Storytime on a Screen: Reading E-Books with Young Children

E-books are rapidly spreading into the early childhood world, inviting young children to interact with storybooks in new and different ways. Even babies are mesmerized by e-books!

But, as caring adults, we can’t help but wonder: Are e-books good for our sprouting readers? Can e-books set them on the road to reading just as traditional storybooks have always done?

Studies on E-Reading

Although sparse, here’s what research says so far. First, e-books are very appealing to young children; they are attention-grabbers. Not only are e-books on intriguing mobile devices — they are also magic! Touch, tap, swipe, push, and there is action: cows moo, ducks waddle, rain drips, Sheriff Woody from “Toy Story” comes to life. Moreover, their twinkling hotspots are so inviting! Background music, narration, word highlights, and animation enhance the visual and auditory experience, further heightening young children’s attraction to the screen.

As the Review of Educational Research explains, children engage faster and stay engaged longer with e-books than with print books. Children — even those with lower attention spans — attend to text, storylines, and content longer when it’s in digital form, and this increases their chances for learning with e-books.

But there is a downside to it all. Studies also show that e-books can be attention-splitters. All that magic can turn to dust when the sounds, animation, music, and hotspots are superfluous to the storyline or draw children’s attention away from the text. The physical play of touching, swiping, poking, and tapping can overwhelm mental exploration of printed words and plot that support early literacy. The child’s attention, in other words, is split — and when this happens, the opportunity for learning from e-books is diminished.

For further information, check out "To Book or to Nook? Should Your Child's Reading Go Digital?"

Effective E-Reading

Does this mean that we should not use e-books for shared reading with children? Certainly not! E-books can offer young children appealing, multisensory, and satisfying storybook reading experiences. Adults can, and should, support a transition from print books to e-books and ensure that shared reading with young children continues to be the warm, enjoyable, and educational experience it traditionally has been.

A child’s new bedtime favorite may be an e-book, but that does not take away from the rich opportunity to read and learn together that print books have always offered. With that goal in mind, here are a few starter tips for shared e-book reading with preschoolers, at home and school.

Preview the e-book

You should preview the title at least twice to assess its literary and technical quality. Pay close attention to any reading aids available, as well as distractors that may split attention from the storyline or content (e.g., intrusive sounds or animations). Decide if you want to use the narrator or record your own voice as the storyteller if that option is available.

Explore all aspects of the book

Introduce the book by reading the name of the title and author. Show children the home page icon, the back/forward icons, the table of contents (if available), and any special features on the menu or toolbar. Decide if you want to turn the audio features on or off.

Listen to or read out the story

As you turn the pages, pause to demonstrate how any digital features work to support the story. For example, model how to explore the interactive features of a screen page (e.g., tapping to animate objects or to view a hotspot). With this in mind, children can activate these features on their own when they browse or reread the e-book.

Invite children to take the controls now and then

Kids can swipe to turn the page, for example, or tap to hear sounds. Ask them to talk about the screen page and to make connections between text and illustrations. Later, when children reread the e-book on their own, they can practice these digital reading skills to increase their comprehension of the text and the storyline.

Have fun with everything the e-book has to offer

Ask children to return to their favorite parts and to try to read the text on their own. Many e-book apps include extras, such as games and artsy stuff like coloring books. This is a good time to say, “Let’s play!” and involve children in extensions of the story. Just as print books are readily available for let’s read again, new e-book apps and old favorites should be made available on digital devices that children have learned to use with care for their own reading pleasure. Adults can encourage children to book browse and reread familiar selections, while also practicing their emerging literacy skills.

Getting started with shared e-book reading is not hard. Select a quality e-book or app. (Check with your local librarian for recommendations.) Cozy up around a touch screen computer, digital reader, or a tablet. Relax, explore, and enjoy all the e-book has to offer.

Editor's Note: If you know or suspect your child has dyslexia, e-books might offer a more suitable format with the help of assistive technology. Read expert Jamie Martin's guide to assistive tech for students with dyslexia for more information.

Sources:

Takacs, Z.K., Swart, E.K. & Bus, A.G. (2015). Benefits and Pitfalls of Multimedia and Interactive Features in Technology-Enhanced Storybooks: A Meta-Analysis. Retrieve from Review of Educational Research

Zucker, T., Moody, A., & McKenna, M. (2009). The Effects of Electronic Books on PreKindergarten-to Grade 5 Students' Literacy and Language Outcomes: A Research Synthesis. Retrieved from Journal of Educational Computing Research

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