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Describing Shared Reading with eBooks

by Susan Rvachew and Kathrin Rees

The short history of research on children’s learning from digital media has been marked by technological determinism – a sense that child outcomes can be linked more or less directly to the reading medium. For example, Neuman, Kaefer, Pinkham, and Strouse (2014) determined that infants cannot learn to read from ‘baby videos’ after conducting a randomized control trial. Parish-Morris, Mahajanm, Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, and Collins (2013) concluded that ebooks impair children’s story comprehension relative to paper books, because parents do not use optimum shared reading techniques in the ebook condition. Takacs, Swart, and Bus (2015) found that multimedia features in ebooks support children’s vocabulary learning, whereas interactive features distract children from learning. We have found that understanding how children learn from ebooks requires a more comprehensive view in which complex interactions among aspects of the reading medium, the child, and the adult are amplified. Our desire to view all aspects of the shared reading interaction forced us to develop a coding system for our video data that broadened the scope of currently available coding schemes while incorporating the theoretical perspectives validated for each of the individual components (e.g., Hirsh-Pasek, Zosh, Golinkoff, Gray, & Kaufman, 2015; Van Kleeck, 2003). We provide information about our coding system here for anyone else who may find it to be useful.

The coding scheme that we describe is applied to the analysis of video recorded shared reading interactions, ideally with synchronized video showing the back and front views of the reading dyad, permitting a full view of the reading medium and any actions performed on it as well as all relevant verbal and nonverbal behaviors of the adult and child or children involved in the reading context. The interactions are described in the form of discrete behaviors by each person involved, organized to identify consecutive or overlapping behaviors in the verbal and nonverbal domains within or between parties. We produced these transcripts with CHAT (, supplemented with excel worksheets and Noldus coding.

The coding scheme has three aspects with multiple codes for each aspect. The details are shown in the attached Three Aspect Coding Scheme for Shared Reading with eBooks. We stress that the hypotheses for any given study guides the focus of the coding however, so that the aspects and codes that receive focus may vary. The aspects of the coding system serve to shift attentional focus from (1) events or stimuli in the environment that are perceived or attended by the actor; (2) the specific actor that produces each action; and (3) the action that is being described, including the mode of the action (verbal or nonverbal). When we first started our research, aspects of the environment were a particular point of focus, because we had not previously studied ebooks and were interested in understanding how print books and ebooks were similar and different from the perspective of the user. For example, parents often point to illustrations in print books when attempting to teach their child vocabulary; the same illustration in an ebook might support vocabulary instruction or distract from it depending upon the quality of the animation that is triggered when the illustration is touched. The coding of these book features may be described with greater or lesser specificity depending upon the hypotheses proposed. Codes are provided for events external to the book (the other reading partner, extraneous stimuli), allowing for a description of adult-child interaction as well as engagement versus distraction during the reading exchange.

A central aspect is the actor, coded for each discrete action. In our studies the gross categories are adult and child, but greater specificity may be desired within these categories. For example, in our studies we have been comparing children with different characteristics (typical versus delayed language skills) as well as varied adults (mothers versus fathers from different language and SES groups). In the future we anticipate observing pairs of children reading together in dyads, observing gender-matched and gender-mixed pairs. Here as elsewhere the specific codes will depend upon study design and hypotheses.

Regarding actions, the type and function of verbal utterances and a predefined set of nonverbal gestures are coded according to a relatively complex scheme (see “Coding of aspect: actions” in the PDF attached above). The transcript captures both verbal and nonverbal “utterances” (i.e., communicative gestures), capturing gestures that overlap with verbal utterances as well as those that occur in isolation. These data can be aggregated in various ways (e.g., by number or length of utterances or turns) to reveal theoretically interesting characteristics of interactions in different reading conditions. For example, in a community reader program we reported a greater amount of behavior management related talk when reading ebooks compared to print books; however print-referencing–the narrative/text code–also increased substantially in the ebook context.

Kathrin Rees has been using this coding system in her thesis research on how diverse parent-preschooler dyads co-read with print and e-books. In particular the reading interactions of parent-child dyads have been compared for children with typical language (TD group) versus children with language impairment (LI group) prior to and after a parent education program, focused on home based language stimulation techniques. Figure 1 gives an overview of the reading protocols followed in two consecutive phases of the study, with more details about the books provided here: (Book reading protocols for comparing children with typical versus impaired language).

Figure 1 Reading Protocol

Several papers are in press and in progress describing different aspects of adult and child verbal behavior while reading ebooks compared to print books. We have learned that synchrony in the verbal and nonverbal actions of the parent and child is key to a successful reading exchange. Parents and children can adapt to the ebook reading context, but some reading dyads do this more effectively and more quickly than others. We have not yet conducted detailed analyses of nonverbal behaviors by parents and children during the reading exchanges. Our preliminary analyses suggest that this is an aspect of critical importance to children’s learning however, especially for younger children and children with delayed language skills. Certain types of gestures (notably so-called ‘representational’ or ‘iconic’ gestures, cf. Lavelli, Barachetti, & Florit, 2015) may be used to enhance children’s understanding of vocabulary and story details, and it is not clear how book features in print or ebooks contribute to adult use of such gestures. In these two examples however, the parent clearly uses gesture to scaffold the child’s learning:

Reading Transcript

First transcript excerpt: Father reading “Ah ha” to child with language impairment, post treatment. Second transcript excerpt: During the same reading session, the father demonstrated an action to help the child understand the story in the ebook, Caillou’s First Play.

These transcripts could be examined to reveal the circumstances under which parents offer these kinds of gestural supports for meaning during shared reading. Attention to the four aspects of our coding system and the interactions among them would be essential to further investigation of this question.


Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, J.M., Golinkoff, R.M., Gray, J.H., & Kaufman, J. (2015). Putting education in “educational” apps: Lessons from the science of learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16, 3-34.

Lavelli, M., Barachetti, Ch., & Florit, E. (2015). Gesture and speech during shared book reading with preschoolers with specific language impairment. Journal of Child Language, 42(06), 1191-1218. doi: 10.1017/S0305000914000762

Neuman, Susan B., Kaefer, Tanya, Pinkham, Ashley, & Strouse, Gabrielle. (2014). Can babies learn to read? A randomized trial of baby media. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(3), 815-830. doi: 10.1037/a0035937

Parish-Morris, Julia, Mahajan, Neha, Hirsh-Pasek, Kathy, Golinkoff, Roberta Michnick, & Collins, Molly Fuller. (2013). Once upon a time: Parent–child dialogue and storybook reading in the electronic era. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7(3), 200-211. doi: 10.1111/mbe.12028

Takacs, Zsofia, Swart, Elise K., & , & Bus, Adriana G. (2015). Benefits and pitfalls of multimedia and interactive features in technology-enhances storybooks: a meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research. doi: 10.3102/0034654314566989

Van Kleeck, A. (2003). Research on Book Sharing: Another Critical Look. In A. Van Kleeck, S. A. Stahl & E. B. Bauer (Eds.), On reading books to children : parents and teachers (pp. 280). Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.