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Storybook Reading in the Digital Age

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist

As digital versions of books become more and more prevalent, we need to know the effect these might have on reading behaviors, but as yet there is only limited research in this area.
A recent paper in the journal Mind, Brain and Education begins to remedy this with an examination of the effect of Electronic Console (EC) books on parent-child interactions when reading storybooks.
EC books have been around for about a decade. They maintain the format of paper books, where pages can be turned, but include features such as the option for children to hear the story read aloud, hear sound effects related to the story, or play games that are sometimes designed to teach aspects of pre-literacy.
One survey found that 91 percent of parents believe that such educational toys have the power to “advance their child’s learning—helping to accelerate them to the top of the class” (Beattie Communications, 2007). Some of these devices have also found their way into classrooms.
The researchers in this study were interested to find out how these books compared to traditional books, when used in the context of storybook reading between a parent and child. In particular, the researchers noted that dialogic reading was a process found to be very beneficial in a report issued by the National Early Literacy Panel in the United States (Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2010).
Dialogic reading is a process where adults (1) use prompts or questions to actively involve a child in the telling of a story; (2) offer expansions and commentary on the story, recasting things when the child has not understood; and (3) progressively raise the expectations for story comprehension and reading skill.
One specific kind of prompt used in dialogic reading is known as a distancing prompt, and involves the adult in encouraging the child to relate the events of the story to their own experiences.
Studies have shown that the practice of dialogic reading can lead to an improvement in vocabulary, an increase in expressive language skills and an increase in the use of longer, more complex sentences. What interested the researchers in this particular study was the potential impact that books with electronic features might have on the process of dialogic reading, and whether any differences that existed might affect children’s comprehension of the stories.
Subjects in the study consisted of 92 parent-child dyads. The children were either three years old or five years old.
What were the results?
• Parents reading traditional books made more story-related utterances and used more distancing prompts than parents reading EC books.
• Parents reading EC books made more behavior-related utterances than parents reading traditional books.
• When the electronic features of the EC books were turned off, there was no difference between traditional books and EC books.
• Three-year-olds in both conditions were able to identify superficial elements of the story such as characters and individual events equally well.
• Three-year-olds using traditional books showed a much deeper understanding of higher level aspects of the story, including the chronological order of events.
• This difference did not hold for the five-year-olds. The researchers believe this may have been either because the comprehension questions were too easy for children in this age group, or because of their additional two years of experience with reading traditional story books.
• Overall it seems that “the types of interactions associated with better reading outcomes are more prevalent when parents and children read traditional books together than when they read EC books” ( p. 207).
So what?
The researchers offer a couple of possible explanations for the link between story comprehension and the story-related talk and distancing prompt used more frequently with the traditional books.
They claim that young children may need “hooks” on which to hang their comprehension of stories and that distancing prompts, which encourage a child to connect the story to their own experience, may allow young children to engage in the kind of inferencing that promotes comprehension.
It is possible that the five-year-olds may be slightly less dependent on such prompts. An alternative explanation may simply be that the electronic features became a distraction, which interrupted the flow of the story and thus impacted negatively on comprehension. This idea is corroborated by other studies, which suggest that interruptions and mid-sentence pausing can have a detrimental effect on comprehension.
Given the importance of home literacy practices we might be well advised to share research of this kind with our parent communities.
Parish-Morris, J., Mahajan, N., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Michnick Golinkoff, R. & Fuller Collins, M. (2013) “Once Upon a Time: Parent-Child Dialogue and Storybook Reading in the Electronic Era” in Mind, Brain and Education, 7 (3), pp. 200-211.
Other references
Beattie Communications (2007). Retrieved November 5, 2013, from
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2010) Developing early literacy: Report of the national early literacy panel. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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