In Print or Onscreen? Making The Most of Reading With Young Children

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Decades ago, most of the research I did was on child language acquisition. At the time, linguists were starting to recognize that not all children learn language the same way, Among the reasons is cultural context. For instance, middle-class infants in the United States tend to start using words earlier than kids living in societies where parents aren’t constantly pointing out names for things, as in, “Peter, there’s a fish. It’s a fish. Can you say ‘fish’?” Take the Tsimané, an Amazonian tribe in Bolivia, where mothers average less than one minute a day directly talking with babies—about one-tenth the amount in the U.S. But regardless of the cultural parenting patterns, all these children learn to talk.

The same cultural issue extends to dialogic talk around books with young children. In many literate societies in which children grow up to be accomplished readers, interactive reading with infants and toddlers isn’t part of the social landscape. My husband, who’s from a highly literary family in India and learned to read by himself
around age four, reminds me of this difference.

Debate over print versus digital books for young children often revolves around the assumption that print encourages dialogic talk more than digital does. (More on that in a moment.) But is this difference inevitable? Recent initiatives, in both Norway
and the United States, suggest productive ways of building dialogue into the ways we read digital books with young children.

What’s also often missing from the discussion is that the role of books with young children extends beyond child-caregiver bonding. We need to think more broadly about goals, including which platform best supports them.

The Linguistic and Cognitive Side

Before children are able to read on their own, there is much they absorb in the presence of books. Those books could be read by an adult or, in the case of digital books, through voice activation. In either case, young children might come to pair picture, written word, and spoken word with an object (such as that elephant). They also might learn about cause and effect through following a storyline.

We know that children’s linguistic development is bolstered by the richness of language used around them. Particularly in social contexts where young children aren’t hearing a lot of vocabulary and more complex syntax, it’s useful to harness additional tools to enhance kids’ learning opportunities. Sesame Street is a resoundingly successful example of good modeling for children and adults alike. (While watching with my toddler son, I learned the word “puce” from an episode in the 1980s, where Maria went shopping for shoes.)

With the coming of digital books and apps, it’s hardly surprising that educators and parents want to know how these materials measure up against print when it comes to language-based learning. As we’ll see, many researchers are investigating this issue.

The Engagement Side

You’ve seen those parents—or been one. You’re at a restaurant, and that two-year-old at the next table wont stop crying. In desperation, Dad fetches his iPhone, pulls up a cartoon video, plants the phone in front of the miserable toddler, and voilà! Peace is restored.

There’s no question that digital technologies can be engaging. In debates between those for and against handing digital books to young children, the “con” side points to research showing children tend to focus on the device more than on the storyline or the parents trying to read with their child. All true. Does that mean such engagement is wholly negative? And how does it relate to broader senses of engagement, including cognitive or physical interaction?

As Natalia Kucirkova and ‘Teresa Cremin eloquently argue in their book “Children Reading for Pleasure in the Digital Age,” the act of reading (or being read to) is most beneficial when it includes activity on the child’s part. Importantly, this activity involves constructing meaning from what’s being read, but it might also entail patting fuzzy surfaces or opening windows in a print book, or perhaps selecting music or exploring an image in a digital work.

Researchers have begun unpacking the varied functions print or digital books might serve for young children, particularly in the eyes of parents. Roxanne Etta surveyed more than 2,000 parents of preschoolers, asking when print or digital was more appropriate. While print was typically judged best for social experience with a child, eBooks were commonly used for entertainment or, in Etta’s term, babysitting. As the quality of eBooks continues to improve, and as parents learn ways of incorporating dialogic talk with children while using digital materials, we’ll see whether these patterns shift.

Naomi S. Baron

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