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Print Books vs. E-Books: facts and fictions

Posted by Tom on Jun 08, 2012

The excellent Joan Ganz Cooney Center has published an interesting paper titled Print Books vs. E-books: Comparing parent-child co-reading on print, basic, and enhanced e-book platforms. It’s well worth reading – it’s thoughtful, focused and balanced – and the only thing I even remotely object to in the entire paper is the first half of the title, “Print Books vs. E-Books” (on which more in a moment).

As is the way with such things, though, the coverage that it has received has been – to me, at least – disappointing. Fans of Ben Goldacre will know to be wary of mainstream press coverage given to academic papers: it has a tendency to over-simplify and over-state the case being made. Let us turn, then, to The Guardian’s piece on the paper in question, headlined “Enhanced ebooks are bad for children finds American study”. The first sentence of the story is as follows: “All-singing, all-dancing ebook versions of children’s stories might encourage kids to pick up a book, but they don’t help with literacy, according to a new study.”

There are several problems with this headline and opening paragraph. I won’t talk for long about the main problem with the headline – which is that such a claim (specifically, that ebooks are “bad” for children) is not to be found anywhere in the paper itself – because it was probably written by a subeditor, rather than the author of the story, though this not an auspicious start.

I have larger objections to that first sentence, which contains so many false impressions I don’t really know where to begin. Let’s do it one clause at a time.

“All-singing, all-dancing ebook versions” is certainly an eye-catching way to begin a story, but what it doesn’t say – and what The Guardian neglect to mention elsewhere in their coverage – is that the study only looked at two e-book titles, which, in the words of its own authors, Cynthia Chiong, Jinny Ree, Lori Takeuchi, and Ingrid Erickson, “limits the generalizability of its findings”.

Moving on to the second half of that clause, we find “might encourage kids to pick up a book”. Again, what this doesn’t say (though this caveat is eventually partially acknowledged) is that the study only involved the children of 32 sets of parents, recruited from the same location (the New York Hall of Science) and broadly belonging to the same demographic (“a majority of participants were white and of middle or high socio-economic status”), and so could hardly be said to be representative of children in general (a fact which is also pointed to by the paper’s authors, in the “Limitations” section).

And finally, we have “they don’t help with literacy, according to a new study”. Again, this assertion is not to be found anywhere in the paper itself.

Chiong, Ree, Takeuchi and Erickson lay out three very straightforward research questions at the start of their paper:

1) What is the nature of parent-child and child-book interactions when reading each of the three formats?

2) How does child engagement with the story vary across the three formats?

3) How does child comprehension of the story vary across the three formats?

The three formats are print, basic e-book, and enhanced e-book, and you will notice that none of these questions are, “Do all-singing, all-dancing ebooks help with literacy?” or “Are enhanced e-books bad for America?” The study does note that “children who read enhanced e-books recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story”, but one cannot reasonably conclude from this that enhanced e-books have no value at all, or – even more absurdly – that they are actively bad for children.

In its summary of key findings, the study makes two recommendations, and I agree with both whole-heartedly.

Firstly, it advises that designers of enhanced e-books ought to “exercise caution when adding features to enhanced e-books, especially when those features do not directly relate to the story.” We at Nosy Crow don’t make enhanced e-books, but we follow the same principle devoutly in the creation of our apps. We don’t believe in interactive features which have been tacked-on thoughtlessly or for no purpose other because they can be: we think that interactivity should always be advancing the story or drawing a child further into the narrative. Our Cinderella app is a story about hard work, so you can help Cinderella do the chores. It’s about appearance, so we invited children in by using the front-facing camera as a mirror. And it’s about magic, so we enabled the child to make the transformations happen.

Secondly, the study makes the suggestion to parents that “enhanced ebooks may be valued for their ability to prompt less motivated young readers toward engagement when they might otherwise avoid text altogether”. This is a really important point, and one that chimes with our thinking in several ways. We enthusiastically believe in finding ways of encouraging reading for pleasure, however that might take place – whether it’s on an iPad screen or with a print book. And we don’t believe that enhanced ebooks – or apps, for that matter – are in any way a “substitute” for the experience of reading by traditional means. This is where my own thinking diverges very slightly from that of the authors of this paper: I don’t agree with the notion that print books and enhanced ebooks are in competition with one another. When a child picks up an iPad to read Cinderella or The Three Little Pigs, our app isn’t competing with a print book for that child’s attention, it’s competing with every other source of media available on the iPad: browsing the web, watching a movie, listening to music, playing games. Reading a physical picture book and using an app are fundamentally different experiences.

