Research recently conducted by the National Literacy Trust in the UK examined the relationship between children’s literacy skills and the proportion of reading time on electronic displays, such as tablets, smartphones and ebook readers.
The main finding of this study was that young children and adolescents who read printed books (either exclusively or in addition to reading on screens) were 68% more likely to have above-average reading skills than those who read only on screens.
Unfortunately, a summary of this research was published in the Daily Mail in the UK under a completely misleading headline: “Children who read on iPads or Kindles have weaker literacy skills and are less likely to enjoy it as a pastime, charity warns”.
But is it really possible that reading on screens can impair children’s reading ability?
Various other statistics were reported in this study:
- 39% of children read on electronic displays daily;
- Only 28% of children read printed materials daily;
- 52% of children preferred to read on electronic displays;
- Only 32% preferred to read printed books;
- Nearly all children have access to a computer at home and 40% own a tablet or a smartphone;
- However, 30% of kids do not have a desk of their own;
- Girls are significantly more likely than boys to read printed books (68% vs 54%);
- Girls are also more likely than boys to read on a range of devices including mobile phones (67% vs. 60%), eReaders (84% vs. 69%), and tablets (70% vs. 67%);
- Only 12% of those who read only on electronic displays enjoyed reading very much, compared with 51% of those who read printed books;
- 59% of those who only read on electronic displays reported that they had a favourite book compared to 77% of those who read printed books;
- Children from lower socio-economic groups (as identified by receiving free school meals) are the least likely to pick up a printed book;
- 31% of children read newspapers in 2012 (compared to 47% in 2005).
There are a number of things to keep in mind when interpreting such research.
- First, a correlation between two things (in this case, lower reading skills and on-screen reading) does not necessarily mean that one thing causes the other. It is quite possible that either factor might cause the other or that a third factor not included in the study causes both. For example, children who are not great readers in the first place may be less likely to pick up a traditional book. And those who don’t read traditional books may be limiting their opportunities to further develop their reading skills.
- It’s reasonable to assume (as it is not specified) that the study did not just consider the reading of full length books and included any form of reading, including short articles and comics.
- It’s plausible that people may be less able to read for an extended period of time on a screen. For example, they may be out in public, making a short trip, their eyes may become tired more easily and so on.
- It would be interesting to find out the relationship between reading skills and the length of time spent reading, as well as the device used.
- The results regarding students from lower socioeconomic groups also need to be interpreted with caution. The decreased likelihood that these children will pick up a traditional book may be related to a variety of factors. For example, the cost of buying traditional books may prevent them from having access or lower literacy skills amongst their parents may mean there is less emphasis on reading traditional books together at home.
It is important not to jump the gun and insist that our children immediately cease all on-screen reading.
In fact, there are many advantages to encouraging children to use technology to read, such as:
- Digital books are (typically) cheaper and easier to access than printed books. This is a big factor in busy households where parents may not have time to pop down to the bookstore or local library every week to pick up another round of books for their kids.
- It is often more convenient to read on-screen than reading using traditional books. Kindles and e-book readers can be lighter and easier to manage than traditional books so they can be read in the car or on public transport;
- The novelty of reading on-screen may be the one thing that motivates your child to read at all. And surely some reading is better than none at all.
That said, there is something to be said for reading a good ol’ fashioned, feel-it-under-your-fingertips, well-loved book made with real paper.
Here are just some of the benefits of paper books:
- Books tend to have more sentimental value than reading things on a computer. Books can be passed down from generation to generation and there’s nothing nicer than having a nice bookshelf full of classics.
- It’s easier to read printed books together, to sit in bed snuggled up, to look at the pictures and learn together.
- Some children who have eye-tracking or visual issues can find it easier to keep their place when reading a traditional book. It may be easier to use their finger to trace the words or to use pictures to help them build visual skills. Reading on screens sometimes involves having to scroll up and down the page, which can interrupt fluency and comprehension;
- You are more likely to be able to read for extended periods of time with a traditional book, without tiring your eyes out with the glare from the computer.
As is often the case, balance is the key here. Nothing beats the smell and feel of a printed book, especially when you can read it together with a loved one.
But times are a-changin’ and children generally consolidate their learning more effectively when they are receiving information via a wide variety of formats.
Ebook readers, tablets, smartphones and computers can make reading more interactive and fun at times but we should never rely on technology to replace tailored and personal teaching provided by parents, siblings and teachers.