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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.

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