Reading to your child? Digital books are as important as print books

OPINION: Instead of propagating a false dichotomy between print and digital books we need to start asking which books work best for which children and families.

Father reading to his sons. Photo: iStock. Reading printed books to your children is wonderful, but reading digital books may be as valuable.

Responding to the growing interest in children’s e-books, Amazon has recently launched a new Kindle for kids. Yet the only story we hear about children’s reading on screen is how bad this is in comparison to reading print books. Indeed, American Paediatricians herald children’s print books as superior to digital books and an article in the New York Times advocates the view that e-books offer little value to young readers.

Portraying digital books as undesirable risks removing an important reading opportunity for children who might need such books most. The added value of digital books for children with special educational needs and language impairments is well-documented for children’s language or reading comprehension skills. Interdisciplinary research evidence shows that high-quality digital books - from e-books to story apps - can be beneficial to children’s reading experiences.

Print book meets digital game

If you have never seen a digital book, imagine illustrations with moving story characters, sounds and voiceovers, driven by a text-based story. Such e-books are also called picture book apps and can be accessed on smartphones or tablets. Tablets are available in 95.2 % of Norwegian kindergartens (Monitor, 2019) and the VEBB project funded by the Research Council of Norway has developed an online assessment tool for picture book apps in collaboration with kindergarten teachers.

The best children’s digital books are hybrids between print books and digital games. Well-designed digital books can contribute to children’s vocabulary growth, comprehension, engagement and enjoyment of the story. In some cases, an e-book can be as helpful as a parent reading with the child. This is particularly important for parents who are not used to reading routines at home or who are expected to read books that are not in their native language.

Children enjoy digital books as much as print books, if not more. Reading digitally is a preferred way of reading for reluctant readers, readers with few (or any) books at home and children who traditionally don’t enjoy reading on paper. While for adult readers digital texts are often skimmed and perceived differently than print books, children grow up surrounded with digital texts.

Avoid too many bells and whistles

There are challenges to address.

Too many commercial digital books are of low quality, with a “drill and skill” approach and little creativity. The intimate experience of reading to a child can become dominated by parents giving the child instructions on how to interact with the many bells and whistles in the app.

More government support is needed for content produced in local languages and supporting publishers to develop content specifically for digital books.

The “gatekeepers” Google and Apple need to change their publishing rules to allow for proper quality checks and support of independent publishing models.

And more collaboration between research and design is needed to develop higher-quality digital books. The International Collective of Research and Design in Children’s Digital Books, led by a team at the University of Stavanger, is a good step forward. The Collective brings together researchers, designers and developers in order to create the high-quality digital books our children deserve.

Reluctant parents

Research shows that parents are often sceptical of digital books’ potential to aid their children’s learning and they strongly prefer print books for children’s reading at home. This is understandable considering that reading digitally is not the same as reading a print book.

Reading digitally demands a different skills repertoire, including different ways of tapping, pressing and swiping pages. Parents and children who are not used to read with screens tend to focus on the reading device, which disrupts the experience. Moreover, too many interactive features can take the child’s attention away from the story, which impedes learning from the book.

Yet, story-making as part of digital reading can bring families together around a literacy activity. Reading digital books that parents and children can create themselves, supports parent-child bonding and contributes to a positive atmosphere at home. Therefore, instead of propagating a false dichotomy between print and digital books it is better to start asking which books work best for which children and families.

More focus on reading, less on format

In order to harness the full potential of digital books, we need to develop guidelines and best practice examples for joint parent-child e-reading. Another fruitful area is to design digital books that strategically involve the adult in the experience. A recent study developed an enhanced e-book, with questions and prompts for the parent. The researchers showed that reading such an enhanced e-book can increase parent-child conversation and positively involve both partners in the session.

Let there be no doubt – print books are, and will continue to be, important for all children’s reading. For babies and infants in particular, who treat books as objects and like to chew on them or hide behind them, print books are much better than e-books. As children grow up and learn the first letters and words, it is important that they are exposed to a variety of story types. This is not only about diverse story plots but also diverse story formats, such as e-books or story apps.

The earlier children are exposed to such variety, the better they become at making discerned choices about the books they like to read. The more they read, the more they learn about others and about literature. This often leads to children’s own production of texts. It is this cycle and not a binary digital/print reading that we should be propagating among parents and their children.


Text: Natalia Kucirkova

The article was first published on Science Norway.


Listen to Professor Kucirkova talk about digital children's books in the video below: