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In Defense of e-Books

Reading time: 3 Minutes

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This week, both the New York Times and Education Week published articles highlighting findings from a small-scale e-Reading study I conducted with colleagues. As the public starts to consider the findings for our research, I’d like to personally pose some food for thought:

e-Books are Not Better or Worse, Just Different
Instead of trying to compare e-Books and traditional books, I believe the real question we should be asking is whether interactive e-Books are changing HOW we read. In order to start asking “how” e-Reading was the same or different, we first needed to get a snapshot at what e-Reading meant for kids. But our findings that kids might struggle to comprehend didn’t particularly surprise or alarm me.

Why? Well, most kids have never been explicitly taught how to read an interactive e-Book. We teach them how to read traditional narrative and expository texts, poetry, and in some cases, online materials. But most of these resources don’t require or allow students to touch various parts of the book to initiate interactions; include sounds or video; or provide dictionary and read-to-me options. So, in my opinion, we, as educators, should hold ourselves responsible for kids’ potential poor comprehension of interactive e-Books – at least until we have attempted to teach kids how to effectively and efficiently interact with these e-Book features.

e-Reading is Hard to Measure
Comparing mobile e-Reading and traditional paper reading is like comparing apples to spaceships. Interactive e-Books and traditional paper books differ in form, purpose, and many attributes. As a result, it is hard to control for all of the factors that might influence a child’s ability to read from these texts. Reading researchers are actively seeking ways for making such comparisons. This particular research takes a preliminary look at these comparisons, holding features such as difficulty, content, and features standard, but – we were unable to control for factors like the relationship between the availability of touch technology and comprehension.

These Results are Not Generalizable
I stress that the results highlighted in both the NYT and Education Week articles can not be generalized to the general population. These results capture the experiences of the small group of middle grade students who participated in our research project. I do think their experiences can inform our directions for future research and may encourage us to pause and consider how we teach strategies for interactive e-Reading in our classrooms.

e-Books are Not the Problem
It is unclear at this time whether publishers intend for interactive e-Books to be used for reading instruction, or if these books are designed to be a motivating way to engage students in a reading-like activity. Intended or not, many interactive e-Books are finding their way into classrooms, so we now need to determine how to best use these materials in a manner that capitalizes on their potential benefits.

Sure, e-Book publishers and authors have the responsibility to ensure their e-Books are supporting and extending students’ comprehension in a way traditional texts can’t. They might take time to review their books to make sure that the gimmicks and distractions are complementing the text and not getting in the way of kids’ understandings. Publishers certainly have the motivational aspect of these texts down – interactive e-Books are engaging and allow for transactions to occur more explicitly between the reader and book. While good readers naturally transact with texts as they read, beginning readers often need extra modeling to understand that reading is not a passive activity.

If you are a teacher or parent, I encourage you to read e-Books often and widely with your kids. How will kids learn how to comprehend interactive e-Books if they are never exposed to them? Consider, however, that interactive e-Book reading may be best done with an adult nearby – to check for understanding as kids read and to model how to use familiar strategies (e.g., inferring, questioning, making connections) to clarify and extend their understanding in this new, exciting format. In my mind, everything in an e-Book can be “read” – “read and interpret” the interactions as you would read and interpret the words.

Find more suggestions for teaching kids to read interactive e-Books in this Reading Teacher article and find out what happened when we had undergraduate students do their academic reading on an eReader. Follow me on twitter at @diaperedknights to continue the conversation!

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