In Print or Onscreen? Making The Most of Reading With Young Children

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Reprinted from How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen, and Audio by Naomi S. Baron. Copyright © Oxford University Press 2021. All rights reserved.

By Naomi S. Baron

Do you believe that young kids (say, from birth to age five or six) should be firmly rooted in the world of print? Or are you worried you're depriving children of a valuable opportunity if you deny them access to digital reading?

Parents are torn. Studies from multiple English-speaking countries show the majority of parents continue to prefer print for their toddlers and preschoolers. Yet by nixing digital offerings, mothers and fathers worry their kids will be left behind—in enjoyment, learning, or preparation for primary school, where children might be handed a tablet their first day.

As I thought about the dilemma and read conflicting research, I began asking myself, was the debate missing the point? Just as many adults choose print for some purposes and digital for others, were there solid arguments for when digital is appropriate for young children  and when to stick with print? Sensing the answer was “yes” I began thinking about... food.

Food? Indeed. We've likely all seen the traditional food pyramid (now reconfigured as MyPlate). While the proportions of what goes where change over time, the pyramid (or plate) concept reminds us that a balanced diet has multiple components. Lots of fruits, vegetables, and grains? You bet. But you also need some oil and salt. Meat, poultry, and fish? Optional, but if you're vegetarian, figure out how to compensate elsewhere in your diet.

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Back to children—and books. We start with infants (birth to roughly two years of age). Experts agree that when it comes to book-reading, physical books are an obvious choice. However, particularly over the last few years, even print-loving pediatricians are identifying sound reasons for letting kids younger than two have some access to
touchscreens. As early childhood specialists Natalia Kucirkova and Barry Zuckerman argue, touchscreens potentially foster vocabulary development, contribute to fine motor control and hand/eye coordination, and facilitate communication when, say,
Skyping grandparents or sharing family photos onscreen.

What about the next phases of early childhood—and materials that count as books (print or digital)? For a meaningful answer, we need to start with the purpose of reading: What are parents looking to accomplish when they sit with their child and a book, or when children are ensconced with books on their own? We can think about reading with toddlers and preschoolers through three perspectives:

  • The social side
  • The linguistic and cognitive side
  • The engagement side

Keep in mind, though, that while it may be convenient for research purposes to distinguish these three approaches, in actual practice they are interwoven.

Three Sides of Reading With Young Children

The Social Side

Years ago, the psychologist Jerome Bruner argued that children begin learning to talk not as a standalone enterprise but as a linguistic overlay atop social interaction with caregivers. Similarly, much of the reading we do with young children is as much about being together and sharing experiences as about the books themselves. In fact, joint reading is one of the tools recommended by pediatricians to foster bonding between parent and child.

Among academics, the term “dialogic talk” describes conversation with infants and toddlers that takes place around reading. (With infants, understandably, the adult generally needs to uphold both sides of the conversation.) Yes, you read the book, but you ask questions and connect what the book is about to experiences in
the child's own world: “Look at that elephant! Remember the elephant we saw at the zoo yesterday?” Such conversational give and take spontaneously takes place in many households, but other times the practice benefits from being structured and modeled
for parents.

Decades ago, most of the research I did was on child language acquisition. At the time, linguists were starting to recognize that not all children learn language the same way, Among the reasons is cultural context. For instance, middle-class infants in the United States tend to start using words earlier than kids living in societies where parents aren't constantly pointing out names for things, as in, “Peter, there's a fish. It's a fish. Can you say ‘fish’?” Take the Tsimané, an Amazonian tribe in Bolivia, where mothers average less than one minute a day directly talking with babies—about one-tenth the amount in the U.S. But regardless of the cultural parenting patterns, all these children learn to talk.

The same cultural issue extends to dialogic talk around books with young children. In many literate societies in which children grow up to be accomplished readers, interactive reading with infants and toddlers isn't part of the social landscape. My husband, who's from a highly literary family in India and learned to read by himself
around age four, reminds me of this difference.

Debate over print versus digital books for young children often revolves around the assumption that print encourages dialogic talk more than digital does. (More on that in a moment.) But is this difference inevitable? Recent initiatives, in both Norway
and the United States, suggest productive ways of building dialogue into the ways we read digital books with young children.

What's also often missing from the discussion is that the role of books with young children extends beyond child-caregiver bonding. We need to think more broadly about goals, including which platform best supports them.

The Linguistic and Cognitive Side

Before children are able to read on their own, there is much they absorb in the presence of books. Those books could be read by an adult or, in the case of digital books, through voice activation. In either case, young children might come to pair picture, written word, and spoken word with an object (such as that elephant). They also might learn about cause and effect through following a storyline.

We know that children’s linguistic development is bolstered by the richness of language used around them. Particularly in social contexts where young children aren't hearing a lot of vocabulary and more complex syntax, it's useful to harness additional tools to enhance kids’ learning opportunities. Sesame Street is a resoundingly successful example of good modeling for children and adults alike. (While watching with my toddler son, I learned the word “puce” from an episode in the 1980s, where Maria went shopping for shoes.)

With the coming of digital books and apps, it's hardly surprising that educators and parents want to know how these materials measure up against print when it comes to language-based learning. As we'll see, many researchers are investigating this issue.

The Engagement Side

You've seen those parents—or been one. You're at a restaurant, and that two-year-old at the next table wont stop crying. In desperation, Dad fetches his iPhone, pulls up a cartoon video, plants the phone in front of the miserable toddler, and voilà! Peace is restored.

There's no question that digital technologies can be engaging. In debates between those for and against handing digital books to young children, the “con” side points to research showing children tend to focus on the device more than on the storyline or the parents trying to read with their child. All true. Does that mean such engagement is wholly negative? And how does it relate to broader senses of engagement, including cognitive or physical interaction?

As Natalia Kucirkova and ‘Teresa Cremin eloquently argue in their book "Children Reading for Pleasure in the Digital Age," the act of reading (or being read to) is most beneficial when it includes activity on the child’s part. Importantly, this activity involves constructing meaning from what's being read, but it might also entail patting fuzzy surfaces or opening windows in a print book, or perhaps selecting music or exploring an image in a digital work.

Researchers have begun unpacking the varied functions print or digital books might serve for young children, particularly in the eyes of parents. Roxanne Etta surveyed more than 2,000 parents of preschoolers, asking when print or digital was more appropriate. While print was typically judged best for social experience with a child, eBooks were commonly used for entertainment or, in Etta’s term, babysitting. As the quality of eBooks continues to improve, and as parents learn ways of incorporating dialogic talk with children while using digital materials, we'll see whether these patterns shift.

Naomi S. Baron

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Naomi S. Baron is Professor of Linguistics Emerita at American University in Washington, DC. A Guggenheim Fellow, Fulbright Fellow, and Fulbright Specialist, she has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Baron is author of How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen, and Audio, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World and Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World.