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October 27, 2014

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Are Ebooks Any Good?

Do digital books help young kids learn to read,or are they mostly fun and games?

slj1106w ebksAnyGood Are Ebooks Any Good?

Illustration by Ken Orvidas

When Julie Hume, a reading specialist in University City, MO, first saw the potential of a children’s ebook, it was larger than life. The book was projected on a smartboard at the front of a classroom, with huge, easily readable words, brilliant graphics, and an engaging recorded-voice narrator. A teacher trainer stood nearby, demonstrating to Hume and other reading specialists how to pause the narration to point to artwork on the page and ask students questions about what they were hearing.

“It gave me chills,” says Hume, who works with third, fourth, and fifth graders who are struggling to read fluently. It wasn’t just that she was overcome with that feeling of “wow, cool,” she says, but also that she could imagine how the ebook program—called Tumblebooks—might help students at her new school, Pershing Elementary.

Hume didn’t have $400 in her budget for an annual subscription to the program, nor was she entirely sure, despite her excitement, that it would make a positive difference to the more than two dozen students she would see in “pull-out” sessions each day. So she requested a grant from a local education foundation to fund an experiment. At the beginning of the school year, she divided the children randomly into two groups. One group got the “Tumblebook” treatment, spending time at a computer reading and listening to ebooks that were either at or just above their reading level. The other small group received the same reading interventions that she had used in the past, with Hume sitting at a table and assisting them as they read along in their paper books. Which group would show the most improvement?

Hume didn’t know it at the time, but she had just set out to answer a prime question descending on preschools and elementary schools this year: Are electronic picture books good for kids, and can they get them hooked on reading by expanding access to engaging titles? Or are digital books one more step down that slippery slope to less and less interaction with print just when children need it most?

The young ereader

Until recently, ebooks for young children haven’t been part of the hyped vernacular of “game-changing” technology. Instead, ebook conversations have focused on textbooks for older students or text-heavy, adult-oriented titles downloaded to ereaders like the Kindle, Nook, and Sony e-Reader.

The arrival of portable, full-color, touchscreen devices is rapidly changing that. A year ago, Apple’s iPad tablet arrived on the scene, turning digital glossy magazines and colorful digital books into a reality. The iTunes App Store is now brimming with vivid graphics and creative games for kids, including hundreds of booklike offerings, such as Green Eggs and Ham and Pat the Bunny. Not long after the emergence of the iPad, Barnes and Noble unveiled the NookColor—a $250 device with a color touchscreen slightly smaller than the iPad’s. It features Nook Kids, an online shop where you can purchase from a growing collection of classic and popular picture books. Judy Schachner’s “Skippyjon Jones” series (Dutton) and Barack Obama’s Of Thee I Sing (Knopf) are among them. Now you can sit on the sofa with a five-year-old and experience a digital version of cozy co-reading, still basking in a book’s beautiful illustrations and even hearing the pages turn. The bonus is that, unlike with print books, readers can pull up additional titles, at any time and in any place, as soon as a child says, “I want to read that one, too!”

School librarians who receive commercial pitches know well that e-picture books are not, in fact, brand-new. They’ve been available on the Web and in software packages for many years, dating back at least to the electronic version of Stellaluna published by Living Books in 1997. In addition to Tumblebooks, other options include Scholastic’s BookFlix, One More Story, Big Universe, Disney Digital Books, and MeeGenius. Those services require some form of payment, usually as a subscription, but some ebooks cost nothing. For example, Storyline Online, sponsored by the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, has many well-known picture books read by celebrities such as Betty White, James Earl Jones, and even Al Gore. And the International Children’s Digital Library, a nonprofit website created eight years ago by researchers at the University of Maryland at College Park, offers nearly 4,500 free books in 54 languages from more than 200 countries, complete with an iPad-friendly interface and an iPhone app.

School libraries: Ready to adopt?

Yet elementary school libraries haven’t been major adopters. According to School Library Journal’s (SLJ) 2011 technology survey, only 29 percent of elementary schools had ebooks in their collections, compared to 64 percent of high schools. Online ebooks have been typically seen as extras, mere drops in the bucket when it comes to a library’s goal of exposing young readers to new stories and high-quality children’s literature.

What if, however, those drops in the bucket formed a tidal wave? School librarians appear to be bracing for a shift: SLJ’s survey showed that a majority of elementary school librarians said they either will (18 percent) or may (46 percent) purchase ebooks in the next two years. States and school districts are starting to make deals with ebook companies to provide yearly subscriptions to thousands of students at a time. Starting this summer, Iowa’s nine area education agencies will offer access to BookFlix to all accredited schools in the state. Another sign of change comes from Scholastic’s 2010 reading habits survey, which shows that the youngest respondents—six- to eight-year-olds—were more likely than their older counterparts to have read an ebook. That exposure, says Judy Newman, president of Scholastic Book Clubs, may reflect the fact that little children have younger parents who may be introducing them to online content at home.

