What Types of E-Books Are Best for Young Readers?

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Could e-books actually get in the way of reading?

That was the question explored in research presented last week by Heather Ruetschlin Schugar, an associate professor at West Chester University, and her spouse Jordan T. Schugar, an instructor at the same institution. Speaking at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association in Philadelphia, the Schugars reported the results of a study in which they asked middle school students to read either traditional printed books, or e-books on iPads. The students’ reading comprehension, the researchers found, was higher when they read conventional books. In a second study looking at students’ use of e-books created with Apple’s iBooks Author software, the Schugars discovered that the young readers often skipped over the text altogether, engaging instead with the books’ interactive visual features.

While their findings are suggestive—especially for parents and teachers who have questioned the value of e-books—they are preliminary, and based on small samples of students. More substance can be found in the Schugars’ previous work: for example, a paper they published last year with colleague Carol A. Smith in the journal The Reading Teacher. In this study, the authors observed teachers and teachers-in-training as they used interactive e-books with children in kindergarten through sixth grade. (The e-books they examined are mobile apps, downloadable from online stores like iTunes.)

While young readers find these digital products very appealing, their multitude of features may diffuse children’s attention, interfering with their comprehension of the text, Smith and the Schugars found. It seems that the very “richness” of the multimedia environment that e-books provide—touted as their advantage over printed books—may actually overwhelm kids’ limited working memory, leading them to lose the thread of the narrative or to process the meaning of the story less deeply.

This is especially true of what the authors call some e-books’ “gimmicks and distractions.” In the book Sir Charlie Stinky Socks and the Really Big Adventure, for example, kids can touch “wiggly woos” to make the creatures emit noise and move around the screen. In another e-book, Rocket Learns to Read, a bird flutters and sounds play continuously in the background.


Such unnecessary flourishes can interrupt the fluency of children’s reading and cause their comprehension to fragment, the authors found. They can also lead children to spend less time reading overall: One study cited by Smith and the Schugars reported that children spent 43% of their e-book engagement time playing games embedded in the e-books, rather than reading the text.

By contrast, the authors observe, some e-books offer multimedia features that actually enhance comprehension. In Miss Spider’s Tea Party, for example, children hear the sound of Miss Spider drinking as they read the words “Miss Spider sipped her tea.” In another e-book, Wild About Books, sounds of laughter ring out as the reader encounters the line “Hyenas shared jokes with the red-bellied snakes.”

The quality of e-books for children varies wildly, the authors note: “Because the app market allows for the distribution of materials without the rigorous review process that is typical of traditional children’s book publishing, more caution is necessary for choosing high-quality texts.” They advise parents and teachers to look for e-books that enhance and extend interactions with the text, rather than those that offer only distractions; that promote interactions that are relatively brief rather than time-consuming; that provide supports for making text-based inferences or understanding difficult vocabulary; and that locate interactions on the same page as the text display, rather than on a separate screen. (E-books recommended by the authors are listed below.)

Once the e-books are selected, parents and teachers must also help children use the e-books effectively, write Smith and the Schugars. This can include familiarizing children with the basics of the device. Although adults may assume that their little “digital natives” will figure the gadgets out themselves, the researchers have found that children often do need adult guidance in operating e-readers. Parents and teachers should also assist children in transferring what they know about print reading to e-reading. Kids may not automatically apply reading skills they’ve learned on traditional books to e-books—and these skills, such as identifying the main idea and setting aside unimportant details, are especially crucial when reading e-books, because of the profusion of distractions they provide.

Lastly, adults should ensure that children are not over-using e-book features like the electronic dictionary or the “read to me” option. Young readers can often benefit from looking up the definition of a word with a click, but doing it too often will disrupt reading fluidity and therefore comprehension. Even without accessing the dictionary, children are able to glean the meaning of many words from context. Likewise, the read-to-me feature can be useful in decoding a difficult word, but when used too frequently it discourages kids from sounding out words on their own.

Research shows that children often read e-books “with minimal adult involvement,” Smith and the Schugars note. While we may assume that interactive e-books can entertain children all by themselves, it turns out that such products require more input from us than books on paper do.

Recommended E-Books

For beginning readers

Blue Hat, Green Hat, by Sandra Boynton

Go Clifford, Go!, by Norman Bridwell

Meet Biscuit, by Alyssa Capucilli

Nickelby Swift, Kitten Catastrophe, by Ben Hecht

Miss Spider’s Tea Party, by David Kirk

A Fine Musician, by Lucy Thomson

For fluent readers

Slice of Bread Goes to the Beach, by Glenn Melenhorst

Who Would Win? Killer Whale vs. Great White Shark, by Jerry Pallotta

Wild About Books, by Judy Sierra

The Artifacts, by Lynley Stace and Dan Hare