For Young Readers, Print or Digital Books?

| May 29, 2012 | 12 Comments
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Print or digital? Adults grapple with which is the best way to read — not only for themselves, but especially when it comes to their kids. Whether or not parents prefer print books over interactive e-books for their kids, the question is, what’s actually better for them?

Depends on what you’re trying to achieve. According to a study of a small group of parents released today by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, kids age 3 to 6 remembered more narrative details — “What happened in the story?” — from print books than from enhanced e-books with multimedia features.

But when kids were asked one plot question for each story, (i.e., “Why did x do y?”), there was no difference between the print book readers and the enhanced e-book readers.

“I would definitely make the distinction that the platform affected recall instead of comprehension,” said Cynthia Chiong, the lead author of the survey conducted at New York Hall of Science’s Preschool Place.

The study, the first of its kind to qualify the difference between basic and enhanced e-readers versus print books, examined 32 pairs of parents and their 3–6-year-old children as they read a print book and an e-book together. Half of the pairs read a basic e-book and the other half read an enhanced e-book.

“Now it’s time to start thinking more purposefully and thoughtfully into what goes into the creation of an e-book.”

Researchers found that while the multimedia features of enhanced e-books grabbed children’s attention, those same features also distracted young readers and led more to “non-content related interactions.” Features like animation, sound effects, videos, and games made it more difficult for some parents to keep kids focused on reading and diminished kids’ recall of the text. Parents continually had to tell kids not to turn the page or not to touch the tablets, according to Chiong.

The implication? Parents and teachers should choose basic e-books like the Kindle or Nook over enhanced e-books, such as the iPad, if they want a more literacy-focused co-reading experience with children. Prompting kids with questions that relate to the text, labeling and naming objects, and encouraging kids to talk about the book’s content from their own perspective all elicit kids to be more verbal, and can lead to improved vocabulary and language development, the study states.

But if “engagement” is the objective, the issue gets murkier. When it came time to measuring “child-book” engagement, based on the child’s direct attention and touch, more kids showed higher levels of engagement for the e-books than the print books, though a majority were equally engaged by both book types. Children also physically interacted with the enhanced e-book more than when reading either the print or basic e-book.

On the other hand, when measuring “overall engagement” —a composite of parent-child interaction, child-book interaction, parent-book interaction, and signs of enjoyment — an interesting trend emerged: 63% of the parent-child pairs were as engaged reading the print book as they were when reading the e-book (both types); 6% of the pairs were more engaged with the e-book than the print book, compared to the 31% of pairs that were more engaged with the print book than the e-book.

“Kids loved the enhanced e-books,” Chiong said. “It was great to see the level of engagement, how much they were enjoying it — and that’s one of our goals as parents, is engaging kids. If this can do that, especially in kids who might not otherwise be interested, it’s perfect.”

Chiong added that this study focused on younger kids — questions and priorities will be different for measuring the differences for older readers.


Parents’ comments showed a wide range of reactions. Some parents appreciated the iPad’s effect on their young readers.

“They’re able to hear the words…It came alive. I don’t have to do the reading,” said the mother of a three-year old. “Not only that, they pay more attention to the iPad. Sound effects were an excellent idea — they like the books with sound effects.”

Another parent appreciated the e-books’ prompts. “Actually.. [I liked the e-book] because I don’t know what questions to ask sometimes and the iPad showed what to repeat and say,” said a mother of a five-year old boy.


For this “quick study,” which researchers recognize is limited by the small number of those surveyed, the intent is to help guide more comprehensive research in the future.

“This whole explosion of e-books has been great, and we love seeing what’s happening with the innovation, but now it’s time to start thinking more purposefully and thoughtfully into what goes into the creation of an e-book,” Chiong said.

Researchers advise that e-book designers be discriminating about the types of features they add to enhanced e-books, “especially when those features do not directly relate to the story,” the study states. Parents should also be able to have more control over settings to features so they can tailor the reading experience to their own needs.

