For Reading and Learning, Kids Prefer E-Books to Print Books

By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid

Given the choice between reading e-books or print books, children prefer e-books, a new, exploratory field study shows. Children who read e-books also retain and comprehend just as much as when they read print books, the study also suggests.

A new “QuickStudy” – so named for its short duration and the small size of its sample group – from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center observed 24 families with children ranging in age from three-to-six reading both print and e-books in the Summer and Fall of 2011. Most of the children in the study preferred reading an e-book to a print book and comprehension between the two formats were the same.

“If we can encourage kids to engage in books through an iPad, that’s a win already,” said Carly Shuler, senior consultant for industry studies at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop is a New York based non-profit organization dedicated to understanding how children learn through digital media.

Enhanced e-books – those that have more bells and whistles than e-books, like interactive features and games – were also compared in the study with their regular e-book counterparts. Children recalled fewer of the details of the content of enhanced e-books versus the same e-book.

“Kids were more focused on tapping things and that took away from their comprehension as well as the interaction between the parent and the child,” said Shuler.

The findings from the study are preliminary and the Joan Ganz Cooney center will be conducting larger, more rigorous studies of the issue. Two more QuickStudies are currently being conducted around the questions of why parents and children select certain e-books over others and how parents and children read e-books together.

Until now, aside from outcries by hysterical parents and media, there has been no real study of whether reading to children with e-books is better or worse for them in terms of developmental or educational value than reading to them with print books.

“As far as I’m aware, at this juncture, there hasn’t been substantive research done on this,” said Nicole Deming, a spokesperson for the Children’s Book Council, a New York-based industry association for children’s book publishers.

Despite the lack of research, “many” parents have their reservations about reading to their children on an iPad or other device before bed, according to a recent report in the New York Times.

Researchers are hesitant to make such judgments.

“I don’t think we’re ready to say ‘picture books in their print form are better and will always be better,’” said Junko Yokota, a professor and director of the Center for Teaching Through Children’s Books at National Louis University in Chicago, who claims she was misrepresented in the above-referenced New York Times article as supporting the idea that e-books are bad for children.

Regardless, both publishers and parents are diving head first into e-books and book applications for children.

Related: Are Children’s E-Books Really Terrible for Your Children? | How to Build a Best-Selling Children’s Book App

For more on the state of children’s publishing, attend the Digital Book World Children’s Publishing Goes Digital Conference on January 23, 2012 in New York City.


Children’s E-book Growth

About 7.4% of children’s books sold in the first three quarters of 2011 were digital (excluding young adult titles), according to Bowker, a company that tracks the book industry. That compares with 13.5% across all book publishing segments over the same period.

Adoption of digital has been slower for children’s books than it has for other kinds of books in part because of a technology lag, according to Kelly Gallagher, vice president of publishing services at Bowker, who is currently working on a report about the children’s book publishing industry.

“The growth rate appears to be slower and it flattened out a bit this year,” said Gallagher. “That is related to the technology not being as capable to fully give the book-like experience for a children’s product, as opposed to the flat narrative of adult trade fiction.”

Still, Gallagher predicts that share of digital units in children’s book publishing could double in 2012 to as much as 15%. This holiday season will see homes acquire second or even third tablets and children will have sole use of first generation iPads handed down by parents who upgrade to an iPad 2 or other, newer tablet, further driving growth.

There are about 50 million tablets in circulation worldwide, according to a recent report by IHS iSuppli, an El Segundo, Calif.-based technology research unit of global research firm IHS. There will be over 150 million in circulation by the end of 2012.


Seizing the Opportunity

A mix of “traditional” players and start-ups have been producing, selling and marketing children’s book apps.

While children’s publishing powerhouses like Scholastic Inc. and Sesame Workshop have robust digitization and app-development efforts, upstarts have come to market with children’s book apps, too. Encinitas, Calif.-based Oceanhouse Media produces, markets and sells Dr. Seuss and Berenstain Bears children’s book apps, for instance.

“Three years ago there was not much of anything,” said Michel Kripalani, president of Oceanhouse. “The app market was just getting rolling.”

