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Are E-Books Good for Kids?

On Thursday President Obama announced a plan to make $250 million worth of e-books available to public libraries as part of an effort to expand literacy and “digital connectivity” among low-income students. He spoke to Washington, D.C., students about his personal fondness for print books but stressed the importance of keeping up with technological advances.

Parents often ask me if it’s okay for their children to read on an iPad, Kindle, or other type of e-reader. New opinion polls and studies about e-reading come out every few months, and it seems like everyone has an opinion about this relatively new technology.

There are lots of reasons why e-books are more convenient than print books – weight, storage space, instant accessibility – but I’m going to lay aside those practical concerns for now and focus on what’s best for kids. And I’m going to be completely forthright here: This is new technology, and we’re still figuring it out. As we learn more about how kids read, we’ll adjust our teaching practice to make sure we’re meeting kids’ needs.

So which format is better for kids? I’m sorely tempted to come down firmly on the side of print books. My heart is with print books—their heft in my hand, the feeling of glossy jackets, or embossed covers, or deckle-edged pages under my fingertips, their spines on my bookshelves giving visitors a glimpse of what’s important to me, the fresh ink scent of new books and that deliciously musty old book smell. But it’s not quite that simple. As Obama said, it is important that kids learn to navigate e-reading; schools and workplaces are becoming increasingly paperless, and kids need to build digital literacy.

Support Kids as They Learn How to Navigate E-Books

At Success Academy, kids start reading on iPads in fifth grade, and roughly 30 percent of each middle school classroom library is composed of e-books. In many households, kids start reading e-books even younger. However, many adults make the mistake of assuming that the tech-savvy 8-year-old who is at ease with an iPhone can jump right in to e-reading.

E-reading is very different from print reading, and this is especially apparent when kids are reading to learn new information and/or to research. On a digital platform, readers cannot easily rifle pages to check something they read previously; they cannot look simultaneously at text on one page and a diagram on the next. E-readers provide plenty of tools for researchers, including the ability to flag, highlight, and annotate, but many young researchers need to learn to do those things in print first, before they can learn to do it in a less concrete medium. We make sure kids practice all these skills using print books and articles – with Post-its and index cards, with colored pens and marginal notes – before they ever read a digital text. Adult readers who transition from print to e-reading are familiar enough with their own reading habits and learning styles to recognize which medium works best for them – when it’s worth printing out that report to annotate the hard copy or when a PDF makes more sense. But young readers haven’t developed that insight into their own reading yet. It’s up to us as adults to support them as they build that digital literacy.

E-books Give Teens Permission to Be Themselves

Parents and teachers are often concerned that they cannot easily, instantly monitor what kids are reading when they read e-books. However, this makes e-readers a powerful tool for helping frequently embarrassed pre-teens or teens figure out how to navigate peer and family relationships.

We all know that some middle and high schoolers are incredibly sensitive. The same lurid book titles and cover images that marketing teams develop to appeal to teens often mortify them when their peers or parents see them! (When I was a bookseller, I often had to reassure a parent looking at a YA (young adult) novel: “I promise, this book is well-written and it is not trashy. It just looks that way.”) The relative anonymity of e-reading means that teens can be confident stepping out of their comfort zones—whatever they may be. It denies ammunition to frenemies or teasing uncles. Boys can read “girl” books, and kids can read light romances and books featuring protagonists who are gay. Scholars can read about controversial topics in history or science. All without fear that “the whole world” is judging them.

Am I advocating that kids keep secrets from grownups? Absolutely not! But teens need space and privacy to figure themselves out. E-readers can provide this.

Most likely, some kids will grow into college students and adults who prefer print books, while others will go digital and never look back. Just as there are different learning styles, there are different reading styles, neither one necessarily better or worse than the other, but each one suited to a type of book, a type of reading, and a type of reader.

There’s at least one type of e-book I don’t recommend; check back next week for more thoughts on when not to read e-books with kids.


Written by Sara Yu May 1, 2015

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