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Shared e-reading is better e-reading: an uncertain certainty

by Kathrin Rees, Doctoral Candidate, School of Communication Sciences and Disorders

Mobile media continue to increase rapidly in popularity. A report put together by Victoria Rideout (2013) for Common Sense Media found a decrease in average daily use of “traditional” screen media such as television or computers for the group of 0 to 8 year-old children, whereas the time per day this group spent with mobile media (e.g., smartphones, tablets) had tripled within the same two-year period. E-books in particular are popular with children, although parents are ambivalent about these devices. They have many questions reflecting multifaceted concerns such as tradeoffs between excessive screen time and the potential academic benefits of some digital products. For professionals working with families, it is a challenge to adequately answer parent’s questions because the research evidence remains fragmentary and often contradictory.

For instance, it is not quite clear whether e-books should generally be recommended for shared reading with children, i.e. an adult and child (or several children) reading e-books together on a screen. This is a fundamental question that has been settled in the case of print books: it is well established that children learn important language skills from shared reading. Family literacy groups expend considerable resources promoting this practice by providing books to families and teaching families shared reading techniques. In the case of e-books however the research is unclear. Some studies (e.g., Segal-Drori et al., 2013) suggest that preschoolers, especially children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, learn more from e-books when they are shared with an adult. Other studies, including a recent meta-analysis (Takacs et al., 2014), have found that carefully placed features such as motion pictures, sound, and music can scaffold children’s learning to a similar degree as the comments adults provide during shared reading of print books. Surveys such as the one by Vaala and Takeuchi (2012) reveal that some parents do not enjoy reading e-books with their children: given this finding, perhaps we can conclude that solitary reading of e-books by children is a beneficial practice in some families.

Given this scant and conflicting research base, how have experts in children’s media use been responding to families’ e-book-related questions? Three non-profit organizations, two American and one Canadian, have recently published guidelines for parents regarding e-books. Interestingly, they appear unified in the core assumption that for young children, shared e-reading is generally better e-reading. Upon closer examination it turns out that all three organizations infer this insight from available research. The reader needs to be critically aware that a majority of the research underlying these guidelines is only partially related to e-reading; often the research is concerned with joint (paper) book reading and television co-viewing rather than shared reading with digital tablets directly.

One example of a guideline that is firmly rooted in research on television and DVD co-viewing is Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight by Lerner and Barr (2014). These guidelines target parents of children in the youngest age group and early childhood professionals. The white paper’s bottom line: While the type of medium and its content are influential, parent-child interaction is key for learning, notably in relation to the youngest age group. Resembling a research report in format, this document clearly succeeds in integrating pertinent research findings on the wider issue of screen use and learning by the youngest children in a language accessible to many. Another strength, practical implications are presented in note form at the end of each paragraph. Following a thorough review of research on how young children may learn from TV programming and DVD’s, the authors just briefly touch upon e-books in a paragraph entitled The danger of too much interactivity, citing two selected studies which yielded contrary findings about e-books and children’s story comprehension. Regardless of the medium (TV, apps, and touchscreens), the authors generally advise parents to prioritize content-focused conversations with their child over interactions about tech features. Yet a certain amount of tech talk seems inevitable dependent on how much previous experience each member of the dyad has with digital technology in general and the sharing of e-books more specifically. From a digital literacy perspective it might even be that some of this tech talk is quite useful—an issue that research to date simply has not addressed. On a more fundamental level, one may ask whether the TV viewing and e-book reading contexts are sufficiently similar that we may treat the research base as one.

To address a second example, the NYC-based Cooney Center chose to deploy the medium of interest itself for communicating their advice to families, an e-book app named Family Time with Apps  (available for free from Apple’s iBook store). This source similarly highlights the importance of “using apps together” (p.3), but has a comparably higher emphasis on opportunities for learning that occur in this process for both children and adults. Core content is packaged in carefully designed graphics, more precisely eight comic strips featuring interactive use of diverse apps by children and adults. Although the book app does not contain direct references to research, these may be found on the Center’s website and reveal a strong theoretical foundation in TV co-viewing as well as joint media engagement in general. The section “Reading together every day” (p.7) shows a friendly grandfather and a little girl looking at an e-book together: Acting in the best tradition of dialogic reading practices, the grandfather engages the child in talk about the story through a number of carefully formulated prompts while looking at the e-book. The girl is portrayed as very responsive, even initiating a few of the interactions herself. A box to be found in a bottom corner of the screen highlights the quintessential recommendation to read e-books just like traditional paperbooks. In other words, parents are advised to revert to strategies they have experienced as effective in a related context (i.e., reading paper books). It is not clear how parents would receive or implement this advice however: parents report that they find shared reading with print books and e-books to be quite different experiences.

To turn to a third and last example, the Canadian Hanen Centre  provides tips on e-book use for parents and professionals in the technology corner of its website. A short article by Lauren Lowry lists possible advantageous and less advantageous aspects of e-books (making reference to selected studies) and identifies quality criteria for selecting them. The article ends with a loosely connected sequence of tips under the subheading, “It takes two to read an e-book”. This claim, and one could question the certainty with which it is presented, is in fact a playful variation of one of Hanen’s traditional program titles: “It takes two to talk”. It is important to note that the latter program was originally developed for contexts such as parent-child toy play and print book reading: it is not clear that the generalization to e-books is justified. That said, this last part further lists some useful ideas like manipulating the reading medium itself, e.g. by selectively turning off specific interactive features (read in read-only mode first), followed by the hint to give the child the lead in the interaction. However, what specific purpose a strategy like “giving the child the lead” might fulfill in the context of shared e-book reading remains largely unexplained.

When we look at e-books through our old glasses mainly—i.e., what is known regarding paper book reading and TV co-viewing–we risk ignoring very specific characteristics (positive or negative) of a novel context such as shared reading with e-books. In future blogs we will explore what our own research in the context of the “digital media project” has brought about in relation to some of the recommendations reported above.