Checking out books from the school library will start to take on new meaning as more teachers and parents insist on 24/7 access in school and at home. Instead of waiting for library day at school, students can log in at any time (provided they have access to a computer and can find the password that might be on that flier at the bottom of their backpack) and browse digital bookshelves. In some media centers, children may be able to borrow Nooks and iPads to take home. More likely, they will start pestering their parents to let them use theirs.

And it’s not just the small portable devices that’ll change the paradigm. As Hume witnessed in her Missouri school, e-picture books are starting to be coupled with computerized whiteboards, meaning that more children are experiencing literature on big screens. Picture books are already morphing into something much more flexible than those traditional hardbound beauties that have come to symbolize quiet one-on-one moments between an adult and a child.

Coinciding with all these possibilities is the growing urgency centered on the literacy crisis in the United States. Two-thirds of fourth graders aren’t reading at grade level, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test that’s administered to a large sample of children across the country every two years and is referred to as our nation’s report card. The numbers are even worse for black and Hispanic children, with roughly 84 percent not reading at grade level. Policy makers and education experts see school librarians and reading specialists as key allies in the battle to improve children’s literacy skills. Researchers such as Stephen Krashen, an advocate of free voluntary reading (see www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6367048.html), and others who study what helps children learn to read, consider providing kids with easy access to an abundance of nonfiction and fiction books of paramount importance. Should libraries turn to electronic picture books to help them provide that access? Will ebooks help or hurt?

When Hume set out last September to experiment with Tumblebooks, she didn’t have much to go on. The pace of change has far outstripped what traditional reading research can tell us. If ebooks are destined to be a significant part of a young child’s early literacy experiences, how exactly should they be used?

What’s an ebook anyway?

Jeremy Brueck, an Akron, OH-based pioneer in children’s digital reading research, spends his days grappling with the cacophony of questions raised by children’s ebooks. With help from grants from the U.S. Department of Education, he’s examining how electronic materials should be used in early childhood programs, including Head Start.

He’s urging librarians, teachers, and parents to pause to get a handle on exactly what they mean when they say “ebook” in the first place. “We have to get out of saying ‘ebooks,’” argues Brueck, who codirects Akron Ready Steps, an early literacy program, and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Akron. “It’s just too broad.”

At one end of the spectrum, there are PDFs of printed titles, while on the other end are electronic resources with animated characters, interactive quizzes, and online games that accompany texts that can be “played” while each spoken word is highlighted on the screen. With such a range of possibilities, “there is not enough known yet to know what best practice is,” Brueck says. Akron Ready Steps is now developing a “quality rating tool” that can help identify the features in an electronic title that will help children learn and become engaged with a story—and which ones are merely bells and whistles. Brueck often targets vendors of ebook subscriptions. “It’s frustrating to see people put money into developing something that isn’t sound from a pedagogical standpoint,” he says.

Brueck is still collecting data, but he’s already concerned about the quality of what’s commercially available. In ratings of nearly 100 ebooks, his research team found very few titles with high marks for their ability to support emerging readers. “Good ebooks for the purposes of literacy instruction for young children are hard to find,” he wrote in a recent post on his blog, Raised Digital.

Help or hindrance?

Consider the myriad ways in which children interact with what, at least for now, people still call ebooks: In William Steig’s Pete’s a Pizza (available from OneMore Story), kids can only hear a narrator read the book—that’s it. The service intentionally avoids any form of animation. In Bruce Degen’s Jamberry (available from Nook Kids), on the left-hand page there’s a cute white duck that quacks when a child touches it. In Robert Munsch’s 50 Below Zero (Tumblebooks), the artwork becomes animated and the words on one page light up as the narrator reads them. Meanwhile, on the opposite page, a character jumps up and down and doors creak open. In Toy Story Read-Along (Disney Digital Book), some pages have no text at all and online games are at the ready. Children watch the story unfold as if seeing clips from the movie. Which, if any, of these features are necessary to enhance engagement and improve a child’s comprehension of the story? Which ones are nothing more than distractions, eye candy, elements that derail the very act of reading?

Ben Bederson, codirector of the International Children’s Digital Library, last year downloaded Toy Story on his iPad for his five-year-old daughter. “She loves it,” he says. With the animation and the sound track, “it feels like it’s alive.”

But Bederson isn’t sold on the Toy Story book for its reading experience. “I felt like it was a slippery slope,” he says. “It was 25 percent book and 75 percent movie.” The way his daughter requested the title was telling: “Could I watch a Toy Story book?” she asked.