Today, there are dozens of small companies like Kripalani’s as well as hundreds of “mom and pop” shops, single developers that produce a one-off app product. And it’s all because of Apple.

“You can build a product and submit it to Apple and ten days later – after approval [Apple will not sell an app in its store if it does not meet certain technical requirements] – you’re available for sale,” said Kripalani. “All of a sudden, they’ve created this environment that anyone who is able to gather the technical and marketing skills is able to build a publishing house.”

National Geographic, the Washington, D.C.-based nature magazine company, publishes magazines and books targeted at children. National Geographic has published two children’s apps, including the iTunes store hit, Weird But True, an app based on the print book series of the same name.

Scholastic has published 14 apps, including Magic Schoolbus Oceans, an extension of the Magic Schoolbus franchise.

“It’s been a very good business for us – and profitable,” said Deborah Forte, executive vice president of Scholastic and president of Scholastic Media, the division within the company that produces apps.

Sesame Workshop currently has 160 e-books and 25 apps and “is in the business [of electronic publishing] to stay,” said Jennifer Perry, vice president of worldwide publishing for Sesame Workshop.


An Industry Hungry for Research

Beyond knowing what is good or bad for children – information that the children’s book industry has largely benefited from – industry players badly want to know how kids interact with their electronic products: whether they like them and if they understand the interactive conceits that adults take for granted on touch-screen devices, like swiping and double-taps.

Sesame Workshop, which shares workspace and a common founder with the Joan Ganz Cooney center, is conducting its own research.

“What we look at when we test right now is usability,” said Mindy Brooks, assistant director of research for Sesame Workshop. “How do kids and parents use the device? What kind of UI design is most intuitive to a majority of users? Does the child understand how to use the apps features?”

Oceanhouse, a much smaller organization than Sesame with only seven full-time employees currently, is so interested in this kind of information that it has hired its own research contractor.

“The goal of the research is to inform the development of future apps and potential updates to apps on the market,” said the Oceanhouse research consultant, Liz Griffiths, who has a master’s degree in developmental psychology from the Teachers College at Columbia University.

One early finding of Griffiths’s research is that children often accidentally skip pages when reading apps. As a result, Oceanhouse is looking into ways of ensuring children read the whole story in a book app.

This one finding is just the tip of the potential iceberg of learning to be done – and the industry is hungry for such knowledge.

“We want to see learning studies done and see a cross comparison about different apps and e-books,” said Sesame’s Perry, who added that it’s no easy task due to the array of possible formats and devices.


When E-Books Don’t Matter

Some children and parents don’t have to wrestle with the question of how much iPad time is too much iPad time.

Reading to Kids is a Los Angeles-based non-profit organization that gives away 700 to 1,200 books a month to local disadvantaged children. For Reading to Kids, e-books are out of the question.

“For the population we serve, e-books are not something we deal with every day,” said Karen Kiss, managing director of Reading to Kids. “The idea of giving 700 to 1,200 kids a Kindle would be fantastic, but that would be beyond our economic reach.”

Reading Is Fundamental, a national non-profit based in Washington, D.C. dedicated to promoting reading and literacy among disadvantaged children, had plans to experiment with supplying those they serve with e-readers, but federal funding cuts put those plans on hold.

Beyond expanding the reach of books to new audiences now growing up in an increasingly digital world, the organization hoped to head off what it sees as a gap between children who grow up with the latest learning tools and reap commensurate advantages later in life, and those who do not.

“I’m very concerned that there’s going to be another digital divide,” said Carol Rasco, president and CEO of Reading is Fundamental. “I fear that many of our children in low-income areas aren’t going to have as much access to the readers themselves or tools needed to read the digital books. It’s something that is really moving along and we’re going to leave some of those children behind. They won’t have the skills needed when schools, all of a sudden, go to e-readers for their text-books, perhaps.”


When E-Books Matter the Most

For some child-parent relationships, an e-book can provide infinitely more value than a printed book.

Parents away from their children are unable to read to them in any conventional sense. That’s where A Story Before Bed comes in. The start-up helps parents record themselves reading an e-book so that their children can enjoy that experience when the parent is not around.

