Does your child own an e-reader or tablet? Products such as the Kindle and iPad have revolutionized the ways kids and adults alike now approach reading.
The many title options at the click of a button attract some kids, while others simply enjoy reading on an electronic device — because they can.
After all, these devices are novel and can create a different reading experience, especially for kids who are reluctant readers. But e-readers and tablets may prevent kids from developing reading comprehension skills.
As e-books become more prevalent in schools, it makes sense for parents and teachers to become more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of these devices.
The Print vs Screen Debate
Millions of people have made the move to e-readers, including some school districts that are replacing textbooks with iPads. This move, perhaps fueled by fear of losing the technology race, is not without consequences, though.
For the most part, technology use in the classroom has been beneficial. But, experts have not adequately studied the effects of extensive screen time at school.
While the research on the print vs. screen reading debate has not been overwhelmingly conclusive for either side, current studies point to potential consequences when kids, in particular, take in a steady diet of e-reading.
E-Books and Reading Comprehension
Kids who read on e-readers and tablets often have a difficult time remembering what they read. Researcher Ann Mangen conducted a study, Reading Linear Texts on Paper Versus Computer Screen: Effects of Reading Comprehension, which confirms that many people have a hard time recalling the sequence of events in a story when using e-readers and tablets.
This, in turn, affects overall reading comprehension. Mangen’s finding is pertinent to teachers, as well as parents, especially as more schools are making the move to e-readers, but not necessarily preparing students to use them properly.
According to his article “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age,” Ferris Jabr notes that, “…most screens, e-readers, smartphones, and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds.”
There are many factors that influence what a reader understands, and e-readers and tablets can detract from this comprehension for a variety of reasons. One particular issue involves the reading skills students learn at school when using paper books.
Kids learn skills such as making inferences, re-reading what they don’t understand, and using context clues; but these skills don’t readily transfer when kids read e-books.
Reading: A Sensory Experience
E-reader and tablet makers create these devices so they emulate the pages of an actual book with page numbers and realistic e-ink. But reading is a sensory activity where the reader can feel and hear the pages as they turn, jot down notes in the margins, and locate a passage easily in a prior chapter.
In contrast, the scrolling and tapping that comes with e-reader use takes away from how a reader visualizes the story in his or her mind. This can make an impact on how deeply a person reads a text. Further, most e-readers and tablets display a certain percentage that represents how far a person has read in the book.
In reference to this percentage display, neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz asserts, “Printed books…give us a physical reference point, and part of our recall includes how far along in the book we are, something that’s more challenging to assess on an e-book.”
Kids who possess e-readers are sure to use them, but deep reading with solid recall of the plot is an unlikely outcome. Those who have access to books, who can actually touch the books, flip through them, and decide to read them, are much more likely to experience an emotional response and make connections while reading.
For this reason, e-readers and tablets may best be used for lighter reading rather than focused, critical reading.
E-Reading and Distraction
Kids who routinely use e-readers and tablets are often prone to distraction. Most of these devices contain a “read to me” feature, as well as a reference tool for looking up word meanings.
While these features can be helpful, some kids rely too heavily on them, thus disrupting the development of fluency as well as comprehension. In addition, many e-books come with games and gimmicks that can detract from a reader’s focus and the reading process itself.
New York Times journalist Annie Murphy Paul states, “Children may not automatically apply reading skills they have learned on traditional books to e-books, and these skills, such as identifying the main idea and setting aside important details, are especially crucial when reading e-books because of the profusion of distractions they provide.”
Many kids approach e-readers and tablets just as they would other technological devices– with a more relaxed attitude and not necessarily with an attitude for learning.
Heather Ruetschlin Schugar, PhD., and Jordan Schugar, PhD., associate professors at West Chester University, published an article with colleague Carol A. Smith in The Reading Teacher in 2013.
In this article the authors reveal a study involving teachers and teachers in training who use interactive e-books with students in grades kindergarten through sixth grade. They discover that the students are quite intrigued by the interactive features, but become distracted and experience a lesser degree of overall reading comprehension.
In a recent phone interview, Dr. Heather Schugar, who maintains a balanced view of e-reader use, confirmed to Decoded Parenting that the students in this study were able to decode what they read, and did so fluently, but were not able to recall what they read afterwards – perhaps due to being distracted by the “just for fun” features.
Parents and teachers who are aware of companies’ attempts to market e-books with games and gimmicks can help kids make choices that can decrease distraction levels.
E-Reading and Sleep Deprivation
Some kids enjoy staying up late to read, even if they have to do it under the covers with a flashlight. Many won’t need the flashlight, though, because kids now read on a screen in the dark. This late night exposure to the back light that comes with most electronic devices can disrupt sleep patterns.
Sleep-deprived kids, of course, have a difficult time paying attention and maintaining self-control, just to name a few concerns.
In addition, reading on a tablet or e-reader before bedtime can cause eye strain and headaches. This may also be a contributing factor to kids’ reading comprehension difficulties.
Jabr notes: “…researchers have suggested that people comprehend less when they read on a screen because screen-based reading is more physically and mentally taxing than reading on paper.”
In other words, a paper book is a more suitable choice for late night readers.
Different Purposes for Different Media
Researchers are becoming more aware of the strengths of different technological devices, but many teachers and parents still lack this knowledge. Due to the way the human brain processes print vs. digital text, paper books seem the best choice for remembering information long-term, while screens may work for assignments and activities that require lighter reading skills such as skimming and scanning.
Interactive graphics such as sound tracks, maps, and timelines lend themselves to a screen rather than on paper as well.
Jabr underscores this point: “Scrolling may not be the ideal way to navigate a text as long and dense as Moby Dick, but the New York Times, Washington Post, ESPN and other media outlets have created beautiful, highly visual articles that depend entirely on scrolling and could not appear in print in the same way.”
Adapting to Technology
Eventually, the human brain is likely to adapt to the various screens people encounter each day. E-readers and tablets, among other technological devices, are here to stay and are likely to become more ubiquitous.
In the meantime, teachers and parents must find strategic ways to help kids incorporate these devices into their daily lives– at home and at school. There’s no need to ban the iPad or Kindle, for example, from the classroom or home, but it makes sense to learn how to help kids use e-readers and tablets appropriately.
If your child owns an e-reader, there is no need to pack up and get rid of all the paper books. Each possesses its own merits and offers a different experience for your child. Having awareness that one’s brain processes print and screen reading differently is a step in the right direction.
Writer and editor T.J Raphael offers the following point: “Neuroscience, in fact, has revealed that humans use different parts of the brain when reading from a piece of paper or from a screen.”
Likewise, if teachers incorporate e-readers into the classroom, they can balance their use with paper books. Guidance is important in this regard.
E-Books, E-Readers, Technology, and Learning
Many parents and teachers assume the kids of today who have grown up surrounded by technology will know how to use the device in front of them. But this is not necessarily the case. Murphy Paul asserts, “While we may assume interactive e-books can entertain children all by themselves, such products require more input from us than books on paper do.”
Parents and teachers who preview e-books with kids and help them transfer the skills they learned with traditional print are likelier to set kids up for a successful e-reader experience. Schugar advises teachers to provide students with a purposeful, metacognitive reading experience where they can think about how and what they are reading.
With guidance and support, parents and teachers can help kids adapt to the ever-changing technology they are certain to encounter as they grow up in a digital world.