Ebooks Are Great — Just Not for Young Readers

When you talk to an adult reader about ebooks, they typically come down on one side of the fence or the other. They either love the convenience, access and ease of the digital version, or they’re the kind of person who can’t imagine life without the smell of the pages and the feel of a book in their hand.

To that, I say to each their own. Personally, I go back and forth, but typically prefer the electronic version because I can toss multiple volumes in my bag on one device and toodle off on vacation or to the doctor’s office and never run out of something to read. My deep commitment to digital probably stems from the road trips where I packed an entirely separate backpack just for books. My dad will attest that I could plow through 10 or more on just one multi-state journey. It’s just simpler to tote them around in digital form.

But when it comes to learning to read—preschool through at least third grade—I’d argue that kids fare better with a real live print book.

The superior experience begins with the bonding of adult and child on a lap or snuggled up in bed. It’s about sharing the story, interacting with it in a very organic way. It’s about shared giggles, the connection to a common experience and even feeling the vibration of the reader’s voice. There’s a pace that’s set, a growing familiarity both with the story and the idea of reading and the interactions don’t necessarily have to be predicted—they evolve over time. The way the page actually turns is in and of itself a signal that the story is moving on. It’s tangible and kinetic. It’s real.

And it’s not just my librarian spidey sense telling me that—there’s research to back it up. Researchers at the University of Michigan recently published their findings on this exact topic.

In a nutshell: The researchers found that parents and children interact more meaningfully when sharing a print book versus an electronic one. These interactions take the form of organic dialogue—open-ended questions, pondering predictions, verbalizing wonderings and connecting the story to their own experience. When reading a print copy, the reader and the listener make their own meaning together, tying in their own experiences. It’s a more active process.

Ebooks do their best to replicate (or improve upon) all that’s good about reading. On the surface, they may seem to provide more bang for the proverbial buck than a print copy. They’re cheaper to produce, easier to distribute and come with all the bells and whistles—animation, sound, music and built-in interactivity.

The interactivity is where ebooks tend to claim the higher ground. After all, no adult is required. A child can simply be parked with a tablet, tap a few spots and not only enjoy a story, but learn along the way. While that may be true, I wonder if it’s a short-lived victory. In time, boredom will set in. After all, it’s just another screen and don’t kids get plenty of that already? Add the idea that the bells and whistles and enhancements serve as fancy distractions from the story and do little to improve deep comprehension, and I am simply not sold on their value for the little ones.

Even during preschool storytime, I see a distinctly higher level of engagement with kids and “real” books. When I share a print book with my sweet gaggle of preschoolers, their eyes are on the page, taking in the details. They listen to my voice sharing the story, and when the text is predictable, they’ll invariably join in whether I invite them to or not (of course, jumping in to share in telling the story is always welcome—after all, it shows me they’re thinking!)

The few times I’ve had to use an electronic version (losing one’s voice for a week makes for a challenging library lesson at preschool, as you can imagine), the response from the kiddos is much different. You can feel their passivity. They’re watching rather than “reading.” Honestly, it’s kind of sad.

The power of print is evident in self-selected books and independent reading time as well. Each week, my Pre-Ks choose a book to take home, and as they explore the options, it’s fascinating to watch their selection process. Sure, there are a few who just grab the first one they see, but there are others who carefully and deliberately pull out multiple options before making their final choice. They’re examining the cover, flipping through the pages, and eyeing the color, humor and even the size. I can’t imagine the same complexity in the selection of an ebook on a tablet screen where all that’s available is an icon of the front cover of the book.

Once the kids have chosen their books, many of my classes stay in the library for a few minutes, giving them a chance to explore their new titles. Every week, in every class, there are several kids who beg me to “read me this one”—to sit on the rug, let them snuggle up on the side (or occasionally plop in my lap) and show them the magic of the story they chose.

The same happens in Kindergarten at elementary school. The little ones choose their book, find a comfy spot somewhere in the library to enjoy it, and as they turn the pages, they’ll discover a sight word or a picture that reminds them of their dog at home, or (if they can read a bit more independently) a joke they can’t wait to tell me. That’s where so much of the magic happens—in the turning of the paper pages. They don’t do those things when they’re working with their Chromebooks.

I’m far from the old-school librarian type. I push the tech envelope on a regular basis, but when it comes to literacy, give me paper, please.