April 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Ebooks Can be a Great Choice for Middle Schoolers

“Futures depend on us…every child, every day.” 

This is our school district’s motto, and it’s what guides me every day in the library.  Librarians know the saying “there’s a book for everyone,” but sometimes we need to think about what that means and how we continue to evolve our professional practice to meet this goal.

Thirty percent of my school’s population (590 sixth and seventh grade students) qualify for free or reduced lunch—enough that I had accessibility concerns about purchasing ebooks. Additionally, paying for both ebook and print copies of everything purchased for the collection simply didn’t make budgetary sense. Then, two years ago, our district committed to 1:1 devices for all of our students, and this provided the impetus to develop an ebook collection.

Ebooks are a new way we can expand literacy, but we need to look beyond which ebooks we choose for students and look deeper at why to choose ebooks to begin with.

Total access

The first immediate benefit I determined is that our ebooks are available 24/7/365 (and 366 days this year) for our students. If we look at our mission as librarians and if I heed my district’s mission, reducing barriers to literacy includes providing more access to our collection when possible.  This is one benefit we should all continue to promote, especially if our students come from households where regular public library visits are not part of the routine.

More and expanded reading

Using Google Forms, I surveyed our students three different times in the last year. My response rate was 65 percent, 80 percent, and 75 percent, more than enough for a valid representation. The second and third surveys yielded by far the most intriguing results, so I’ve focused on those here. (In the first survey, fully half of the school was still very new to our ebook collection.)

I began by asking whether they read our ebooks.  Based on that first answer, they were sent to separate sets of questions.  If not, I asked them why, and if they had any suggestions. If yes, I asked them questions about their ebook habits and reasons they liked reading them.

Here are some of the more interesting findings:

23 percent (101 students) and 25 percent (108) enjoyed reading ebooks because they could get easy access on their school-issued Chromebook or other electronic device.

10 percent (45) and 13 percent (56) liked the digital features (annotation tools, dictionary, read-to-me).

10 percent (44) and 16 percent (70) responded that they were reading ebooks more often than they would read print books.

18 percent (77) and 25 percent (110) answered that they were reading ebooks that they otherwise would not have read from the print collection

Stacy Brzezinski, a sixth grade reading teacher at my school, said, “Our readers who are significantly behind grade level really benefit from the read-to-me function built right into many of the ebooks.”

Those are all significant numbers when we’re trying to challenge our readers to read more or expand their reading choices.  The long-term benefits that can come with more or expanded reading could be tremendous to student learning.

ebooks graph

A higher comfort level

But it was the answers to my final question that stood out: “For what reasons did you read a book as an ebook that you wouldn’t have read as a print book?”

18 percent (81 students) and 20 percent (87) don’t have time to get a book from the library shelves.

11 percent (46) and 16 percent (68) liked reading ebooks better than print.

15 percent (67) and 15 percent (66) liked the features provided by our ebooks.

5 percent (20) and 6 percent (25) liked ebooks because they could read books without feeling embarrassed around their friends and peers.

4 percent (18) and 2 percent (9)  liked ebooks because they could read them without feeling embarrassed around their teachers and parents.

All of those reasons are important, but the final two are what struck me as particularly relevant, and why I indicated raw numbers in addition to percentages, because every student is important.  Considering middle school is often an age where many students’ reading motivation wanes, ebooks appear to be one way to reduce this drop off.

Vince Brandl, a  seventh grade teacher at my school, explained the positive effects he has already seen on his students. “Reluctant readers have stated how nice it is to not be noticed they are different from others in the class just by students seeing what they are reading; My students want to fit in with their peers at this age.”

Middle school kids are learning to find their identities. The jock who doesn’t want to appear nerdy, the girl who doesn’t want boys to think she’s too studious, the student who identifies with LGBTQ characters, and the struggling reader who needs books at lower levels are ubiquitous, and they can all blend in comfortably as they read. Ebooks, unless viewed closely, all look the same on the screen. Students can read what they want without the fear of stigmas.

Ebooks, I’ve found, are a great equalizer for our students.  As long as there isn’t a barrier to digital access for students, then a commitment to a strong collection of ebooks and other digital reading resources is vital to literacy.  “Every child, every day” isn’t just a motto; it’s a guiding principle in collection development.

Christopher Schiemann is a library media specialist at Sun Prairie Area School District in Madison, WI. 

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  1. Deb Schiano says:

    Hi Christopher! You mention reading on school issued Chromebooks. I was wondering if you knew if students were reading e-books on other devices? Thanks in advance.

    • Deb-excellent question. I’ve since found that of students who dislike reading on Chromebooks, many stated they’d be more likely to read on a phone or tablet device. I’m taking this into account now and purchasing some cheap (they get cheaper by the month!) tablets for circulation.

  2. I have for three years now demonstrated our ebooks to our middle school students. I purchased over 200 ebooks, including ebundles over three years ago in the hopes that the students would gravitate toward digital reading. They are pretty excited during the demonstration, and very soon after, but over time and during the school year I believe that students carry physical books to read independently or following a computer based test.
    I would like to see students have devices, such as a Kindle or Ipad to be able to read digital readers independently, including following a computer based test.
    One thing that I think about is the bandwidth use if students are trying to load ebooks onto their devices, and interfering with the Internet use during testing. If ebooks were already downloaded onto their devices it would be a format that some of our middle school readers could conveniently have available.
    Overall, I do personally enjoy reading ebooks, and I certainly encourage our middle school students to read an ebook if they are requesting a physical book which isn’t available for check out.

    • Teresa-I continue to monitor usage. It has had some drop offs, but some is because they only want to read the “popular” novels, and are waiting for their spot in the holds queue. Some, as I just stated above to Deb, is that their desire to read on a tablet. So, I’m catching up with that. I don’t think bandwidth should be an issue, unless your school is already low. These aren’t multimedia heavy, so there’s not a ton of data transfer over the network.

  3. Lisa Brennan says:

    Outstanding article, Christopher! Your research is impressive and your article offers great insights for all Middle School librarians. We adopted Overdrive last spring and are seeing the same trends you have reported.

    • Lisa- Thanks. Glad to hear you’re finding success. I truly hope we can all use these as another tool to reach all of our readers.