“What’s great about children’s books is that unlike any other book they were meant to be read together,” said Hillel Cooperman, co-founder of A Story Before Bed. “The question as whether you should read to your kids on a different medium is a stupid question. Reading to your kids is good, period.”

While his product is only useful in the world of e-books, his sentiment was echoed by nearly every expert, observer and researcher we spoke with for this piece: It’s good to read to your children, regardless of format.

At Sesame and Scholastic, part of the mission is to encourage reading, and devices that get kids excited about books are welcome, regardless if their paper and binding or full-color touch-screen.

“One of the things we’re about at RIF,” said Rasco from Reading Is Fundamental, “is what do we do to push a kid’s button to get them turned on to reading? There is nothing to indicate right now that I’m sending poison into a child because I’m suggesting they use an e-reader.”

Further, Rasco is the parent of a 38-year-old with disabilities and says, as have many other parents with children with disabilities in multiple media reports, that e-books and apps have helped them interact with their children.

It’s still the very early days of e-books, enhanced e-books and book apps for children. The iPad, which came out in January 2010, and other e-readers and tablets that make children’s books a more attractive play for publishers, have been around for such a short period of time that deep, academic study of their efficacy as educational tools has yet to be done.

What researchers, observers and industry players all seem to agree upon for now is that getting kids interested in reading is a worthy cause, regardless of the format.

Write to Jeremy Greenfield

For more on the state of children’s publishing, attend the Digital Book World Children’s Publishing Goes Digital Conference on January 23, 2012 in New York City.

12 thoughts on “For Reading and Learning, Kids Prefer E-Books to Print Books

  1. Bola

    Full disclosure here: I am a mom & children’s bookseller. The study you quoted is quite deceptive, 24 families? That is not a study. Kids of course love gadgets with bells and whistles. My personal experience is that I lose the interaction with my kids when using the IPad. It’s pretty much like the TV, an ineffective surrogate babysitter. The techies in Silicon Valley who brought us this new addictive toy choose to send their own kids to schools that limit computer use and emphasize creativity, go figure.

    1. Jeremy Greenfield Post author

      Hey Bola–

      Thanks for your comment. I felt the need to respond to this.

      The study is preliminary and I think that’s pretty clear here. Much more study needs to be done. It’s only been two years since the introduction of the iPad — that’s very little time for serious, academic study.

      If this all wasn’t clear in the article, I hope it is now.

      As for your personal experience, I have heard and read stories from parents with experiences similar to yours; I’ve heard and read just as many with completely different experiences. Of course, trust your instinct as a parent, but the book publishing industry, schools, educators and others shouldn’t trust anecdotes when figuring out how to build educational materials and employ them to teach our children. Study is necessary and it will happen.


  2. Wendy

    While I see a lot of kids playing with ipads and other tablets, I think print books shouldn’t be disregarded at this point. Watching a parent a child read on an ipad, the interaction is more about how to hold, use, and take care of the device rather than what’s in the book. On the other hand, older kids who can read on their own are just fine reading from a tablet or a kindle. For boys who get more excited about tech than books, reading from a device might even work as an incentive to read more.