Of course, I can’t defend every enhanced e-book (or book app) that’s available as having the same literacy value, because some aren’t as good as others – but that’s really no different to some books being less well-written or illustrated than others.

The full paper (which is only five pages) makes excellent reading over a cup of tea. What are your thoughts?

Comments (8)

  1. You’ve done an excellent job of pointing out the issues with the article and the study. I too question the value of such a small sample.

    My experience with reading apps to classrooms of children is that it draws in the reluctant reader (as the study reports) and engages them on a different level. What has been found to be true is that children who are read to (after all, they don’t read to themselves to start with) early on often become voracious readers. That was true for me in raising my son.

    Enhanced ebooks are another tool in the learning arsenal to help children become readers.

    Chris Pedersen Friday June 8, 2012 #

  2. Thanks for your comments, Chris – I agree entirely!

    I don’t have a problem at all with the small sample size of the study – the authors acknowledge it themselves, after all, and I think this report has some really valuable insights. My only objection is to the press not mentioning this in their coverage!

    Tom Friday June 8, 2012 #

  3. I think E-books are wonderful, especially enhanced E-books with moving pictures, sounds and activities. For children who struggle to learn through the written word, they offer alternative ways for them to engage. Why make children pursue something that’s difficult and more likely to turn them off reading for life?

    If the technology is there, let’s use it and encourage as many children as possible to enjoy storytelling and books generally. We’re sewing the seeds of interest. The more the merrier I say.

    Catherine Brew Friday June 8, 2012 #

  4. I agree with nearly all of the comments.

    My children girl 7 and boy 4 read both. Or should I say they ‘use’ both. The picture book at night I read to then, whereas with the apps they like to read to me function that gives them that individual experience of just listening and playing themselves. Both are valuable. Both my children’s literacy levels are great so the school tells me.

    What I enjoyed was the excitement on my sons voice when he found Cinderellas dress changed colour. “omg” he said “ it’s now blue’” and ran off to tell his sister. That’s just a little bit of extra magic he didn’t have with a ‘normal’ book.

    Sarah Warburton Friday June 8, 2012 #

  5. Dear Tom,
    Thanks for a great blog pointing out the issues. It does seem ridiculous that we seem to be getting into a situation where the medium is judged before the content. Stories like Cinderella engage children because they are good stories. I’ve seen reluctant readers really enjoying playing with and reading an app and an e-book when maybe they wouldn’t pick up a book likewise children quickly tire of both print and digital books if the story is not engaging. The most important thing is to commission fabulous authors and illustrators to create great stories. Let’s use any medium we can to encourage children to read for pleasure and not worry that is on one of those new electronic devices. Wasn’t television going to be the end of cinema…
    Time to do a study about what does reading look like

    Sally Goldsworthy Friday June 8, 2012 #

  6. Thank you for this Chris. Parents reading to their children, or teachers, have to make the stories animated. The children tend to love these stories and want more and more. We are living in a 3D world. Let’s embrace this people!

    mollysvote Saturday June 9, 2012 #

  7. Hi Tom:

    As the executive director of the Cooney Center I must tell you just how appreciative my colleagues and I are of your clear and thoughtful post. We are disappointed with some of the coverage of our quick study, but understand that headline writers and others with a biased POV will interpret research that is clearly exploratory with many preconceived notions.

    What we intended to do here is to get a more focused conversation going on how the fast moving transition from print to digital is influencing family literacy experiences and we intend to dig deeper and with more care based on your and many readers’ observations in the months ahead. We highly value the excellent work Nosy Crow is doing and appreciate your careful analysis of our studies.

    Michael levine Saturday June 9, 2012 #

  8. I agree wholeheartedly with your response to the media coverage. It is not an either/or choice, and (admittedly an equally small sample!) in my circle of friends I haven’t come across anyone who uses apps/ebooks instead of print. It is always alongside, and fulfilling different functions, as mentioned by Sarah in the comment above. Great post.

    Helen Wednesday June 13, 2012 #

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