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No More Reading Wars! Getting Ahead of the Transition From Print to Digital Books

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When it comes to learning to read well, our country seems to be in a never-ending cycle of conflict and consternation. Recall the infamous "reading wars" of the 1980's and 90's between advocates of phonics and those of the "whole language methodology," which in turn led to several attempts to catalog research on the efficacy of phonics and whole language. The US commissioned a National Reading Panel (NRP) that in 2000 set forth key principles and guidelines to help settle policy, distribute funding, and inform best practices, However, there still remains a good deal of disagreement among scholars and professionals who are concerned that a laser focus on basic reading skills encouraged by No Child Left Behind and the NRP has backfired. Those concerned argue that high stakes assessments and "drill and kill" direct instruction are diminishing the complex vocabulary, knowledge and "reading to learn" activities that every ten year-old must now master to be on a pathway to academic success in our global, information age.

The public discourse about early reading remains heated, frankly because the stakes could not be higher. Analysis of the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, shows that over time, black and Hispanic students have made important strides in improving reading performance, but a breach still separates them from their white peers. For example, special analyses by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2009 and 2011 showed that black and Hispanic students trailed their white peers by an average of more than 20 test-score points on the NAEP reading assessments at 4th and 8th grades, a difference of about two grade levels.

Enter the fray a new disruption that will likely cause early reading to undergo a whole new look in the next five years: the transition from print to digital books. What impact — if any — will the evolving new patterns of reading on mobile phones, tablets and e-readers have on young children's literacy habits? App developers, video game designers and other technology leaders are harkening a new frontier of digital reading — one needs only to visit YouTube very briefly to observe hundreds of toddlers innocently "swiping" print books in an effort to unlock their digital potential! A bit of a "preserve print for children" movement appears to be growing, including expert testimony that print books offer both an "emotional" and co-reading pull that should not be underestimated as the number of articles on parents' preferences for maintaining print books grows.

The research base analyzing the amount and the quality of early literacy activities which are mediated by digital device usage for children ages 2–8 is fairly weak. To begin to assess the potential and challenges that e-book reading pose for young children and their families, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop has recently mounted a series of "QuickStudies" focused on diving into the fascinating dynamics of parent-child reading with and without the aid of today's most modern technology. Today we are releasing the findings. "Print Books vs. E-books" by Cynthia Chiong and Lori Takeuchi, outlines the results of the Center's first exploration of parent-child interactions as they read print or digital books together. The Center worked with partners at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, New York in an effort to tackle some of the questions we have about the growing popularity of e-books among readers of all ages. We asked:

  • How do adults and children read e-books compared to print books?
  • What might the nature of parent-child conversations differ across platforms?
  • Which design features of e-books appear to support parent-child interaction? Do any features detract from these interactions?

For this study we observed families reading both basic e-books, which are essentially print books put into a digital format with minimal features like highlighting text and audio narration, and enhanced e-books, which feature more interactive multimedia options like games, videos and interactive animations. We recruited 32 pairs of parents and their 3–6-year-old children at the New York Hall of Science's Preschool Place. Each pair read a print book and either an enhanced or basic e-book while researchers videotaped their interactions and took observational notes. Following the co-reading task, researchers interviewed parents about their reading practices at home and elsewhere.

Our key findings on parent-child conversation included:
  • Both the print and basic e-book elicited similar levels of content-related actions (e.g., labeling, pointing, and verbal elaboration of story features) from the children and parents.
  • Parent-child pairs engaged less with the content of the story when reading the enhanced e-book than when reading the print book.
  • Both types of e-books, but especially the enhanced, prompted more non-content related talk and actions than the print books.

Our key findings on story comprehension found:

  • Children who read enhanced e-books recalled fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story.
  • Features of the enhanced e-book may have affected children's story recall because both parents and children focused their attention on non-content, more than story related, issues.

Our key findings of overall engagement (a composite measure of parent-child interaction, child-book interaction, parent-book interaction, and signs of enjoyment) found:

  • 62% parent-child pairs engaged about equally across print, basic, and enhanced formats. Only 6% of the pairs were more engaged with the e-book than the print book.
  • Children physically interacted with the enhanced e-book more than when reading either the print or basic e-book.

To sum up: 1) We did not find differences between print books and e-books in general. 2) We did, however, find differences between print books and enhanced e-books, and 3) Basic e-books appear to provide co-reading experiences that are more similar to print books.

To get in front of the next big debate on whether print or digital are "better" delivery methods, the Cooney Center is hoping to develop research-based recommendations on the conditions under which technology-enabled reading is most effective for preschool and primary age youngsters. This study has some important implications for e-book designers, parents, and teachers:

  • For designers: Too much extraneous interactivity can detract from parent-child conversation and their focus on story elements
  • For parents and teachers of preschool youngsters: They should choose basic e-books (over enhanced) if they want a more literacy-focused co-reading experience with their children
  • Enhanced e-books may be better suited for solo storytelling experiences or for children who have already mastered basic reading skills

Future research on the transition from print to digital reading is ripe with possibilities. At the Cooney Center, we are especially interested in the forms of engagement that will lead vulnerable children to spend more time in purposeful literacy activities, so we will be delving into issues that relate to the placement of features, reading modes, page turning method. We are also intrigued by possible differences in parental age, and parenting styles, the ways in which digital media may be deployed for ELL families and those with special needs. These initial studies were very small scale and should be viewed with needed caution: the research and developer communities need to work with a larger, more diverse sample and a wider variety of books to draw enduring conclusions. We must also spend more time understanding demand from parents and other caregivers, as they are the ones who will ultimately define best practices in sorting through the newest early reading challenge. To help understand what parents are thinking and doing in this regard, the Cooney Center will be publishing findings from its survey research on modern day parent-child co-reading practices, based on results from a group of some 1200 parents later this summer.