As the use of e-books and tablets continues to rise, the question of whether they’re as beneficial as print books for children learning to read is an important one. And it’s a topic researchers at the University of California, Irvine tackled in a recent review published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

“Reading is important predominantly because it involves language exposure,” says Stephanie Reich, an associate professor in the University of California, Irvine’s School of Education, “it’s hearing the different sounds of speech and it’s starting to recognize the symbols that are related to speech.” And in young children, reading serves as even more than the development of literacy. It’s how they begin to interact with others, through conversation and socialization.

Reading children’s books is particularly interesting because of the rich vocabulary they offer. “There’s lots of words you’ll say in a children’s book that you typically would have no reason to ever say in a daily conversation,” says Reich. “This morning I read my five-year-old a story about astronauts,” says Reich, “I don’t think I would’ve been talking about astronauts otherwise.”

But as e-books and tablets become more ubiquitous, some worry that they won’t do the job as well as print books, especially during these really important early years. And it’s a time-sensitive concern since these devices are becoming more popular by the day. Between 2011-2013, Common Sense Media reports that the number of children between 0-8 years of age with access to a smart device jumped from 53 percent to 75 percent. And as of 2013, 28 percent of children in this age group had used these devices for reading.

While studies have compared e-books and printed book benefits in older age groups, the effects of these different reading materials have been studied less in children aged 0-5, which is why Reich wanted to collect all of the information available into a comprehensive review. And some key findings were shared across the studies discussed.

What differs with e-books

“What we know so far with the younger kid research is that the design really matters,” says Reich. Designs that aim to scaffold learning are the most beneficial. For example, e-books that make the sound of the letters when touched or books that add music that matches the mood of a suspenseful story passage. These sorts of additions to the reading experience seem to promote learning in these children. However, embellishments that are irrelevant, like a game that can be played in the middle of a story, tend to lead to more off-task behaviors and reductions in comprehension.

A common finding in these and many other studies, is that reading with an adult is best. “Adults can ask questions, they can help monitor the child’s comprehension,” says Reich. That back and forth between adult and child is really important during the early years of reading. “What does differ between tablet and print books,” says Reich, “is that in the cases where there is an adult present, the discussions seem to be different.” When children and adults read print books together, their conversations tend to revolve around the story. However, when reading from a tablet, discussions more often become focused on the device, not the story. But time will tell if this is an effect based on the novelty of the device, which should dissipate with greater use if so.

So, which is better, e-books or print? Ultimately, we need more data before we can answer that question, but from what we do know, it appears that e-books can be just as good as print for learning in this age group as long as some details are kept in mind. For instance, paying close attention to the design of the e-book and making sure adults keep conversations during reading time focused on the story. And for really young children, toddlers and infants, face-to-face interactions with adults is still more beneficial than tablet-based learning.

For the future, Reich would like to use this work to help atypically developing children and is working to develop a tablet-based game that can pick up on language developmental problems. As she explains, children are frequently anxious when they have to go to the doctor and may talk less than they normally would. This can make it hard to pick up on developmental issues, but a game that can be played in the waiting room could help alert doctors to these sorts of problems earlier on.

For now, Reich admits that the speed of technology development is greater than research can keep up with, but notes that it’s not an insurmountable problem. “There are decades and decades of research about how children learn and how children process information,” she says, “so the trick now is to see more of that embedded in the technology that’s being designed for children.”

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