Parents and pre-school children have a more positive interaction when sharing a reading experience with a traditional book as opposed to an electronic book or e-book, according researchers at Temple University’s Infant Laboratory and Erikson Institute in Chicago. This shared positive experience from traditional books characteristically promotes early literacy skills.
The researchers presented the findings of their study, “Electronic books: Boon or Bust for Interactive Reading?” on Nov. 3 as part of the Boston University Conference on Language Development.
The first-of-its-kind study was conducted by Julia Parish-Morris, a graduate student in developmental psychology at Temple University, and Molly F. Collins, assistant professor at Erikson Institute. Parish-Morris and Collins collaborated with Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the Lefkowitz Professor of Psychology and director of the Temple Infant Lab.
“It is very obvious from the media, from toy stores and bookstores that electronic learning products are becoming very, very popular,” said Parish-Morris. “Parents are really buying into the idea that electronic media is essential to their children’s development.”
Parish-Morris recruited 19 children ages 3-5, along with their parents, at Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum; Collins recruited 14 at the Chicago Children’s Museum.
Parish-Morris said the researchers were looking at four different questions: do children prefer to electronic or traditional books in the context of parent-child interaction, does the content of parental utterances differ between the types of books, is the context of what parents are saying content- or behavior-oriented, and do parent’s comments go beyond the book’s story.
In a quiet room, the parents and children sat in front of a table displaying ten books (five electronic and five traditional) matched on length and similarity of characters/plot structure. They were instructed to do whatever they would normally do with books.
“Roughly one-third of the children chose e-books over traditional books, which surprised us a little bit,” said Parish-Morris. “But part of that might stem from the fact that, in general, parents and children don’t tend to read electronic books together.”
She said that the raw number of total utterances made by parents was roughly equal between the two types of books, but that the researchers saw a significant difference in the proportion of content- and behavior-oriented comments.
“I was struck by the stark difference between the content-related utterances in reading traditional versus e-books; I didn’t realize there would be a two-fold difference,” said Collins. “I think this happens because we’re more comfortable with traditional books and so we play a more active role in the reading process; but with e-books, we let the books lead.”
“It turned out that reading electronic books became a behaviorally oriented, slightly coercive parent-child interaction as opposed to talking about the story, relating it to the their child’s life, or even talking about the book’s pictures or text,” Parish-Morris said. “Parents were under the impression that when you are sitting down with a book, you are supposed to read it,” she added. “But what was happening with the e-books is that reading was not even part of the process, probably because these books literally read the story to the child. So parents are not needed. The book makes commands and tells the child what to do; it encourages them to play games and reads to the child, so parents are essentially replaced by this battery-operated machine.”
In contrast, Parish-Morris noted that parents who read traditional books made more comments that related pictures or themes in the book to their child’s real life in a way that might spur the child’s imagination, or their short- or long-term memory.
This is significant because children are more successful in school when they spend their pre-school years reading with their parents. “The parent-child interaction around books and shared book reading is incredibly important to emergent literacy skills,” she said. “In the later school years, kids enjoy school more, they enjoy learning more and there are a whole host of outcomes that are related to this shared reading experience in the pre-school years.
“So parents who are talking about the content with their child while reading traditional books are encouraging early literacy, whereas parents and children reading electronic books together are having a severely truncated experience.”
“This research does suggest that parents should be aware of some of the limitations of e-book reading,” added Collins. “We shouldn’t use e-books to replace traditional books, and we shouldn’t expect them to do something that they don’t. They’re not substitutes for a human being.”
The researchers are using this study, which received some material support from Fisher-Price, as the basis for a larger study at the Temple University Infant Lab. The follow-up study features an expanded sample of children in a randomized design. Preliminary data confirm the findings of the current study.