How to make digital books as good—or better—than print versions

Certain features can make digital picture books 'outperform their print counterparts'
By: | March 10, 2021
(AdobeStock/jörn buchheim)

Children ages 1 to 8 tend to have more trouble understanding digital picture books, compared to the print versions, according to an analysis of literacy research.

However, when digital books are enhanced with tools that reinforce story content, digital books “outperform their print counterparts,” said the authors of the meta-analysis, “A Comparison of Children’s Reading on Paper Versus Screen.”

Such helpful tools include features that provide additional explanations of the story’s events or that prompt children’s background knowledge.

The authors found that digital devices and tools that are not aligned with the story can interfere with reading comprehension.

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While digital books may be better at building a child’s vocabulary if they contain a dictionary that defines infrequently used words and expressions, dictionaries can hinder a reader’s understanding of the story.

This indicates that focusing on word meanings distracts children’s attention from the story, the authors said.

Also, few of the digital books studied could mimic the storytelling techniques that adults provide when reading with children—such as helping the child identify main story elements and plots.

“Many digitized versions of picture books are inferior to the print version, yet young children widely use them,” said co-author Natalia Kucirkova, a professor of early childhood development. “Makers of children’s digital books need to be careful about the enhancements they make, and educators and parents need to choose carefully which digital books young children read.”

The research also shows that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to be distracted by devices and digital enhancements.

“Digital books are low-cost to access and thus more readily available to students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” Kucirkova said. “Furthermore, we can customize digital books to a child’s level of learning by including interactive features responsive to the child.”

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