Are We Still Talking About This?

Josie Leavitt - April 17, 2014

Earlier this month, there was an blog post on the New York Times site about the negative effect that e-books can have on young readers’ (not fluent middle grade or older readers, but emerging readers) ability to understand what they’re reading. Really? This is news? Am I the only who is not shocked to hear this?
Take a four-year-old and give him an e-book and watch what happens. He “reads” it like a game, with buttons to press, new noises to make, etc. While he might be enjoying himself, he’s not reading, he’s playing — and these are two distinctly different and very important activities. Learning how to read requires a bit of hard work and concentration. “It seems that the very ‘richness’ of the multimedia environment that e-books provide — heralded as their advantage over printed books — may overwhelm children’s limited working memory, leading them to lose the thread of the narrative or to process the meaning of the story less deeply,” says Anne Murphy Paul from the MotherLode blog in the Times. Kids are having time focusing on all the bells and whistles but are missing the story. Of course they are. They’re kids.
Take that same boy, and this is not a scientifically proven thing, just 18 years of selling books to children, and give him the same book as a physical book and he will be engaged. He will try to predict, he will point out things he knows, and those things won’t wiggle or squeak when he touches them. He will make up his own noises for them. Maybe he’ll just run his little finger over the drawing to see if it feels like something. Maybe he’ll let his imagination wander and wonder. He will get ready to turn the page when he feels like it. The paper will have a texture and a smell. And if he grows up to be a reader, he will surreptitiously sniff every book he buys for the rest of his life.
Reading as a tactile event. How the pages turn is important, especially with picture books. Learning the right way to turn the page is a huge skill for young readers. I used to love turning the pages when my mom would read to me. Almost all books feel different from one another. As a reader, you develop a relationship with the book. How does it feel when you’re reading it? Are the pages shiny, sometimes too shiny, and you have to angle it a different way from the light. This is important for little minds to grasp. There is so much subtlety with reading a book that is lost with an e-reader.
So, give the kids back their books and let them learn to love to reading.

7 thoughts on “Are We Still Talking About This?

  1. Kath

    Let’s take this a step further, in addition to e-books older readers become dependent on books on DVD. Listening to books, without the benefit of visualizing the printed word, stunts the readers appreciation for spelling, grammar and vocabulary. For adults, it’s wonderful to combine reading with other activities (walking, working out, commuting), but for students developing writing skills, listening deprives the reader of the full experience of language. Perhaps as SAT’s no longer require essay writing, much like cursive, the need to express oneself will be restricted to on-line writing or even worse tweeting and texting (no need for spell check)!

    1. Rachel

      Hm, are you saying older students are dependent on audiobooks, or is this speculation that they may become so? I read tons of books as a child, and yes, I had a good vocabulary. What I didn’t have was a clue how to pronounce these new words I encountered. Which syllables are stressed? Which parts are silent? How should this sentence be read aloud? I was made fun of for not knowing how to pronounce words, and for a while I didn’t feel confident trying them out when speaking. Does that mean print books were stunting my ability to use new words in spoken language? Nope, bullies did that. But it means that having *both* readily available would have been helpful for getting the “full experience of language.”
      I agree with Josie that it’s great to watch young children engage with print books and that ebooks aren’t the same. And print books and bookstores are awesome! But keep in mind that for older students, ebooks can be a great help. For example, the ability to change text size, look up words instantly, the way a long ebook can be less intimidating than a long print book, and the ability to read a large book that might otherwise be painful or difficult to hold for various reasons.
      Regarding audiobooks and kids, as a librarian I haven’t seen kids becoming dependent on them at all. Rather, I’ve seen kids choosing them because they can experience books in the car with their family, because they struggle with reading and pairing it with the audio version is helpful, because they have a concussion and can’t read or watch anything, because their reading ability isn’t quite up to the challenge of, say, the Harry Potter books yet but they want to experience the stories, because they enjoy listening to them, because the print book was checked out.
      The SAT essay has only existed for about ten years, and I don’t see dropping it as a sign of anything but that it didn’t work out. I have issues with the SAT, but that isn’t one of them. (I think cursive has been on its way out for a long time. I remember being taught how to write in cursive, and then a few years later all the teachers begged us to print so they could actually read our papers!)

  2. Ellen Scott

    I totally agree with both of you!! But what’s to be done? The school district where our store is located just announced that they will expand their program of giving every high school and middle student a laptop and now they will provide a tablet or some such device for every elementary student in the district. The private school which had been taking orders and purchasing their required summer reading books for the 4th to 12th graders from our store for years just let me know that they purchased tablets or e-readers for all the students. I might still sell real books to the few kids who prefer them! It’s not just the lost sale but the loss of interaction with a real book that concerns me.

  3. Eleanor (Ellie) Miller

    I think Kath has a crucial point here, one that really isn’t mentioned all that often but **deserves** to be: reading from a printed page offers (especially) a beginning reader both a context and a frame of reference which allows him/her to make connections on their own which would otherwise be almost impossible. One way we teach reading is by trying to get a child to connect printed words with their pictural equivalents (and then almost miraculously to then be able to make that marvelously complex transference where the picture is suddenly no longer necessary). But once that’s accomplished, context is essential to build vocabulary and increase awareness of a whole picture. I taught myself to read at some point before my fourth birthday and was soon happily reading waaaaaaay ahead of my age group. I realize now as an adult just how much I was able to derive from that kind of visualization: in “Oliver Twist” the orphans were given ‘gruel’? Okay I was able to infer from the overall context (meal time) that the word I didn’t recognize was (a) something edible and (b) poured into and served in bowls ergo it must be **another word** for some kind of soup, a word I did know. It seems to me we lose this opportunity to make connections at our peril.

  4. Anna Dewdney

    Well said, Josie.
    E-books may be fun. They may encourage a love of reading. But they are, primarily, toys…at least as far as picture e-books are concerned. There is nothing like the process of turning the pages of a picture book to create a real world in the mind of a child. If a child “reads” a picture book on her own, she can invent her own noises, her own surprises…but if a child is given an e-book with a pre-assigned set of gimmicks….how much is he really learning or creating? The beauty of books (for all of us…not just for children) is that we learn something about ourselves because the literature pulls us in. What pulls us is the evanescent experience of truth…and goodness knows I don’t want my children (or anyone else’s) experiencing anything other than their own truths when they read books. The experience should be about the visceral, emotional connection with the author and illustrator…not about playing a game.

  5. Carol Chittenden

    The fact that so many schools are supplying students with e-readers says that they’ve given up on supplying them with books. Now what does that tell us about book pricing, quality, and inventory management? E-books are apparently throw-aways.
    But it will be interesting to see how this proves out in five years when those ipads and laptops are obsolete, broken, needing expensive maintenance, generating lawsuits about kids surfing questionable sites, etc.
    And when that happens, guess what! Books, good old books, will have survived yet another threat, sailing on over history’s stormy seas.


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