2 Ways Digital Books Benefit Kids, Research Shows

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

By Beth Bacon

With recorded narration and highlighting in ebooks, kids look at words longer and read slower.

With recorded narration and highlighting in ebooks, kids look at words longer and read slower.

Ebooks aren’t so bad for children after all. New research by MeeGenius and LookTracker shows that when digital books with recoded narration and highlighted words are presented to children, the kids gaze at words longer and progress through the stories slower than when they’re read to by a caregiver.

“We hear a lot about screen time, how it’s not good for kids to be in front of devices,” says Wandy Hoh, CEO and Co-Founder of MeeGenius. “So we wanted to see how kids really do react—what are they doing while reading on a device that may be perceived as negative.” What Wandy and her team found is that it can be beneficial for children to employ the automatic features in enhanced picture books.

1. Highlighting draws children’s eyes to words

The research demonstrates that as words light up in time with the spoken voice of a recorded announcer, children look at the text for a longer amount of time than when they listen to a caregiver reading aloud. The more time kids spend gazing at words while hearing them spoken, the more familiar they become with the idea that the sounds can be represented symbolically with writing.

In short, the study found that when a caregiver reads an ebook to a child, 9% of the child’s gaze is focused on the text. When they employ the narrated voice and word highlighting, 41% of the child’s gaze is focused on the text. The narration and highlighting help draw children’s eyes to the words.

“Connecting audible words to the letters of the alphabet is an important pre-reading skill,” says Hoh. Digital books that combine recoded human voices with highlighted words can help kids associate words with sounds—a key early-literacy building block.

2. Recorded narration slows the pace

Hoh and her team found another surprise benefit for children as they read digital books with recoded narration accompanied by highlighting. The research revealed that when listening the recorded storyteller, the pace of the reading activity slowed down. The recorded voice was found to be 37% slower than the tempo of actual caregivers reading aloud.

“People say that technology is making our world move too fast,” says Hoh, “But the recorded narration is actually slower than the parents we tested.” This unhurried pace can help provide children with an alternate to the fast pace sustained in many households. Technology decelerating our whirlwind lives? Who would have guessed?

Test methods

The tests were administered to 20 children, both boys and girls, three and four years old. The kids were divided at random. Half were read an ebook by an adult caregiver (usually a parent). The other half read a digital book that included a recorded narration accompanied by highlighted words. Both sets of subjects were provided a tablet and sat next to caregivers on separate chairs at child-size tables.

MeeGenius used the Eye-Tracking technology from LookTracker, a Teknicks company. The technology follows the locations on the screen where children fixed their eyes as they proceeded through the stories.

Are ebooks bad for you or good for you?

This research adds  fuel to the fiery debate over whether digital books are good or bad for children. A much-quoted 2012 study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center concluded that “parent-child pairs engaged less with the content of the story when reading the enhanced e-book than when reading the print book.”

Perhaps much depends on what it means to “engage” in a book, because the new eye-tracking study by MeeGenius seems to show something else. The children in the this study spent more time looking at the text when the words lit up. One note: the MeeGenius study did not compare ebooks to paper books. It compared ebooks read by live adults with ebooks narrated and highlighted automatically.

Balance recorded ebooks and together-time

The fact is, we live in a highly digitized world. Electronic screens are available to children at almost every turn: their parents’ phones, their household computer, their schools’ tablets, their siblings’ game devices … the list goes on. Asking a child to avoid screens is no longer realistic for many Americans.

Since kids are going to use digital devices, it’s important to know about both the benefits and the drawbacks of ereading. “At the end of the day, every child needs someone to read to them. Nothing replaces together-time,” says Hoh, “But technology is part of our everyday life. It’s how you choose to use it as parents and educators that matters.”

Photo of child and tablet via Shutterstock.

14 thoughts on “2 Ways Digital Books Benefit Kids, Research Shows

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  5. Sheilah

    What this doesn’t cover is how long parents took to read a book in total, compared to the narrated book. We know that having a conversation about what they are reading is at least as important as the words in the book.

  6. Richard Pipe

    Why this is interesting as a starting point is where there are no parents. Learning where your parents are illiterate, or learning another language your parents don’t know need interactive content that does the job of supporter or parents.

    It is exciting to see this article bring this very important 2013 learning issue up.

    I have been told by big ELT publisher that ’90s research on this showed highlighting was “distracting”. Our experience in-house with our own kids was that it was riveting and they learned so much better. Amazing what a decade can do.

    I would love to see more large-scale research on this with both first-language, second language and delivered instructions.

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  10. Michael W. Perry

    Check out the second chapter of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and you’ll discover that Scout learned to read because her father did his reading with her in his lap and his fingers pointing at what he was reading. That’s was highlighting in the 1930s. A lot that’s thought to be new isn’t.

    That said, reading by a caregiver, which is hopefully the child’s mom or dad, matters because there’s human interaction going on even if less reading skills are being learned.

    –Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

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