image by: Julia M Cameron
All technology can be considered a form of progress, but not all such progress is for the better. And when it comes to reading to kids, e-books may be a step backward from print.
As the New York Times noted last year, a recent longitudinal study published in the journal Pediatrics "provides evidence of just how sustained an impact reading and playing with young children can have, shaping their social and emotional development in ways that go far beyond helping them learn language and early literacy skills," with "[t]he parent-child-book moment even ha[ving] the potential to help curb problem behaviors like aggression, hyperactivity and difficulty with attention."
But the gist of the study is hardly news. The value of reading to children is long beyond question, with study after study confirming an increasing number of ways in which being read to is beneficial even for newborns. "Reading regularly with young children stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships at a critical time in child development, which, in turn, builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that last a lifetime," begins a 2014 policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, wherein doctors are urged to "advis[e] all parents that reading aloud with young children can enhance parent-child relationships and prepare young minds to learn language and early literacy skills," as well as to "provid[e] developmentally appropriate books given at health supervision visits for all high-risk, low-income young children."
What is news, though⎯and timely news, to boot⎯is a new set of findings suggesting that the new book-delivery technology may be a step backward when it comes to the established benefits of being read to.
The study was conducted by a University of Michigan team investigating whether there is qualitative difference for toddlers when their parents read to them from an e-book as opposed to the good old print versions that were the only option just a generation ago. And although the study sample is small, what they found is that e-books is a case where newer is decidedly not better.
Perhaps surprisingly, part of the blame for the inferiority of the e-book experience lies with the parents and not necessarily the e-books themselves. "The study found that with e-books parents ended up focusing more on the technology, including, for example, telling children not to push buttons or change the volume," says the BBC in reporting on the study. "[...] The study found that with electronic books, parents asked fewer questions and commented less about the storyline. The researchers found that electronic book enhancements were likely to be 'interfering with parents' ability to engage in parent-guided conversation" during reading.'"
While the authors of the study say that such potential drawbacks of employing e-books can be minimized if the parents "consider engaging as they would with the print version and minimise focus on elements of the technology itself," the study notes that toddlers exhibited more verbalizations⎯both general and book-related⎯in response to print books than electronic types; and that parents and children collaborated more in the experience (for example when print books were involved.
"Shared reading promotes children's language development, literacy and bonding with parents," lead researcher Dr. Tiffany Munzer says. With that in mind, senior author Dr. Jenny Radesky advises that, "Pediatricians may wish to continue promoting shared reading of print books, particularly for toddlers and younger children"⎯especially considering that "[p]revious research has documented less dialogic interaction between parents and preschoolers during electronic-book reading versus print."
Because e-book technology is fairly new, relatively little research has been done comparing how it stacks up against print books. But there's an old saying: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The benefits of reading to children from print books is well established. Why not dance with what brung ya, particularly when initial findings suggest that changing partners may not be the best way to master the steps?
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