New findings suggest it might be better to read toddlers an e-book than a print book

Mother and daughter using a digital tablet at bedtimeBy Emma Young

Reading with a young child is important for their language development and early literacy skills. But does it matter if you read from an electronic book (e-book) or traditional print? As any parent knows, toddlers are generally keen on screens. So the finding, from a new study in Frontiers in Psychology, that very young children enjoy e-books more than print picture books, may not come as a huge surprise – but these additional findings might: both parents and toddlers behaved differently when reading electronic vs. print picture books. And the toddlers who read the e-books learned more.

Studies of children aged three and up have suggested that e-books – with their extra features, such as built-in dictionaries and animations of story events – may have advantages over print. A recent meta-analysis found that e-books support story comprehension and vocabulary gains beyond that provided by print books, for example. But there’s also work suggesting that children sometimes invest less mental effort in learning from iPads than print, and that parents talk less about content when sharing an e-book – and there’s been very little research at all in this area on children under two.

For the new research, Gabrielle Strouse at the University of South Dakota, US, and Patricia Ganea at the University of Toronto, Canada, videoed 102 toddlers aged 17-26 months reading with one of their parents. Each parent-child pair was randomly assigned to read either two 10-page commercially-available educational e-books (one about farm animals, the other about wild animals; both downloaded to a handheld device) or two print books with the same content. While the parent read the words in the print books aloud, the e-books had an automatic voiceover.

When they analysed the videos later, Strouse and Ganea found that parents who read the print books pointed more frequently to pages than parents who read the e-books. But the opposite was true for the children. Toddlers who read the e-books also commented more on the content and turned more pages by themselves. “Taken together, it appeared that children were very communicative regarding the electronic books, indicating an interest in their content and a desire to share this interest,” the researchers said.

Before the reading sessions, the researchers had asked the parents to list how many of the animal names in both books their child already knew and understood. After the sessions, the children who’d read the e-books were better at identifying previously unfamiliar animals.

The toddlers who read ebooks were also rated as being more engaged, as paying more attention, and as enjoying the experience more. And according to the analysis, it was “availability for reading” – being “present” and engaged – that was associated with the superior learning results for e-books vs. print.

One important point to note is that the e-books were simple. While they included background music, animation and sound effects, there were no “hotspots” – parts of the screen that, when tapped, trigger extra features, for example.

In fact, while extra e-book enhancements can certainly engage a child, there’s research in older children finding that they don’t always lead to improved learning. “Bells and whistles in electronic books can be designed in many ways that may increase children’s participation with them, but if these features do not draw attention to the educational content they may not serve as a supportive feature,” Strouse and Ganea warned in their paper, before concluding: “Much more work is needed to determine the potential benefits and hazards of new media.”

Parent–Toddler Behavior and Language Differ When Reading Electronic and Print Picture Books

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

8 thoughts on “New findings suggest it might be better to read toddlers an e-book than a print book”

  1. Some children are capable of using technology better than certain adults. I am not surprised that children picked up more information and remembered more detail from the e-book. Do you think that eventually all children are going to just use the e-books rather than print? It seems like it has way more benefits and it is probably cheaper in the long run. Do you think children will be able to adjust from these technologies once they grow up and have to do things through paper and pencil? It seems like their entire childhood is advanced technology based.

    1. We are already seeing students at college level who protest at having to do paper-and-pencil tests, because they are unable to properly hold a pen or write legibly and quickly.

      One can see the gap between the haves and have-nots widening as ‘good’ parents make sure that their children can handle physical books (including turning pages, not just pressing or swiping), and can write with a pencil or pen, not just press keys. It is, after all, not one or the other: the successful children will thrive having exposure to all media.

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