Researchers believe a similar study should be done with a larger and more representative sample of participants and books, and should examine what types, combinations, and placement of e-book features help or hinder learning and conversation, and should explore how different populations (e.g., lower income families, non-native English speaking families) use them.


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  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the article, It is timely as I just did a blog post myself on the use of digital media and higher level thinking skills when compared to traditional print media.

    I think it will be a while before we really see the effect of digitally delivered content on our children’s reading and thinking skills as we hit a point of saturation of Digital devices in our classrooms.

    As a parent, I would not be giving my child a digital device on which to read content or “interact with” before they became proficient readers using traditional print books and when I say proficient, I mean reading at a grade 10 or 11 level.

    I see it repeatedly in the school I teach at. The strong traditional readers are by far, academically superior to those who are digitally dependent.

    I will concede that digital devices are a god send for kids with a communicative disability such as autism or other developmental disabilities but kids who do not, should not be using a digital device until proficient in their reading skills.

    Keith Rispin

  • Lmarofsky

    Thank you for sharing this research. As much as I love my Nook, I think it’s important for young children to interact with a good old-fashioned book. I still treasure (and have) some of my childhood favorites, with beautiful illustrations and notes scribbled on the inside cover from the person who gave it to me. The New York Times has written some really interesting articles from the perspective of parents. I like to a couple of them in a blog post I wrote back in December. 

    Laura Marofsky
    Read Naturally, Inc.

  • Dave B.

    Seeing how my daughter responds to these kinds of devices, I
    believe that reading would become secondary with a digital book.  Having children interact with the natural
    world as much as possible is the way to go. 
    I can’t quite put my finger on it but it seems that there is something
    to the tactile sensation of reading a real book feeling real paper and the
    weight of the whole book, seeing what happens when the page is turned in three-dimensional
    space.  There may also be something to
    having a first hand understanding of historical context; this is what books
    have been like for centuries.  Lastly it
    seems that children are actually being stunted by the prevalence of screens in
    society.  There is a growing body of
    evidence that indicates adverse effects on development as well as attention
    spans.  There is plenty of time for kids
    to learn about digital devices and spend there days rushing from one thing to
    the next.  Let’s teach them the art of
    relaxing with a good book, warm, flexible and organic.

  • james buyers

    A great article and a good point…
    For me its important that my sons had the opportunity to learn with which ever media they could interact and learn from in the best way. I have no preference with either as my eldest son learnt from good old fashioned books but my youngest learns more from ebooks and interactive smart boards. Sayig that, they both still enjoy a good book which is why I got into it too…
    posted by James at

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  • Anonymous

    For us it is digital all the way.  With a child who has profound physical disabilities and a vision impairment then a book is no more useful to him that a ream of blank paper.  Digital gives him the chance to read or listen, a chance to immerse himself in literature… I don’t think of it as Paper OR digital… surely it’s both and will be individual and personal preference.  I would love my 8yo to be able to read a digi book with other kids comments inside from when they’ve read the same digi book… how cool that would be.

  • Bmccawley

    Thanks for sharing the results of this study. It was very
    interesting.  I personally believe that interactive features coinciding with higher
    order thinking skills and open ended questioning that directly pertains to comprehension will prove to be key factors
    in the success of e-reading. Without that in mind when designing the interactive features, I fear that they will hinder comprehension more than help. I would LOVE to see results of the larger
    study and a more representative group that you mentioned. Our school is moving
    toward greater technology integration across the curriculum in all grade levels,
    so I look forward to hearing more about this topic.

    B. McCawley

    Technology Integrationist

  • Jean Edwards

    “I don’t have to do the reading,” sounds to me like “I don’t actually like to read to my child.” And “I don’t know what questions to ask sometimes,” sounds like someone having a hard time relating to children….   We must be thinking, engaging adults!

  • Aarti@foundze

    I personally love my ipad and kindle. With my little one I do a combination. I have her read paper books, but then to boost her confidence, I let her read on the ipad or tablet. She can read it herself, or have it read to her if it gets too hard. While traveling it works much better as I can carry multiple books in one device, rather than heavy hand bags. a couple of digital books I really like—dr.-seuss and

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