E-Books vs. Print: What Parents Need to Know

E-books are becoming a more popular choice among kids, but is high-tech as good as print for the youngest readers? Find out how they stack up.

By Jenny Deam



E-Books vs. Print: What Parents Need to Know

When Maggie Moore, a suburban Denver mom, was literally weighing her packing options for a family trip, she was stumped by her 4-year-old son’s stack of favorite books. He had dozens, and she knew they’d be too heavy to take along. But they would be away for a few weeks — how could she bring only a few?

That’s when she reluctantly bought a Nook, loading titles for both of them onto it. She wasn’t a big fan of the extra screen time it would mean for her preschooler, but Moore justified the purchase as a stopgap solution. What happened next surprised her: From the moment her son held the device and began to scroll through a book, he was transfixed. “He was in heaven,” says Moore.

Once products targeted primarily at adults, e-reading devices have expanded to include a younger audience: children.

“We are not going to stop this train,” says psychologist Jim Taylor, Ph.D., author of Raising Generation Tech. But should we try to slow it down? When it comes to the youngest readers, some experts are skittish about putting tablets into tiny hands. Parents are conflicted, too — 68 percent prefer that their 6- to 8-year-olds read print books, Scholastic found. Since there’s not much research out there, it may be years before we understand the impact of tech devices on young readers.

Still, there are signs that e-readers can have a positive effect on newbie readers, especially when it comes to targeted learning based on each child’s ability. But don’t give those storybooks the heave-ho just yet. “It doesn’t have to be an either-or. You don’t build a house with only one tool,” says Otis Kriegel, a fifth-grade teacher in New York City and the author of Covered in Glue: What New Elementary School Teachers Really Need to Know. Here’s how you can inspire your reader with both options. 


Print May Be Better For...

The hands-on experience. Some experts, including Taylor, worry that devices can distance little kids from the real world. If they’re only exposed to e-readers, kids lose the tactile experience of handling a traditional book, turning its pages, or sharing their faves with friends. “Technology is a beautiful box but it is still a box,” he says.

Falling in love with reading. Cuddling with a parent over a book or gathering around the teacher for storytime helps kids associate reading with nurturing. “These reading experiences can set the stage for later reading success,” says Julia Parish-Morris, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania who studies how young children interact with e-books. While she thinks e-books are great for independent readers, she’s not as sure how good they are for preschoolers and kindergartners. Her research has found that parents often become more controlling, concentrating more on what their child is doing with the device instead of talking about the story.

Focusing a child's attention. The music, animation, and games that are loaded into kids’ e-books can end up being more distracting than useful, says Lisa Guernsey, director of the early education initiative at the New America Foundation. “The technology is so exciting that the conversation focuses on what button to push instead of the content,” she says. What’s better is when those bells and whistles lead back to the story, instead of just entertaining.


Digital Matches Print For...

Boosting early reading skills. For the past four years the Center for Literacy at the University of Akron has been studying how to integrate e-readers into classrooms. Jeremy Scott Brueck, director of the school’s Digital Text Initiative, found that animation and audio in e-books did seem to help young kids identify printed words. When Brueck tested pre-K students, a third knew the words before reading the story with a grown-up on an e-reader. After reading the e-book, the number shot up to 54 percent. It’s unclear whether the results would have come out the same with traditional books; it might have been the shared reading experience — a known vocabulary-builder — rather than the device that helped kids learn. But what they did find: “The kids were extremely engaged,” says Brueck.

Digital May Trump Print Because...

It's more interactive. While add-ons can distract, they are extremely useful for beginning readers, who can zoom in on unfamiliar words or click links that help make connections to their world, says Guernsey. Plus, the touchscreen or buttons on an e-reader can hone a preschooler’s fine-motor skills. 

It's more rewarding. When kids see printed words light up as they sound out the words, they’re encouraged. Kim Floyd has been teaching kindergarten in Napa Valley, CA, for 24 years and using iPads loaded with books for the last three. The proof of e-reading success is in front of her every day when she sees how excited her students are the second she pulls out the tablets. Because the devices help children understand words by highlighting and defining those they struggle with, their vocabulary increases. Her kindergartners have vocabularies more typical of second graders, she notes. Floyd even studied the vocab-building phenomena for her master’s degree last year, testing pre-kindergartners who were not native English speakers and had no preschool experience. By the end of three weeks, their vocabularies had jumped from roughly 200 words into the thousands.

It caters to a kid's unique learning style. Floyd also likes that the anonymity of the device helps struggling readers feel less embarrassed. “It lets children find a book that fits their interest and skill without the entire class knowing what they are reading,” she says. Erika Alexander, a suburban Detroit mother, agrees. Her fourth-grade son is a reluctant reader, even though books were part of his routine when he was younger. Recently when they were shopping, he picked up a Nook that was loaded with a graphic novel. Attracted at first to the gadgetry, he stood in the aisle and inhaled the story. Alexander still plans to encourage a love of old-fashioned books. But she also recognizes that her son is a visual person, and a high-tech device hooks him in ways that were missing before.

The Bottom Line...

Kids have a lot to gain from both reading tools. Even though she’s a huge e-reader fan, Floyd believes that children should be exposed to print first or at least simultaneously. Her students switch off easily, and there are surprisingly few squabbles over who gets the iPad. “After the novelty wears off, they become nonchalant,” she says. Plus, technology will never replace good parenting and good teachers. So when you read to your child — regardless of whether it’s a traditional or e-book — keep the conversation lively. Talk about what he sees on the page. Ask what he thinks will happen next. Because as researchers and educators all agree, the most important app, especially for little kids, is human.


Developing Reading Skills
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Science and Technology
Early Reading