A comprehensive meta-analysis of prior research has found, overall, that children ages 1 to 8 were less likely to understand picture books when they read the digital, versus print, version. However, when digital picture books contain the right enhancements that reinforce the story content, they outperform their print counterparts. The results were published today in Review of Educational Research, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.
Authors Natalia Kucirkova at the University of Stavanger in Norway and The Open University in the United Kingdom, and May Irene Furenes and Adriana G. Bus at the University of Stavanger, analyzed the results of 39 studies that included a total 1,812 children between the ages of 1 and 8. For their analysis, the authors compared children’s story comprehension and vocabulary learning when they read a book on paper versus on screen, and assessed the effects of story-related enhancements in digital books, the presence of a dictionary, and the role of adult support. The bulk of the studies were carried out between 2010 and 2019, and for the greater the part, in the last four years of that time span.
“The wide availability of digital reading options and the rich tradition of children’s print books beg the question of which reading format is better suited for young readers’ learning,” said Kucirkova, a professor of early childhood development at the University of Stavanger and The Open University. “We found that when the print and digital versions of a book are practically the same and differ only in the voice-over or highlighted print as additional features in the digital book, then print outperforms digital.”
The authors found that the digital device itself and sometimes digital enhancements that are not aligned with the story content—such as a dictionary—interfere with children’s story comprehension.
When digital enhancements are designed to increase children’s ability to make sense of the narrative—for instance, by prompting children’s background knowledge to understand the story or providing additional explanations of story events—digital books not only outweigh the negative effects of the digital device but also outperform print books on children’s story comprehension.
“Our overall findings may reflect the rather low quality of enhancements in the digital books available for young children,” said Kucirkova. “Many digitized versions of picture books are inferior to the print version, yet young children widely use them.”
This study was supported by a grant from the Research Council of Norway.
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