Jennifer Dorety is a preschool teacher with a bachelor’s of science degree in early childhood education, living in New York.
In her 17 years of teaching, she has only ever attempted reading an e-book to her students once — and it was a complete failure.
“I found that they did not retain the information in the book as well as they do the physical ones,” Dorety told Healthilne. “I asked questions after the story was over that they could not answer. This is not the case when we read a printed book.”
She explained her students were also eager for her to move on the next page and they didn’t seem to interact at all with her as the reader. She took both of these as signals she should go back to reading to her students from physical books instead.
Dorety’s experience isn’t an isolated one.
In fact, new research suggests that Dorety’s impression of how her students responded to an e-book versus physical books was spot on.
In a recent study published in Pediatrics, 37 parent and toddler pairs were recorded on video reading three different book formats: enhanced electronic (with sound effects and/or animation), electronic, and print.
These pairs were then observed for the number and types of interactions they engaged in while they read.
Parents expressed more engagement when reading print books while simultaneously exhibiting an ability to get through more of the story in a five-minute time span.
The toddlers who were being read to also talked more about the print books they were being read, and there were more signs of non-verbal bonding that took place between the pairs.
“Shared book reading is one of the most important developmental activities families can engage in,” study lead Dr. Tiffany Munzer, a fellow in developmental behavioral pediatrics at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, told Healthline.
She explained that with the rise of mobile device and e-reader ownership over the years, she and her colleagues were curious how parents and toddlers might interact differently over electronic books compared to print.
When asked what might account for the decreased engagement that was observed when reading e-books, Munzer hypothesized, “Parents and toddlers know how to engage over a book, but when adding a tablet into the mix, it deflects from some of the positive benefits of that shared reading experience.”
Doherty thinks it might have something to do with how distracting e-readers can be.
“More bright, flashing colors, more music and noises,” she said. “They also have a desire to move things along faster, swiping through the story without taking the time to absorb the information.”
Munzer added, “That isn’t to say there is no benefit to electronic book reading (compared with doing nothing), just less.”
She said the interaction between parent and child while reading is important for a number of reasons.
Munzer explained, “All aspects of a child’s brain development happen through the context of these positive relationships with their caregivers. This engagement promotes child learning of language, problem-solving abilities, and connection with their parents or other caregivers.”
The findings are in line with other research that has occurred over the years.
A 2014 study that found adult Kindle users absorbed a significant amount less of what they read when compared to their physical book reading counterparts.
Nevertheless, e-book reading is on the rise, even among kids, with a 2013 study finding that the number of kids between the ages of 6 and 17 reading e-books had nearly doubled over the course of just three years.
This trend does appear to have impacts in positive ways as well.
Some research has found an increased phonemic awareness for kids who read with e-books, as well as the potential that e-books might help kids learn to read.
Still, nothing really compares to the benefits of parents and children reading a physical book together, according to Dana Robertson, executive director of the Literacy Research Center & Clinic at the University of Wyoming.
When asked if there might be benefits to e-readers that read a story to a child without the parent present, he replied in the negative, explaining that the benefits of book reading come down to the joint attention.
“The benefits come from the interactive nature and contingent responsiveness the adult is providing to the child’s contributions,” he said.
He explained that in this way, adults are able to provide comprehensible input about a book’s content (and concepts about the world more broadly) while also promoting a child’s expressive language abilities by encouraging them to talk about what is in the book.
That same interaction can occur when using digital readers, Robertson conceded, but “the adult should turn off the continuous play features to allow for pacing control, and they should also turn off the narration features so that the adult is the one doing the reading.”
Programs that read to your child for you simply can’t provide that same interaction. And, as Robertson explained, that interaction is a big part of what kids gain from the reading experience.
“Book reading for infants, toddlers, and very young children is very much an emotionally based activity. Hearing the voice, being in close proximity, feeling comfortable, all of these make the experience a positive one, which then triggers future positive emotional responses to reading,” he said.
And those positive responses likely then increase positive engagement with reading as the child grows.
Munzer agrees. While she said an e-reader that reads the story to a child is better than nothing at all, “Younger children really need that input from their parents to learn from any type of media — print or digital. The print book is just better at facilitating this.”
However, Munzer doesn’t want the results of this study to discourage parents or make them feel as though they aren’t doing enough.
“Parents today work harder than ever and are more present with their children than ever,” she insisted. “Our goal in distilling the findings of our study isn’t to make things harder for parents, but rather to help families reflect on activities they engage in that nurture connection with their children, because that’s what being a parent is all about — it’s finding that joy.”
Experiencing that joy is one of the big reasons Dorety says she’ll continue reading physical books to her students every day.
“For me, nothing beats their faces as I read,” she said. “I change my voice for each character, and I find myself hanging on every word just as much as they do.”