Are print books better than ebooks when reading with toddlers – or are they just the same?

Young black girl reading book sitting on mumÕs knee outdoors

Does story time with an ebook change how parents and toddlers interact?

Deciding what book to read isn’t the only choice families now make at story time — moms, dads and kids must also choose between the print or electronic version.

A book on paper and a book on a tablet: aren’t they pretty much the same thing?

It turns out the answer is no. In fact, a new study suggests that traditional print books may have a decided edge over ebooks when it comes to reading with toddlers, and creating the kind of quality time that is so vital between parents and their children.

The research, led by University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and involving 37 parent-toddler pairs, found that parents and children verbalized and interacted less with ebooks than with print books.

“Shared reading promotes children’s language development, literacy and bonding with parents. We wanted to learn how electronics might change this experience,” says lead author Tiffany Munzer, MD, a fellow in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Mott.

“We found that when parents and children read print books, they talked more frequently and the quality of their interactions were better.”

Reading with toddlers: Story formats are not all the same

The parent-toddler pairs in the study used three book formats: print books, basic electronic books on a tablet, and enhanced ebooks featuring additions like sound effects and animation.

With ebooks, not only did the pairs interact less, but parents tended to talk less about the story, and more about the technology itself. Sometimes this included instructions about the device, such as telling children not to push buttons or change the volume.

Mother and little boy reading an ebook on the bed

Even the little interactions can have big impact

The researchers found that physical books for kids — such as board books, ones where the pages pop-up or the child can physically lift the flap, “touch and feel,” as well as those traditional readers made of paper — build a higher quality parent-toddler reading experience compared with ebooks.

Munzer notes that many of the interactions shared between parents and young children while reading may appear subtle, but actually go a long way in promoting healthy child development.

For example, parents may point to a picture of an animal in the middle of a story and ask their child, “What does a duck say?”

Or, parents may relate part of a story to something the child has experienced with comments like “Remember when we went to the beach?”

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Reading time with toddlers and preschoolers also lends itself to open-ended questions, such as asking children what they thought of the book or characters.

Boost engagement, boost literacy

Munzer says these practices, involving comments and questions that go beyond content, are believed to promote child expressive language, engagement, and literacy.

“Parents strengthen their children’s ability to acquire knowledge by relating new content to their children’s lived experiences,” Munzer says. “Research tells us that parent-led conversations is especially important for toddlers because they learn and retain new information better from in-person interactions than from digital media.”

However, such practices occurred less frequently with electronic books, with parents asking fewer simple questions and commenting less about the storyline compared with print books.

The study, which appeared in the journal Pediatrics, suggests that electronic book enhancements were likely interfering with parents’ ability to engage in parent-guided conversation during reading.

Munzer adds that nonverbal interactions, including warmth, closeness and enthusiasm during reading time also create positive associations with reading that will likely stick with children as they get older.

At least forget the tech bells & whistles

Authors recommend that future studies examine specific aspects of tablet-book design that support parent-child interaction.

Parents who do choose to read electronic books with toddlers should also consider engaging as they would with the print version, and minimize focus on elements of the technology itself.

“Reading together is not only a cherished family ritual in many homes, but one of the most important developmental activities parents can engage in with their children,” says senior author Jenny Radesky, MD, developmental behavioral pediatrician at Mott.

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“Our findings suggest that print books elicit a higher quality parent-toddler reading experience compared with ebooks.

Says Radesky, “Pediatricians may wish to continue encouraging parents to read print books with their kids, especially for toddlers and young children who still need support from their parents to learn from any form of media.”

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