As a supporter of reading with children and a fan of traditional print books, I cannot say I am entirely surprised by the results of new research suggesting that print books are the best way to go when reading with young children.
Reading books is one of the great and ongoing pleasures of my life, and although I read all kinds of things on screens, I cling to the print book, the paper book, or what we all secretly call “the book-book.”
I am willing to travel with a heavy bag full of books in order to enjoy the pleasure of turning paper pages on the airplane, and watching my bookmark (yes, of course, I have a bookmark fetish) move further and further through the book on the hotel night table. But when it comes to books for young children, there’s a certain research imperative to figure out the role that screens can or should or might play in those first exposures to the written word.
Reading is my cause, and has been for years. I am the national medical director of Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit that supports pediatricians in counseling parents and children to read together and providing books at checkups.
Written language will be only more important in our children’s lives as the world becomes more and more networked, in the largest written-word-based community that has ever existed. Our children will grow up to depend on their facility with reading and writing in their jobs, their personal relationships, their ability to access information and news, and their participation in civic discourse at every level. How can we help them into the world of written language, in all its many modern manifestations?
In a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, researchers at the University of Michigan asked 37 parents to read similar stories to their 2- to 3-year-olds in three different formats (the order was varied for the different families): a print book, a basic electronic book (no bells or whistles) on a tablet, and an enhanced electronic book with animation and/or sound effects (tap a sea gull or a dog and hear the sounds they make). The interactions were videotaped and coded, looking at the number and kinds of verbalizations by parents and by children, at the amount of collaborative reading that went on, and at the general emotional tenor of the interaction.
Reading print books together generated more verbalizations about the story from parents and from toddlers, more back and forth “dialogic” collaboration. (“What’s happening here?” “Remember when you went to the beach with Dad?”)
Dr. Tiffany Munzer, a fellow in developmental behavioral pediatrics at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, who was the first author on the study, said the researchers had wanted to study toddlers in particular because of a concern that the toddlers might be particularly susceptible to distraction by electronic enhancements. That was why the enhanced books were compared to print books but also to nonenhanced electronic books.
“They were susceptible,” Dr. Munzer said, “but the basic electronic book without the enhancements was also distracting to toddlers, and they had less engagement with their parents than with print books.”
So while earlier research had suggested that the enhancements were problematic for young children, the results of this study suggested that even a nonenhanced story on the tablet screen seemed less likely to generate that parent-child dialogue. “The tablet itself made it harder for parents and children to engage in the rich back-and-forth turn-taking that was happening in print books,” Dr. Munzer said.
The researchers can only speculate about why; it may be because of the patterns we are all accustomed to in using our devices. Perhaps “the tablet is designed to be more of a personal device, perhaps parents and children use it independently at home,” Dr. Munzer said. There were also some struggles over who got to control the tablet, and more “negative format-related comments,” like “Don’t touch that button.”
And a print book, with a young child, may be a better piece of technology, if the goal is dialogue and conversational turn-taking. “A print book is just so good at eliciting these interactions,” Dr. Munzer said. “You’re comparing a tablet with the gold standard.”
[Read more in our guide: How to Raise a Reader]
I was one of the co-authors of a commentary accompanying the study, which acknowledged the many potential benefits of electronic books for children, but argued for continuing to rely on print books for the very young, including in programs that encourage parent-child reading.
My colleague, Dr. Suzy Tomopoulos, assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at N.Y.U. School of Medicine, who was the lead author on the commentary, said that whatever the medium, “parents need to read together with their child, use what they’re reading, and expand on the text.” With younger children, she said, there’s evidence that they get distracted with e-books, and there’s a lot of technology being actively marketed to parents nowadays. “You don’t need a lot of bells and whistles to support your child’s development,” she said. “Engaging the child and talking to the child does a wonderful job of supporting early child development.”
Reach Out and Read has a partnership with Scholastic, which this week released the seventh edition of its Kids & Family Reading Report, a national survey of school-age children and parents. It found that though 58 percent of the kids surveyed said they love or like reading books for fun, there has been an incremental decrease in reading frequency among the children surveyed since 2010.
And as children reach the age when they are expected to have fully mastered reading, they seem to be reading less for fun. In what the report called a “decline by 9,” the percentage of kids who report reading books for fun five to seven days a week dropped to 35 percent of 9-year-olds from 57 percent of 8-year-olds.
Lauren Tarshis, senior vice president at Scholastic and a contributor to the report, pointed to the focus on third grade as the pivotal year when children are expected to achieve full fluency as readers.
The worry is that is that the pressure — and the testing — at that stage may contribute to the perception that reading is no longer so much fun.
“I keep saying to my colleagues, it made me feel sorrowful,” Ms. Tarshis said. “If you have reading in your life as something you see as a way of transporting you, opening doors, it’s just a wonderful, wonderful thing.”
The report also highlighted the importance of “reading role models,” pointing out that the children who are frequent readers have people in their lives who enjoy reading, and parents who read frequently. This is hardly a surprise, though again, in the digital era, it might raise the question of just how our children can tell what it is that we are doing on our devices.
(When my own children were young, and I had just started to investigate the literature on reading, I was delighted to discover that “sustained silent reading” was an important pedagogical technique in elementary schools. I promptly invented another important technique, which I termed “witnessed sustained silent reading,” which I felt changed my parenting approach from “don’t bother me now, I’m reading,” to something far more laudable.)
But clearly parents play an important role. The book that stimulates the dialogue between parent and toddler is also the child’s introduction to the pleasures of written language and stories. The pleasure that a parent takes in reading helps shape a growing child’s attitude. And the message to parents should not be that they’re doing it wrong (we all know we’re doing things wrong, just as we all know that we’re doing our best), but that parents really matter.
“Parents today work harder than ever,” Dr. Munzer said. “Our goal is to help families reflect on activities they engage in that spark connections.”
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