Still Skeptical of Enhanced E-Books?

October 01, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Out-of-School Learning, Parents and Families, Research & Studies

Here's what parents are thinking and why.

iPad apps and interactive transmedia surge ahead as educational tools for young children, even though the evidence on their effectiveness is still sketchy. What we do know is quickly becoming dated, as much of the research on very young children and screen time focuses on video-based learning, or even further back, television time. Yet reading an interactive story via an iPad or playing a well-designed computer game is quite different from plopping a child down in front of just any old screen, or so the thinking goes.

The debate over screen time has expanded into a new frontier as e-books begin to vie for the attention of readers. For young children learning to read, the question is: Is an interactive book on an e-reader “good” for kids? Parents seem to be a little hesitant to say yes.

A recent update from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center has exposed some of the thinking behind this hesitancy.

Researchers Sarah Vaala and Lori Takeuchi surveyed 462 iPad-owning parents about reading books with their 2-to-6-year-old children as a follow-up to the Cooney Center report, “Print Books vs. E-books: Comparing Parent-child Co-reading on Print, Basic, and Enhanced E-book Platforms,” (pdf) published earlier this year. Although the 70 percent of those surveyed read with their children on an iPad (the survey was limited to iPad owners), they’re not always certain it’s a productive use of their time. They like some of the interactive features, such as audio recordings of certain words in the book, but they’re less enamored with other features. And the majority of parents still prefer print books for their kids. (The parents, it should be noted, are not a representative sample of U.S. parents.)

The research is still evolving on the effectiveness of these experiences in literacy development, but a recent Georgetown study (pdf), finds some evidence that parents might have less to worry about than they think—if the experience is well-designed.

In the study, researchers compared the effectiveness of interactive media versus watching a video or viewing a live performance. They randomly assigned 72 children, ages 30-to-36 months, to one of three groups, each of which was shown the same content except on different “platforms.” One group watched a video of a show that took place in a laundry room, where puppets would pop out of baskets or from behind clothes on a clothesline. The next group played an interactive game where they would have to touch the spacebar on the computer in order to find out where the puppets were hiding. The last group watched an adult find the hidden characters through a one-way mirror.

After the three groups observed the action, researchers sent the children into a playroom designed to look exactly like the room in the game, and asked them to find the hidden characters. They found that children who played the interactive game and who observed the live demonstration completed the task significantly better than the children who watched the video. As author Lisa Guernsey noted, “Something about interacting with the content—about pressing that space bar to make puppets appear from their hiding places—seemed to improve their ability to learn from the screen.”

Parents in the Cooney survey must be channeling that study because majorities believed that the interactive features like clicking a word that is highlighted improved the experience, while the videos, animation, and games embedded in the story were too distracting for their kids. Other parents have also chimed in about the distraction in general. As Salon columnist Laura Miller wrote of reading a story with her friend’s 7-year-old twins: “Instead of a cozy interlude of reading, we had a fight…. Nini was aggravated by her brother’s pinching, tapping and swiping, and shouted, ‘I’m trying to read the story!’

Despite the common practice of reading with iPads, there’s a group of outliers who resist the lure of the screen. Of those surveyed, 30 percent chose not to use their iPad to read with their children. The Cooney researchers spent some time with this group, digging in to why they chose not to read on an iPad, even though they owned one. Vaala and Takeuchi found that 60 percent of the parents who choose not to read with their children on the iPad simply prefer traditional print books. Another 27 percent of these parents said they were worried about too much screen time.

Perhaps parents aren’t so much skeptical of an e-reader’s ability to enhance literacy as they are lamenting the growing irrelevance of a medium they grew up using. As researchers at the child development advocacy group Zero-to-Three explain, "Keep in mind, though, that literacy is not just a skill, it is also a love—a love of books and the magic they offer."

There is something palpable and cathartic about flipping the pages of a book or feeling its weathered spine, and it can feel so fulfilling to finish a book or lend a good one to a friend. This probably explains the perfume that smells like a book. So maybe it’s a personal connection to books that parents are concerned their children might lack? After all, a majority of the iPad owners in the Cooney survey who read e-books with their kids say they still prefer reading print books with them (only 7.5 percent of parents say they read e-books and print books equally with their kids, and only 2.7 percent read e-books exclusively).

“It’s intimacy, the intimacy of reading and touching the world. It’s the wonderment of her reaching for a page with me,” said Leslie Van Every in a recent New York Times article by Matt Richtel and Julie Bosman. Van Every is an avid kindle user and works for the digital company CBS Interactive, yet only buys print books for her young daughter.

And she’s not alone.

“I know I’m a Luddite on this, but there’s something very personal about a book and not one of one thousand files on an iPad, something that’s connected and emotional, something I grew up with and that I want them to grow up with,” said “tech-obsessed” Ari Wallach. He, too, buys only print books for his twin daughters, even though he frequently reads on his Kindle, iPhone, and iPad.

Whatever the reason for the skepticism behind enhanced e-books and digital readers, there’s no getting around the fact that they’re here to stay. However, that doesn’t mean we can expect the demise of “dead-tree books,” as they’re occasionally called, anytime soon. The solution, as is true with any developing platform, is integration. Both print books and enhanced e-books have their place; the key lies in knowing when each is most appropriate, which is a kind of literacy in itself.