Print Versus Screen

 In Uncategorized

Are e-books as good as print? Does digital technology help or hinder reading skills in young children?

Given how common mobile devices are in the average New Zealand home, it’s not surprising that more parents are using e-books to engage their young child in reading. Similarly, there is a growing trend for schools to integrate digital technology into the reading curriculum and the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns have accelerated this trend. Consequently, there’s been a significant increase in the use of screens by students, both at home and at school. While there are many advantages to reading online, such as portability, low cost, and wide accessibility, it’s critical for both parents and educators to understand whether digital technology facilitates or hinders the develop of basic literacy skills.

The case against e-books

Because e-books include music, animation and other interactive elements, they are appealing to children. Early research into e-books, however, has overwhelmingly found that while children were engaged with e-books, they were struggling to learn new words or recall the story because they were distracted playing games and activating animations rather than listening to the story sequentially.

Consistent with this finding, scanned brain activity in 3 and 5-year-olds showed that listening to an e-book was associated with a drop in connectivity among different parts of the brain and that the children also struggle to follow the story line.

Some research indicates that print is superior because it encourages children to form mental images and reflect on the story’s meaning. It also drives language development because of the interactive role parents take when reading a printed book to their child. This type of interaction is often lost with e-books.
Finally, researchers have also found that, overall, early readers are less likely to understand picture books when they listen or read a digital version. One study found that 3-to-5-year-olds had lower reading comprehension when read an e-book by their parents compared to peers who were read a printed version of the same book. The researchers concluded this was partly because both parents and children tended to focus on the device and its interactive features rather than on the story itself.

The case for e-books

It’s important to note that not all research indicates that e-books negatively impact reading development in young children. A small, but increasing, number of studies have shown that e-books can facilitate phonemic and print concept awareness in preschool children, particularly children with learning disabilities. What separates these studies from the studies that have shown a negative impact is that they used a high-quality e-book that included text highlighting and definitions for difficult words. Because many e-books contain low quality enhancements and distractions that fragment the storyline for a young child, printed books are often more suitable. In addition, research has also indicated that e-books can facilitate reading development when adult-child interactions are encouraged.

E-books are increasingly popular for young children for a host of reasons. It’s important to consider the educational quality of the e-book (e.g. text highlighting and a dictionary for word meanings). It’s also valuable to encourage interactive parent-child co-reading to draw the child’s attention to story elements and focus their attention on the chain of story events. Clearly children can gain from both reading media, although at the end of the day, the most important app for a child learning to read is a human.

By SPELD NZ Assessor Kirstie Morgan

If you would like academic reference sources for this story, please contact