

Other findings, however, suggest that enhanced e-books might be better able to “hook” reluctant readers. The study came to one conclusion directed for parents and educators:

Parents and preschool teachers should choose print or basic e-books to read with children if they want to prioritize literacy-building experiences over ones intended “just for fun.” Some of the extra features of enhanced e-books may distract adults and children alike from the story, affecting the nature of conversation and the amount of detail children recall. However, given that appeal is an essential building block for early literacy development, enhanced e-books may be valued for their ability to prompt less motivated young readers toward engagement when they might otherwise avoid text altogether.

The study analyzed several other reading experiences and found no statistically significant differences among the three types of books.

The most notable weakness of the study—as the authors note—is the small, and unique, study sample. The research was conducted with only 32 families who were visitors to a museum, and who, as the study notes, were largely white and of middle or high socioeconomic status. Also, given the parents were visiting a museum on a weekend, they were likely more involved in their children’s academic progress than some other parents—all of which skews the sample and prevents the researchers from generalizing their findings to larger populations.

In other words, it says very little about whether e-readers can enhance reading experiences in homes of families where books aren’t a bedtime ritual, or for children who are not interested in museums and other literacy or academic-based settings.

The study concludes that, "The print books were more advantageous for literacy building co-reading, whereas the e-books, particularly the enhanced e-book, were more advantageous for engaging children and prompting physical interaction."

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center plans to continue their research with a larger and more representative sample of participants.

"Future research on the transition from print to digital reading is ripe with possibilities," the Center's Executive Director, Michael Levine, said in a piece this week at the Huffington Post. He added that the Center's future reserach interests include "forms of engagement that will lead vulnerable children to spend more time in purposeful literacy activities," differences in parental age, parenting styles, and how digital media may help ELL families and those with special needs. We'll stay tuned.