Reading in Our Changing World

Mari Passananti posed the most interesting question in her blog post, “If You Read But Your Child Doesn’t Realize It, Does It Count?” She writes,

Many of you will remember a widely reported twenty-year study that concluded that the mere presence of books in the home is as important as parental education level in determining children’s educational level. Everyone knows reading to your kids is good for their brains. And since children learn by example, it follows that seeing adults reading is beneficial.

But the study about the mere presence of books was a ground breaking testament to the power of suggestion. If a child sees things, in this case books, treasured and valued, the reasoning goes that s/he will grow up to share those priorities. Which in turn will hopefully set off a desirable chain reaction: I.e. value books, love reading, love learning.

So here’s the gazillion dollar question:

Do ebooks count?

What do you think?

I love this question and the dialogue that it can prompt. The Pew Research Center reports that parents prefer physical books for their children, even while they value e-readers for themselves.

Parents of minor children do not necessarily read more than adults who do not currently have minor children (“other adults”), but they are heavier consumers of audio books and e-books. Sixteen percent of parents have read more than 20 books in the past year and an additional 13% have read 11-20 books while two in ten parents (22%) report no reading in the past 12 months. [more]

In-person focus groups by Pew revealed what I would have speculated:

  1. Parents want to recreate for children the shared reading experiences that they themselves had as children.
  2. Parents want children to know that they’re reading, so choosing a physical book seems a better choice than a device that could be used for other activities like games, Facebook, etc.
  3. Parents value the sensory experience offered by physical books as opposed to e-books.

As a teacher and reader, these are the same things that I argue in defense of physical books. Although a study conducted in Germany found there is no difference for your brain between reading a print page and reading a screen, readers often insist that the experience is different. (Please note that the study in question involved adults, not children.) That’s because the act of reading a book is more than your “reading behaviors” and eye-tracking. The act of reading a book may be the experience of turning pages, smelling paper and glue (and maybe some mildew or smoke or other traces of the book’s journey through the world), marking it up, and sharing it with others — it is undeniable that there is a difference between passing a book to a friend over coffee, with your dogeared pages and broken spine, than sending a link via email. I fully, deeply acknowledge the sensory pleasures of books and reading, even while I do the majority of my reading via e-reader these days. My house is still packed with books, stacked on tables and floors and overflowing their shelves. If I love a book, I want to see a physical embodiment of it in front of me. I just do.

But we’re not talking about me or us as adult readers. We’re talking about the experiences of children and what children need to be successful readers. An opinion piece by Amira Hood entitled Physical Books Provide Tangible Benefits mentioned a study reported on by The Guardian.

This is an age where, according to a study reported by the Guardian UK, children are being deprived of the joys of reading a physical book. The study determined that when children used e-books, it “prompted more non-content related actions (eg behaviour or device-focused talk, pushing hands away)… Children reading enhanced e-books also recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story.”

Even though the campaign to get kids to read is nothing new, new attention is being drawn to the subject due to the many lifelong dangers presented by e-books for both children and parents. “Some of the extra features of enhanced ebooks may distract adults and children alike from the story, affecting the nature of conversation and the amount of detail children recall.” In the article, researchers say that the priority of “literacy-building experiences over ones intended ‘just for fun’” will give children a better foundation.

The study in question looked at so-called enhanced e-books, which offer bells and whistles not found in physical books, which frequently distract from the reading experience. The thing I found most interesting from the study was the report on non-content-related actions. “The enhanced ebook was less effective than the print and basic ebook in supporting the benefits of co-reading because it prompted more non-content related interactions. When adults prompt children with questions pertaining to the text, label objects, and encourage them to discuss the book contents in terms of their own experiences and curiosities, this elicits increased verbalisation by the child and can lead to improved vocabulary and overall language development.” I think this is really the most important aspect of the study because it gets to the heart of this discussion as it highlights the parental behavior. Are you teaching your child to use an e-reader or tablet or are you sharing a story? There have been studies in the past that reveal the same sort of behavior-correcting actions with physical booksharing. We know, in child development, that the best booksharing with young children allows for them to skip pages, to “read” back-to-front, to stop “reading” the story altogether to talk about the picture of the dog or to ask questions like, “What do you think is going to happen next?” When we bookshare, we don’t just open to the first page and read each word on each page from front to back until The End. It’s a shared experience, a conversation, a dance. When parental corrections intrude on the experience, they intrude on literacy and relationships with books.

When we read with babies, they learn how to turn pages (fine motor!), to track with their eyes, to make meaning of symbols, to understand conversation. They also hear our hearts beating, feel our arms around them, feel the rhythm of the language from our throats and chests, hear emotion, and — often, I hope — taste, smell, and feel the book itself as a physical object. Many of these aspects of booksharing can be effectively created with “basic e-books,” that present the words and pictures without the bells and whistles. A large portion of the sensory experience, in terms of holding a physical book, will be lost, but will a child miss them? A child will choose the sensory experience of a parent’s arms over the sensory experience of a book just about any day.

The question becomes: Do we want our children to live in a world without physical books? Will this happen? It could, but I think it will be a long time coming, due to our own nostalgia. Parents who were raised on physical books can’t resist passing that tradition down to their children. Last night, my husband leafed through one of his childhood books before bed, having unearthed it from a closet in his parents’ house while they packed to move. He was transfixed, a wistful smile on his face. Books, like so many sensory experiences, can be portals to another time. We live in a nostalgic society. For example, Polaroid cameras are very in (again). I have a weakness for old typewriters. My generation obsessed over 60s and 70s fashion and now I see young kids in 80s-style clothing. In this kind of world, books will never fade away.

readers

So what are parents to do? READ WITH YOUR CHILDREN. Read books, real books! Go to libraries. Read e-books. Explore enhanced e-books and resist the urge to correct what your child may be doing “wrong” in the process. Listen to audio books. Read store and street signs, magazines, newspapers, online articles, letters, junk mail, cereal boxes. Read, read, read. Model reading: read cookbooks, read warning labels, read driving directions, read books and read e-books. Write, and model writing. Make lists, leave notes, draw maps, send letters, and write down stories. Type. Let your children type. Most surveys seem to indicate that in the era of e-books, people are reading more. Let’s go for it, full-force. Don’t let the bells and whistles of brain-draining technology distract you. Your child’s brain will develop at a rapid pace, so make sure that yours continues to work at it as well.

Literacy and a love of learning don’t develop in a bubble, with an iPad. They’re developed through curiosity and enthusiasm and relationships. Follow your child’s passions and consciously bring books and reading into the equation. That’s your job, in fostering a future reader. And if you’re really dedicated to the task, demonstrate how books — physical books — can be used for research purposes, not just Google. But that’s another post for another day. Stay tuned!

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2 thoughts on “Reading in Our Changing World

  1. […] a follow-up to my post about reading physical books, here are a few of my favorite sensory books for all […]

  2. […] the time. This is encouraging, not only for me personally as a reader, but for society in general. Children need to see us reading (books! magazines! newspapers! cereal boxes!) and they need to think about us reading and them reading and what it means to be a reader. Children […]

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