Scrambling the context of what makes a book a book is what worries Gabrielle Miller, national executive director for Raising a Reader, a nonprofit organization that distributes picture books to families. She’s not against digital media; she sees it as an important way to increase access in disadvantaged communities. “But without the balance of children holding and touching and learning how to take care of a book, you run the risk of children losing a sense of what books are and how they feel,” Miller says. “You lose the understanding of how they came to be.”

Scholastic’s Newman dismisses anything with 75 percent animation, saying that at that point, “it ceases to be a book.”

Then there’s the question of what will happen to the physical space of school libraries. Could the easy availability of downloadable picture books—whether “static” or packed with animation—render the stacks obsolete and give children fewer reasons to visit? Marsha Hauser, a K–12 librarian for the Edgewood-Colesburg District in rural Iowa, is a proponent of ebooks but also worries that they could eventually crowd out printed books because many libraries can’t afford both print and digital collections. She plans to hold fast to old-fashioned storytime in her elementary school library. “This won’t change library time—not for Mrs. Hauser,” she says.

The most pressing question may be not if but how teachers and librarians should use ebooks. In one of the projects at Akron Ready Steps, teachers are taught to be very intentional when using them with young children. Before starting the electronic part of a reading activity, children are introduced to new vocabulary words. Tumblebooks are used on touchscreen computers with small groups of three or four children, guided by teachers who pause the ebook’s narration so that they can ask young children to predict what will happen next. And they continue to use printed books throughout the day. Local libraries deliver print copies of books that children see on screen.

Pam Oviatt, a literacy coach at Akron Ready Steps, says she has seen the power of ebooks. One time last year, she saw three Head Start boys giggling along with the narrated e-version of Doreen Cronin’s Diary of a Worm (Tumblebooks). A week later, she says, when the boys’ teacher announced that she had received a printed copy from the library, the children rushed to see it. “They would pore over it,” Oviatt said. “And they would say, ‘Oh, I like this page!’ They were connecting what they had read with what they had seen before on the touchscreen.”

To Oviatt, the audio features are “another way of hooking them into new stories.” Plus, ebooks are much easier to use than the Books on Tape of yesteryear, she says, which required listeners to turn the page after hearing a “ding”—something that many children would miss.

Bigger collections, easier access

Some librarians and teachers are intent on using e-picture books simply to increase how many books kids get their hands on. The possibilities of 24/7 access to new content are a big factor for Pamela Jackson, a media specialist at the Brentwood Magnet Elementary School of Engineering in North Carolina’s Wake County Public Schools. Children should be able to check out new materials at any time, Jackson says. “I say to my kids, ‘We’re going away for the holiday but the library is still open.’”

Laura Hodges, a principal at Churchville Elementary School in Augusta County, VA, says Tumblebooks are helping her school attain its goal of “embedding technology into instruction,” while saving money on books. Teachers who want to give children access to picture books in their classrooms can make them available on computers without the school having to buy multiple copies of the same book.

Then there are the teachers like Hume in University City, MO, who are motivated by one primary goal—helping struggling readers. When she decided to experiment with ebooks, she had an inkling that the narration and animation might help, but she wanted to be sure. Hume tested her two randomized groups before they started their reading intervention programs to get a baseline of their abilities. And she assesses them on a regular basis, using texts that are different from what the children hear on Tumblebooks or in her traditional small-group reading sessions.

The results are remarkable, she says. The students using Tumblebooks leapt ahead of their peers. Last November, three months after starting the project, the average fluency rate for the Tumblebook group was 23 percentage points higher than that of the control group. Students using the ebooks had moved from a Lexile level of K to M. By January, the entire group of children in the ebook program had achieved fluency to the point that they were “exited” from her pull-out sessions and integrated back into their regular classrooms. It took the control group two months longer. She credits the success to the ebooks’ ability to narrate the story, while allowing students to feel like they’re in control of what and when they read. “When students repeatedly have a strong model of fluency, the more they hear that, the better they get it,” says Hume. The experiment was so successful that her school district decided to pay for Tumblebooks for all four of its elementary schools in the next school year.

Still, Hume isn’t ready to proclaim that all children’s books should go digital. “I think Tumblebooks should be for intervention only,” she says. For confidence-building and self-esteem, she explains, the electronic book is unparalleled. But at some point, she says, you have to stop “the hand-holding.”

Hume’s experience highlights what reading experts have come to recognize about emergent readers in general: you can’t treat them as a monolithic group with one-size-fits-all needs. The same could probably be said of ebooks and how they should be used. But researchers will need to tease out the variables—what works with what kinds of children in what settings under what conditions? Says Brueck of Akron Ready Steps: “There’s a lot of work to be done yet.”


Author Information
Lisa Guernsey (Guernsey@newamerica.net) is director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation and author of Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age 5 (Basic Books, 2007).

 

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