  3. John Hutton

    This really drives home a fundamental issue here: the debate above is more akin to warring tribes or political parties than science, at least on the e-reader level (see reference to \hysterical parents\ above and compare to references to \hysterical environmentalists,\ or \hysterical feminists\). Though there is ample good research showing the negative health effects of inappropriate and excess media, especially for kids under 2 – obesity, sleep, learning – e-readers are too new for science to save the day. Thus, the reaction and debate is visceral. I for one feel very sad when I see a baby handed an iPad or iPhone, and see it as a form of neglect, or at least wasted opportunity to create something, interact with the world, or just sit quietly. Ditto Tell Me A Story, which is largely a guilt suppression device for parents out of town. Why is it not OK to miss your parents and then read or play together when they get home? Children’s books in the traditional sense are many things, but more than any, they are a catalyst for human interaction. When parents and kids read together, they are committing to intimate time together, to discuss and explore the story, sit and cuddle, and digress at will. A device will never be a surrogate, and though most are marketed to be used with parents in an \educational\ way, most also have \read to me\ settings where the child is left with the device. Devices are also relatively infinite, where a picture book sits beside a photo album, dad’s emails, Angry Birds, and YouTube, not to mention all of the buttons and icons to slide around… With kids’ books, finite is good – sit and finish one, turn each page, feel it, savor it, then put it down and start another (or read it again). Devices and the apps they harbor become a disquieting hybrid distraction device, parental outsourcing device, e-pacifier, and gateway drug, handing over the imagination of the reader to the imagination of the animator. It seems to me that the push to get gadgets into kids hands younger and younger is a push to collapse their world into this device, first via their bookshelf, then games, the outdoors, parents, and the universe (note that there are already apps for babies \teaching\ them about water and the sky). Parents, of course, have already done this to a large degree. So why not afford kids the opportunity – and it is up to us to do so — to be gadget- and app-free until they are old enough to use them on their own, akin to driving a car? Life is short, childhood even shorter – committing to a screen-free span of 3-6 years seems worthwhile. Unless, of course, your business is producing TV shows…

    1. Jeremy Greenfield Post author

      Thanks for your thoughtful response, John.

      Your feelings about devices aside, there are parents who are giving their children access to them, regardless of whether they should or not. And there are companies that are providing content for these devices for children to interact with, regardless of whether that’s a good idea or not.

      That said, I was hoping through this article to illuminate some of the issues surrounding the trend as well as to highlight that there has been a tremendous amount of research on the effect of reading on kids but little on the effect of e-reading, so to speak.

      This shouldn’t be read as an endorsement or a condemnation of reading to kids on any platform. Hope that clears some things up!


  4. Janey

    This is the issue we live in another time. I have a 12 year old and a 7 month old. The baby only wants the electrical items, phones, controls why because she see her older brother using them. If you think that you will keep your kids away from technology your denying them from there future. technology is the only this that can bring this country out of recession. New things in the market keep everything going forward. If you want to make sure your kids are doing well make sure there not watching all this violence on TV.

    1. Derek Thompson

      It reminds me of when our grandson, so accustomed to electronic toys (and we’re talking over ten years ago), kept pushing the ID disk on dog’s collar because he was expecting it to make a noise!

  5. Kay

    I was torn about this issue for awhile. For some time, I said that I wouldn’t allow our 7-year old to read e-books. My stance was that she needed to hold a physical book in her hands, turn the pages, etc. That, in my mind, was real reading.

    Our 7-year old reads on a 5th grade level. We read every night before she goes to bed, and have been doing so since she was a baby. So now it’s time for her to read independently more, without reading aloud so much (however, we ALWAYS read aloud together at bedtime). Encouraging her to read independently with a physical book was a bit of a task though. She was so used to hearing herself aloud, she didn’t want to read silently. She began to do so, but with some resistance.

    Enter the iPad. I downloaded Alice and Wonderland, without all the bells and whistles, into the iBookstore. She IMMEDIATELY took to the book and read it off and on, completing it in 3 days. And she enjoyed the book. And she read silently, independently. I attribute that to the iPad device. Part of what was going on with our daughter is that she couldn’t see how much more of the book she had left (even though the number of pages was listed at the bottom of the screen). So there’s no, “I have soooo much of the book left to read!” It was just a smooth read-through, and she enjoyed it.

    I’ll be getting a Kindle Touch soon. I’m excited, because I know she’ll read even more independently once I start purchasing e-books for the Kindle (and checking them out for Kindle at our local library). While we will also and always read physical books, I think ebook readers, whether iPad, Kindle, Nook, etc., can also be helpful.

  6. Brian Sertori

    Recently I created a Website to promote a children’s Ebooks program. The Program is called ” Learn To Read-Kids Comical Ebooks Program.
    I would be interested in your comments, particularly in relation to promoting or publishing the Comical Stories & Games Ebooks.
    Brian Sertori
    Former Primary School Teacher-Principal-Special Education Consultant
    Wagg Wagga NSW Australia



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