Should Your Child Be Using an E-reader?
By Linda Johns
Last month I asked a book group of 7- and 8-year-old girls if they would help add titles to my “must read” list. Their enthusiastic recommendations came quickly and I hastily jotted down titles, not wanting to miss a single one. Somewhere between Goddess Girls and Cinderella Smith I heard something I hadn’t expected: One girl mentioned a digital reader.
“I read that one on my e-reader,” she said. Another girl chimed in with a book she’d read on her mom’s tablet when they were on vacation, which reminded her of another book she didn’t want me to miss, which reminded another girl of yet another book. The conversation continued, with young readers talking about books without getting hung up on the format of the book.
This group of girls gave me a valuable look at how our children view reading: They care more about the story and the experience than the format. Each of these girls had been to a public library in the past week and they were all regular customers at the independent bookstore where they meet each month. Books bought from bookstores, books checked out of the library and books downloaded to a device are all a part of their regular mix. If this is the future of reading, I’ll take it.
You’ve undoubtedly seen or read stories about toddlers and preschoolers using apps on their parents’ tablets, but there’s been very little information about elementary age students and e-readers. Studies about adults and digital books tend to look at consumer habits, but since readers are consuming books (always a good thing, right?) we can see some general trends about how people interact with downloadable books.
Adults who read e-books tend to read more books (an average of 24 per year, compared with 15 per year for print-only readers), according to results released in April 2012 from a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Anecdotally, adult readers say that they are more likely (or at least think they will be more likely) to pick up something to read if it’s conveniently loaded onto a device they can slip into a purse or work bag. Many of the adults I talk with at my library first take the digital plunge because of travel, particularly if there is a multi-week trip in their future. Carrying six or seven books may not be feasible, and the ease of taking many books on your e-reader lightens the load and also assures that there’s a backup book if you don’t like the one you have.
Vacations often provide children’s first initiation into e-readers, too. Jenny Blackburn and her husband gave their son a tablet for his ninth birthday, which was shortly before a family vacation. “I loaded it with books before we left, so his first experience with reading it was on the airplane,” Blackburn says. “I could tell that he felt very grown-up. He read for hours and seemed to like it.”
Darcy Brixey downloaded a variety of free books to her own e-reader to see what might grab the interest of her 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter during a long flight. “The kids would sit together and read on the plane,” says Brixey, a librarian and chair of Children’s and Young Adult Services at the Washington Library Association. (Books from the All About Pets series were winners on that flight.) “Now if my son sees me reading on my e-reader, he wants it,” she says.
The novelty of a new device can be intriguing to young readers, and a survey of 1,000 students by Bowker Market Research found that younger siblings are taking to e-readers even more than their big brothers and sisters. Readers under 12 were more likely to think of e-books as “fun and cool,” while older teenagers leaned toward print preferences. The number of hours a teen spends each day with a laptop and phone could easily lessen the novelty of another digital device. In fact, the print book may seem like a prized diversion for teens.
For many of us, we’re constantly looking for ways to encourage our children to read for pleasure. Turns out nearly half the parents in one recent study think that e-readers and tablets might be the golden ticket, especially for reluctant or struggling readers. Close to 50 percent of parents said they think electronic devices will encourage their children to read, according to a study by the Reading Agency, a literacy organization in the U.K.
“My daughter definitely likes the fact that it’s a gadget,” said a Seattle mother who was comparison-shopping devices for her 11-year-old. “She’s easily distracted, so I want to get one that is just about books and reading. It’s way too easy to click on something else and soon be playing games or going online.”
Reading apps on tablets have big appeal — and possibilities — for toddlers and preschoolers as well.
Being able to change the size of the font is a feature that was first touted mostly for older people (especially if their reading glasses have a habit of being easily misplaced). That same feature has a lot of advantages for beginning readers, newly independent readers and reluctant readers. Also, the size can easily be adjusted, so an older child who benefits from reading larger type can quickly scale it down if he feels self-conscious when others are around.
One of the biggest advantages Blackburn has seen for her son is that he can use the adjustable font size for finding the spot where he left off. “He frequently loses his place in chapter books, and this causes him to get frustrated and stop reading. With the tablet, we adjust the font to be larger so that there are less words on the page. This helps a lot.”
Other built-in features help readers interact with the text. “Some books have a read-aloud function, and when there’s that option my kids love to click on it,” says Brixey. Sometimes there are also recording features, which can be a fun way for a child to practice reading aloud. A family member can record the story so that the child will hear a familiar voice reading.
One friend of mine likes the convenience of sharing e-readers, which enable more than one person to read a book at a time. Members of her family share an account for downloading the books that they buy. She and her 9-year-old daughter, who is a voracious reader, can read the same books at the same time — and then talk about them.
Free downloadable books from the library can also be shared among family members. What? You didn’t know that libraries have digital books? Many libraries offer digital books for all ages in a variety of formats that work with major brands of e-readers and tablets. See what your library has — you may be surprised at the options and the flexibility.
I keep thinking back to that book group of young readers I visited with last month. While some adults I know seem to think that reading formats represent an either/or scenario — either print or digital — those girls are growing up in a world where there are choices for print and digital.
Adults with e-readers and tablets continue to report that they’re reading more, a trend that we can hope trickles down to younger readers. After all, we should always be happy seeing children reading, no matter the format.
Linda Johns is a children’s author and a librarian at the Seattle Public Library.