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A meta-analysis of 39 studies of children’s picture books finds that children score better on comprehension tests after reading a paper book than after reading a digital book. Photo: Sarah Garland/The Hechinger Report

Digital picture books have been a godsend during the pandemic. With libraries shuttered and bookstores a nonessential trip, many parents have downloaded book after book on tablets and smartphones to keep their little ones reading. The technology allowed my daughter to read the Berenstain Bears, a classic picture book series, to a younger cousin over Zoom when a family trip was canceled. Despite my wistful sentiments for paper and colored ink, I marveled at the bond that could be sustained over screens and pixels. 

But when the pandemic is over, many parents will face a dilemma. Should they revert back to print or stick with e-books? Do kids absorb and learn to read more from one format versus the other?

A new analysis of all the research on digital picture books, published in March 2021, helps to answer this question. The answer isn’t clear cut: paper generally has an edge over digital but there are exceptions. Digital books can be a better option with nonfiction texts and for building vocabulary. Some digital storybooks were better; researchers found that certain types of story-related extras seemed to boost a child’s comprehension but they were rare. 

In large part, the research on digital picture books for children echoes what we’ve seen in studies of e-books for adults. Reading comprehension is superior on paper but the benefit of paper appears to be stronger for adults and smaller for children. Scholars think the reasons behind the brain’s preference for paper may be different for the two groups. In the case of adults, it may be a lack of effort that we’re putting into reading on screens. In the case of children, it may be that many of the bells and whistles that are commonly added to digital picture books — buttons to click on, pop ups, games and sounds — are distracting.

Digital picture books have been around since the 1980s but there’s surprisingly little research that directly compares how much young children absorb in digital and in print and measures learning in a reliable way. A team of European researchers scoured the research literature and talked to experts around the globe and found only 39 studies that measured reading comprehension, vocabulary development or both. Many of the studies took place in the United States but this reading research has also been conducted in the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Argentina, Thailand, Jordan and Israel. 

Children up to age eight were included in the studies. Some were old enough to read independently but listened to an audio narration of a digital book with headphones. In a study of the youngest children, under two years old, parents held their children in their laps for both formats. In the digital version, a recorded voice read a book about animals aloud as a parent tapped the screen to turn the digital pages. In the print format, the child heard her own parent’s voice reading the names of the animals that were pictured on the pages, such as a horse or a koala.

By chance, this toddler study showed stronger learning outcomes for the digital picture book. Gabrielle Strouse, an educational psychologist at the University of South Dakota who ran this experiment, told me many of the children in her study had never seen a digital book and the novelty of it may have been mesmerizing, causing the children to pay more attention. 

In most of the other studies, children were able to navigate the digital books themselves. Sometimes the digital texts were static just like the printed page. Other times, the text moved or changed to a bold font as the child heard the words.

Children were attracted to the many types of interactive buttons, pop ups and games that are embedded in digital books. A tap in the right place might play a noise. Children could seek treasures hidden on the screen. A retelling of Little Red Riding Hood might ask the child to color the character in with a virtual paintbrush or drag the character to perform an action. “It’s fun and enjoyable but it has nothing to do with the story,” said Natalia Kucirkova, a professor of early childhood development at the University of Stavanger in Norway.

Kucirkova, one of the authors of the March 2021 picture book meta-analysis, explained that her team wanted to learn which digital enhancements were working and which weren’t. They categorized all the add-ons as either story related or not story related. They found that the more unrelated bells and whistles, the worse a child’s comprehension was after reading the digital version of the story, compared to the print version.

Kucirkova believes that many digital books are overstimulating children and the unrelated add-ons are overtaxing a child’s “cognitive load.” 

“With digital books, children get a lot of stimulation from the different senses,” Kucirkova explained, as they take in letters and pictures with their eyes, sounds with their ears and tap the screen with their fingers. “The amount of information that an individual needs to process is bigger if you have a lot of stimulation. The feedback they get from the digital device overwhelms children.”

By contrast, the researchers found that story-related enhancements reinforced the narrative and improved comprehension. Repetition of new vocabulary words that were central to the story helped. One book prompted children to use the story characters in the digital book to build their own story. “Those creativity games are very conducive to story recall,” said Kucirkova.

Another digital book asked the child to share the story with someone else. Other effective digital prompts were directed at a parent, telling her or him what to point out or ask while reading a digital book with a child. In a book about a little frog, a parent could point and ask a question, “Could the frog be here?” simultaneously connecting with the child and the story line. In other words, actively reading a digital version of a picture book with your child is good for comprehension. 

“Even small digital enhancements actually make a lot of difference both ways, they can work well, or they can distract the child,” said Kucirkova. 

Built-in dictionaries, a common feature, worked both ways. The pop up definitions could distract children from the narrative, harming comprehension, but were effective in teaching new vocabulary words, which is desirable. For many early picture books that might not be a problem. For example, there was no narrative story at all in the book of animal names described above. 

Indeed, when the authors looked at the books in the 39 studies by genre, the digital version was generally better for nonfiction, where there often isn’t a narrative story line to follow. Fiction, by contrast, was generally better on paper.  

I talked with Virginia Clinton-Lisell, a reading specialist at the University of North Dakota who has studied digital books. She pointed out that the slight harm to reading comprehension may be worth it if the digital books are so engaging that your child reads more books. None of these 39 studies looked at whether children read more when they had access to digital books. 

“A parent shouldn’t be overly concerned about a small difference in comprehension for a particular book,” said Clinton-Lisell. “Bottom line, if it’s a digital book that gets your kid to read, that’s great.”

The most important audience for this study said Clinton-Lisell, is digital book writers and publishers. “We need to dig more into how to make the most out of digital books, how can we make them most effective,” she said.

For Kucirkova, improving digital books is a matter of “social justice”. “Unfortunately, many digital books are of really low quality,” she said. “We mustn’t forget that there are many families where reading is not an activity that adults enjoy and they might not enjoy it with their children. So in those families, having a book that reads to the child is a huge asset. At the very least, we need to equalize the quality of the two formats.”

“I’m not saying that the digital book can ever replace the loving adult.  I’m just saying that it can be a good substitute if there is nothing else,” she added.

This story about children’s picture books was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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