Print Books vs. E-Books: facts and fictions


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?


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