The screen time debate has left many parents and teachers wondering whether children should use screens for reading. Are print books better for children than digital books? Arguing that one is preferable to the other merely shifts the focus away from what really matters: why, how and what children read.

Why digital books?

Digital books come with several advantages, including the capability to store thousands of stories on a single device or to access them online, so children have lots of options when they’re away from home or school. Families living even far apart can read together by screen sharing across devices, and they can follow along as a reader traces their progress on the digital page. Digital books can be bought individually, but there are also growing online libraries of free stories, many of which are in underserved languages. With story-making apps like Our Story or Book Creator, children can easily make their own books, becoming story authors from an early age.

More from Natalia Kucirkova
How can children exercise their agency?

Interactive features and content

When children engage in digital reading, the process is more interactive and multisensorial than when adults use their smartphones to read the news. Interactive digital books and apps may include highlighted words and sentences, voiceovers by authors or family members, and touch-based options, such as zooming in to the text or enlarging the story characters. In an effort to further our understanding of how the digitization of stories affects children’s sensory engagement, I am currently working on a project to stimulate children’s sense of smell as they read digital books.

Digital books that are equipped with too many enhancements and interactive features can overwhelm children and interfere with their comprehension of the story. However, features that help children advance through the story by touching characters to make them speak, for example, support reading comprehension. Designers therefore need be careful to select the right number of enhancing features to include in children’s books, and to make sure that those features truly support rather than hinder children’s learning. As their reading skills advance, children start to interact with other features, such as the font size and the layout of the text in columns and on pages.

“Features that help children advance through the story by touching characters to make them speak, for example, support reading comprehension.”

Does it matter whether a child reads a fantasy story about walking on the moon or an ABC book of science facts? The genre plays a role in children’s learning. When it comes to digital books, children tend to learn more words from nonfiction than fiction. But the child’s age makes a difference, too. In one study, five-year-olds learnt more information from expository stories that aimed to inform than from fantastical stories, while three-year-olds absorbed the same amount of information from both types of story.

Supporting disadvantaged and vulnerable children

When children read a print book with an adult, they benefit from a rich learning context. Although digital books cannot replace that shared experience, a well-designed digital book is a good alternative if no adult is available to read with the child. Digital books can support children’s reading by providing ‘contingent’ feedback based on children’s touch, their answers to questions, or their progress in the story. One study found that children were better able to recall the story when they read digital books with contingent feedback than when they read digital books lacking features that responded to their engagement. The contingent features seem to be especially useful for children who struggle to concentrate during reading.

“Digital books appear to benefit disadvantaged children the most.”

Digital books are a favourite learning resource for many children with special reading needs, as features can be customised to each individual. One of our projects showed that children with complex learning needs, as well as their caregivers, highly valued the option of creating their own digital stories. Digital books can help children who have difficulty with language to learn new words and improve the literacy of children with poor letter knowledge.

Digital books appear to benefit disadvantaged children the most. Children from low socio-economic backgrounds acquire more literacy skills from digital books than do children from middle socio-economic backgrounds. Furthermore, digital books are an important learning tool for displaced families and families that are on the move. The digital libraries that have been created for Ukrainian refugee children exemplify how digital books can provide access to stories when print books are not an alternative. Online libraries not only offer vulnerable groups mobile and scalable access to stories; they also enable these groups to translate, audio-record and create their own stories in times of crisis.

Keep up to date with the BOLD newsletter