Are Physical Books Better for Kids?: The Pros and Cons of Digital Reading

The e-book, like most inventions, cannot be attributed to just one person. It has a complicated, winding history in which several people and ideas played an important role. Depending on your definition of the term, the first “e-book” could have come into existence as early as the 1940s or as late as the 1970s. 

In 1949, a Spanish teacher named Angela Ruiz Nobles, to reduce the book load of her students, created the Mechanical Encyclopedia, a portable, air-powered contraption. Texts were printed and rolled onto spools in the machine, which the reader would view through an illuminated magnifying window. In the 50s and 60s, Italian Jesuit priest Roberto Busa archived the writings of Thomas Aquinas on machine-readable punch cards for the project known as the Index Thomasticus. And then, in 1971, Michael S. Hart, in collaboration with the University of Illinois, typed the Declaration of Independence into a computer, and the first e-book—by widespread consensus—was born.

Over the past two decades, the ubiquity of digital reading has skyrocketed, both in educational settings and in our daily lives. But the research about it is still in its infancy, and figuring out how to navigate this new reading world can be overwhelming and confusing. Parents are not alone in their apprehension about e-books—even pediatricians are sometimes reluctant to recommend them. When kids spend so much time online, encouraging them to abandon print texts seems like the wrong idea. Isn’t reading supposed to be a time to take a break from the screen? The answer, of course, is it depends. This article will clarify some common questions about using digital books with young children.

Digital Books & E-books

Digital reading encompasses numerous media, including e-books, picture book apps, interactive stories, and narratives with multimedia and interactive features. The term “e-book” refers to a conventional digitized text. Picture book apps are designed specifically for the presentation of picture books, with features that guide the reader through illustrations. Interactive stories have digital buttons to trigger various narrative elements, enhancing users’ immersion into the story. And narratives with multimedia features might include: 

  • Audio read-aloud elements 
  • Sound effects
  • The sensory outputs enhance the reader’s engagement with the narrative and characters. 

Things to consider

There is much to consider when evaluating a digital text or learning resource. Parent scaffolding significantly impacts how successful a child is with the help. Other factors influencing a child’s success are the age-appropriateness of the text or tool and the multimedia features embedded within. 

Many digital texts are unhelpful because they contain distracting interactive features. Touch-activated movement of characters, games, music, voiceovers, and interactive illustrations can be beneficial if aligned with the storyline and purposefully—they should enhance, not distract, from the narrative. Multimedia features like these can impede comprehension and learning if unnecessary or not seamlessly embedded, but well-aligned features positively impact understanding. The world of digital texts is very complicated; there are countless types of digital texts and elements, but this guide should help to wade through the waters with more comfort. Let’s talk about the positives first. 

The positives

Digital features can enhance comprehension compared with traditional read-alouds. Interactive elements can support understanding, and vocabulary can boost phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and word knowledge expansion.

According to Kucirkova (2019), digital books and learning tools can meet students’ various academic needs. Bilingual students can use digital translation tools and receive contextual vocabulary support. Digital books can also motivate reluctant readers who might need an extra incentive to pick up a book. Students with special education needs can also benefit from digital books because many contain tools that provide accommodations and learning support for students with dyslexia or other challenges, such as auditory support and read-aloud features.

Online books can help reach families without print materials at home. Students of low socioeconomic status can catch up to their peers in terms of academic support if given the appropriate digital tools and are taught how to use them. This is even helpful for early readers, as there is evidence that young readers can more easily learn letter sounds with well-crafted digital tools.

One specific concern, and understandably so, is that of children aged birth to five. But a 2017 study concluded that children in this age range “learned more words and displayed more engaged and socially desirable behavior” when reading digital books, and a 2016 study confirmed this. Parents should still have an ample supply of print books but not shy away from using digital texts with young kids.

Areas of concern

There are, of course, drawbacks. Feature-rich texts can distract from “the work of reading,” which requires continuous focus and engagement. If the features are not well-integrated and disrupt the reader’s flow, they can be detrimental to the learning process. 

Some have argued that the shift to digital reading has resulted in the isolation of young readers because the parental intervention has waned. The digitization of reading has decreased the social aspect of reading—parents tend to involve themselves less in the reading process when digital books are the chosen medium. But to preserve the interpersonal benefits that reading brings, parents must continue to apply themselves even when using digital books. Just because a book is digital doesn’t mean your child should always use it alone; reading is an essential social and bonding experience.

It is lastly essential to consider the differences between digital and physical books. Researchers in 2017 studied classrooms that used comprehensive digital reading tools and found that they were treated basically as conventional books that the materials were not made use of to their fullest potential. It is thus essential that we teach how to use digital books, remembering that their use is not intuitive and that each has special tools and features to consider. Students should be guided and taught to use them to reach optimum benefit.

How parents can support young readers

Given the multitude of digital books and the variety of features, it can be challenging to choose the best books and tools for your child. Consider the following criteria that you might use to evaluate online reading products, given by a 2017 study

  1. Readability: Is the text legible? Is it at an appropriate level for your child?
  2. Effectiveness: Will the book help your child meet their reading goals?
  3. Accessibility: Does the digital book accommodate your child’s needs?
  4. Efficiency: Are the book’s features helpful or distracting?
  5. Navigation: Are you or your child able to navigate the book?

It is essential to provide direct, specific guidance about digital texts as a parent. Currently, most of the parents’ suggestions and questions had to do only with behavioral physical aspects, like how to hold the iPad or how to swipe through pages, not the story’s content. Overall, there is a less language-stimulating conversation between parents and children with digital books than print books. Parents tend to give fewer “prompts, questions, and pointing” (Kucircova, 2019) with feature-rich or digital books, but this kind of support is still crucial with digital books. 

Parents, in general, are concerned about the rise of digital books and are apprehensive about letting their children use them. Many parents believe that children don’t like digital books when children prefer them to print books. The problem that this divide cause is clear: since parents shy away from and even discourage their kids from reading online, children do not receive the support they need. It causes a feedback cycle in which kids are undersupported with digital texts, which in turn harms learning outcomes, reinforcing parents’ negative views of digital reading.

But overall, digital books can help children achieve higher reading and improve reading comprehension with sufficient parental support. 

The takeaway and BookSpring’s role

Reading engagement can be more significant with digital books. There are many benefits, especially for multilingual kids, special needs students, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Digital books can help children learn and enjoy reading, but they can be harmful if not created with purposeful, engaging features. Researchers must focus on developing standards to optimize their use.

BookSpring has a wide selection of free digital texts that you can read with your child. View our Weekly Themes for 52 engaging books and activities for children aged 3-5 and 6-8. So far, our themes are aimed toward children of these age groups, but we are working on a monthly series with texts and lessons aimed toward the 9-12 age demographic. Stay tuned.

Research in the field of digital reading is relatively new and rapidly developing. Parents should focus their digital reading habits on the four key areas of deep reading and engagement, distractions, physiological side effects, and enjoyment. 

BookSpring can guide parents toward habits that will improve their children’s reading engagement and literacy skills.

Written by Trent Kennedy, Program Associate
Are Physical Books Better for Kids?: The Pros and Cons of Digital Reading
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Are Physical Books Better for Kids?: The Pros and Cons of Digital Reading

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