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Using E-Books to Get Young Readers Talking

New research shows how parents can help kids — and themselves — use e-books as a tool to improve early childhood development
E-Book Animation

“Screen time” is often a dreaded phrase for parents worried their children are using technology too often, but research shows that those screens can encourage development when used properly. In fact, one recent paper details that use of phone and tablet screens as e-book readers can replicate the traditional book learning experience.

“Some research shows that e-books can be distracting,” says Rosa Turco, Ed.M.’18, Ph.D.’22, who, with Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty members Meredith Rowe and Joe Blatt, recently co-authored the paper about the potential benefits of children using e-books. “But there are ways to actually use it for their benefit.”

The key, researchers theorize, is that parents’ knowledge of and experience with e-books could impact how well they encourage literacy development. Namely, as the study notes, “how parents’ attitudes around learning influenced their interactions” with their children while using the e-book reader.

In the study, which used data from the Reach Every Reader home and family engagement app validation study published in 2021, the researchers explored whether smartphone apps used to read e-books could promote literacy. While the study noted that existing research has identified potential pitfalls with e-books and e-readers — such as distracted users focusing on the technology and not the book itself — the results show that both parents and children can be taught to utilize e-books effectively and improve literacy skills.

The study focused on 65 families with 3-year-olds in mid- to lower-income households living within an hour of Boston. Researchers focused on how parents and children interacted with e-books and how parents’ own beliefs about and knowledge of the technology potentially impacted its effectiveness.

Parents were asked to read Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keats to their children for five minutes using an e-book app on a mobile device with little instruction. The researchers then studied certain techniques and behaviors both parents and children exhibited during that time.

Among the Findings

The study found that, on average, parents and children both “demonstrated high levels of engagement and collaboration” when using an e-book.

“Parents were engaging in behaviors that are typical of what you see in shared book reading,” says Turco, an encouraging sign that e-book reading can replicate the benefits of traditional books.

The study examined shared intentionality — the ability to participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions — between parents and children while reading. In other words, whether parents could start a conversation with their child about what they were reading in order to help develop language and communication skills. The study showed that parents could recreate the same kinds of shared intentionality with e-books to varying levels of effectiveness.

Talking, Talking, Talking

The goal of any reading time with children, Turco notes, is to develop literacy and communication skills by sparking a conversation.

Unlike past studies, this research did not find parents were sidetracked by talking about the technology. Rather, it was their understanding of education and literacy itself that impacted results. Some parents were more effective than others at creating conversations around the book itself. Parents fell into three general categories when it came to their overall engagement with reading the e-book and interacting with their child:

  • parents with more complex or dense speech quality but low levels of engagement with their child
  • parents with low levels of speech quality
  • parents with complex speech quality but low dialogic, or back-and-forth, talk with their child

The key when reading, Turco notes, is to use the book — digital or not — to get a conversation going.

“You want to get to the point where you are not just reading a book, you’re using that book to build this conversation with your child,” says Turco. “It’s not about the book, it’s about talking.”

Ways in which parents can help their child develop verbal skills with e-books:

  • Focus on book text, not the technology being used to read it.
  • Talk with, not at, a child: engage in a back-and-forth about the book itself.
  • Go beyond labeling, talk to your child about what’s happening in the book and why.
  • Ask children more questions and build from there. (Where is the truck? What does the truck do? Who uses a truck?)
  • Find new ways to ask questions about topics and subjects of the book.

When in Doubt, Try Something Else

Turco says building those conversations is more important than the tool used to spark them. If children truly struggle to engage with books in general, using other activities — playing or talking about music, going grocery shopping, or exploring what interests them more — can be a way to build similar connections and shared intentionality.

“When it comes to early ages it’s really about connection,” says Turco. “Finding something you can use to engage with your child.”

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