Reading with a caregiver trumps reading an e-book alone

Girl reading book while sitting by shelf in library

In the past decade, portable devices such as smartphones and tablets have become one of the most ubiquitous and irreplaceable tools for communication, entertainment, and education. Indeed, 98 percent of children under age 8 across all socioeconomic strata have access to a mobile device, and children between ages 3- to 5-years-old spend an average of two and a half hours per day using screens. Although young children are spending significantly more time using screens than recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, ed tech—the combination of technology and education—is increasingly embedded in preschool classrooms.

As young children’s screen time continues to rise, parents in the United States have mixed opinions on their young children’s screen time habits.

How do e-books versus printed books potentially affect children’s learning?  

Although most parents agree that the media children engage with helps their learning (72 percent) and creativity (60 percent), some studies suggest that parents are overly optimistic about the value of screens in their children’s lives. DeLoache and Chiong (2009), for example, reported that parents of 2-year-olds thought the Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein videos were “educational” and enriching. Yet the Disney company was forced to offer refunds for these DVDs at an estimated cost of $100 million in the absence of any evidence that they were educational. It is important to understand the parameters within which ed tech works best and those situations where it is less effective than interactions with an adult. One such example is children’s engagement with e-books.

Reading with children supports their development and even reduces parents’ stress. During shared book reading, many parents point at pictures and ask their children questions. These and related practices, combined with following children’s pointing fingers and answering their questions, fuel children’s language skills and teach them about the world. In particular, caregivers who link the book to children’s lived experiences contribute to children’s story comprehension.

Parents generally have positive perceptions about reading printed books with their young, preliterate children. However, parents believe that printed books are more educational and entertaining for their children than e-books and are more likely to use print books during routines, such as bedtime, and for bonding. However, when parents are busy, such as when they are preparing meals or showering, they may give children an e-book to keep them entertained.

Our just-published research suggests that reading an e-book alone cannot serve as a replacement for adult-child reading.

A recent study found that children can learn just as well from e-books as traditional books when enhancements are simple. While children can learn some content from being read to by an e-book alone, our just-published research suggests that reading an e-book alone cannot serve as a replacement for adult-child reading. Additionally, reading an e-book alone cannot provide the emotional closeness and physical contact that reading with a parent offers.

In particular, the emotional experiences that come from reading books together vanish when children are read to by an e-book alone rather than by an adult. Yet the positive feelings associated with shared book reading contribute to children’s emergent literacy skills and their motivation for reading.

Our study on shared and independent (e-)book reading

A study from our lab compared 4-year-old children’s physiological arousal under three different conditions. In one condition, parents and their children read a hard copy of a book together. In the second, they read the e-book version of the same book together. In the final condition, the children listened to the e-book while sitting alone. Parents and children wore a Fitbit-like wristband to gauge skin conductivity, a measure of physiological arousal that captures engagement during book reading. As engagement is necessary for learning, more arousal signifies that the child is paying attention and is more likely to learn something new.

Children showed significantly greater physiological arousal and more positive emotions (smiling and laughing) when they read with a parent than when they listened to an e-book alone. Importantly, book format did not matter! Children and parents had high levels of arousal and positive emotions when they read together, regardless of whether they read an e-book or a traditional book. These findings mean that shared book reading is about the interactions that occur between a child and their parent. Listening to e-books alone removes the “meat” of the interaction that promotes not only a love of reading, but expands children’s worlds by building their vocabulary, knowledge of sentence structure, and understanding of the text. Handing a child an e-book to listen to independently reduces children’s pleasure and learning compared to reading either a traditional or an e-book with a caregiver. Shared book reading—regardless of format—cannot be replaced by technology.

Shared book reading—regardless of format—cannot be replaced by technology.

Given the pervasiveness of ed tech, it is crucial to explore which experiences with technology enrich young children’s learning and which experiences should not replace critical interactions between children and their caregivers. Parents may consider having the children in their lives listen to an e-book rather than engage in shared book reading, especially at bedtime when everyone is tired at the end of a busy day. Although e-books can be engaging and educational, the message from our research is clear: The positive emotional experiences related to shared book reading are not engendered when children listen to an e-book alone. Nor can an e-book offer the personalized dialogue that takes place when a caregiver reads with a child.

Future research must consider how we can inform caregivers, including preschool teachers and parents, about the benefits of shared book reading, and in turn, foster children’s lifelong love of reading and learning. Ed tech has its limitations when considering shared book reading with young children. Those children who are mostly offered e-books are missing out on an emotional and intellectual experience bar none.