Early Literacy | Aug 21, 2014
Susan Ramsay, Early Literacy Specialist HFL&A
My mother’s voice rose and fell expressively as she sat reading bedtime stories to me as a child. Decades later, as mother of three, I followed her example. I remember my children’s giggles, gasps and questions as we read. As well as these fond memories, books hold captivating stories, facts, artwork, and poetic language. Truth be told, I love books, especially children’s books.
But the books I love are changing. Great stories are not always published with paper pages. Stories are on tablets, smart phones and computers. My love for e-books has been hesitant. Are they really as good as paper-bound books?
According to recent research I have good reason to ask this question. The way children’s books are formatted impacts how children interact with print as well as how we read with children.
Adult-child interactions during book sharing times affect children’s literacy development. When adults explain unfamiliar words from the book to their child, and then use that new word in other contexts throughout the day, they boost their children’s vocabulary and reading comprehension. When adults read rhyming books and pause at the end of the rhyming phrase for their child to chime in, they nurture their child’s awareness of sounds inside words. When adults point to printed words in speech bubbles and underline words with their finger while reading, they help children discover how print works. When adults encourage children to search for and name alphabet letters in the text (especially ones found in the child’s name) they help children develop letter knowledge. Children’s literacy learning hinges on the engagement, conversation and responsiveness of adult with child during book sharing times.
Studies show that e-books are often poor tools for children’s learning. Adult-child interactions tend to focus on the book’s animations rather than vocabulary, storyline or text. With digital narration, adults are able to passively watch or disengage from their child’s book reading. Elaborate animations in e-books, designed to make reading fun, distract children from the text, and shorten young children’s time to think about the words and story.1 Research shows that children are less able to retell the storyline shared in an e-book than the same story shared in a printed book.2
Yet e-books are seen to motivate reading behaviours in some children not easily engaged with printed books, and shown to be effective in helping children identify rhyming words.3 Some e-books have been designed with fewer and more strategic animations that do add meaning to the text and encourage children to think and discuss. E-books have a distinct advantage for children learning more than one language since some multilingual e-books offer children the opportunity to hear and see the same story in several languages.
Like paper books, e-books vary in quality. What features should we look for in an e-book? Look for narration options that enable adult or child to be the storyteller, and choose this option for the first read through. Look for e-books that show printed text with words highlighted when the automated narrator reads. Look for a limited number of animations that deepen the child’s understanding of the story rather than draw the child’s attention away from the storyline. Clearly marked forward and back buttons help children recognize the direction of print too. Other positive features include a dictionary option, bi-lingual or multilingual books. As for any book format, look for e-books with topics and artwork of interest to your child.
Already I’ve found e-books I love. For young active children Sesame Street’s “The Monster at the End of this Book” is captivating. The few animations on each page add meaning to the words and engage the child as critically important to the storyline.
For older children “The Mouse and the Meadow” by Dawn Publications explores nature from a mouse’s perspective. This rhyming book introduces many descriptive and science-related words for adults to talk about with children. The main concepts in the book are included as interesting facts at the end of the book to get children thinking and talking about nature. Brief clips from the author, animator, and publisher also give children insight into what it means to write, illustrate and produce an e-book.
“The House That Jack Built” illustrated by Michael Solovyev by MediaProfit is a cumulative rhyming story that you can read and hear in English, French, Italian, and Russian. Extended activities include highlighted vocabulary in 4 different languages, story sequencing to re-tell the story, puzzles and colouring activities.
Should storytimes go digital? Researchers are still studying the question, but we do know that both printed and carefully selected e-books can support children’s literacy learning. It’s the way we talk, listen, and explore words, ideas, print and letters in books with our children that will make the difference.
1 & 3 Using Electronic Books in the Classroom to Enhance Emergent Literacy Skills in Young Children: http://people.cs.vt.edu/~shaffer/CS6604/Papers/Elearningin_Classrooms_Moody.pdf
2 Print Books vs. E-books: http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/jgcc_ebooks_quickreport.pdf