2 Ways Digital Books Benefit Kids, Research Shows
By Beth Bacon
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?
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.