Take Away the Tablet: Research Shows Why Traditional Books Are Better to Teach Children to Read

Do you remember the first book you ever read?

Most likely you do. Books stick in our minds in a significant way, especially at an early age. Reading is one of the single best indicators of academic, career and financial success, and even healthy relationships, yet 67 percent of fourth graders read below grade level and are unlikely to catch up (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010).

But the fate of your child doesn’t have to be in the hands of teachers. In fact, children should start learning the mechanics of reading before they reach kindergarten. Furthermore, the benefits of reading with a parent at an early age are numerous, such as improved vocabulary and increased comprehension.

As a parent, how do you teach your child to read? Do you sit them down in front of an iPad or television and let the educational programming roll? Research suggests that’s the last thing you should do. In fact, studies find that there is no substitute for a physical book and the more books that exist in a home, the more likely a child is to succeed academically.

Why do traditional books work so much better than all the shiny, colorful technology we have at our fingertips? It’s simple. All that noise, color and continuous leveling up actually clutters a child’s brain, which results in less information actually being retained. Additionally, children prefer reading physical books and are more likely to develop good reading habits with physical books.

Want to better understand why print is better than technology and learn a few simple ways to boost your child’s potential? We outline the research for you and will share a few simple tips for giving your child that special boost that will put them ahead of the curve.

Part 1: It’s how children prefer to read.

The good news is: Children love to read. An international study found that children overwhelmingly have a passion for reading (Kleeman, 2016). The research found that 45 percent of children aged 2-4 said reading was how they liked to spend their time. Young children scored higher in their love for books than any other age group up to age 15. That tells us that young kids are thirsty for stories. In fact, 59 percent of children believe books are the best platform for storytelling.

The same study found that children recommend books to their friends. Almost 60 percent want to share books they loved, especially primary-aged children, and 50 percent of children get ideas for new books to read from friends. This tells us that reading is a communal activity, which is healthy for children as they learn to develop close relationships with others and receive positive reinforcement.

Here’s where it gets interesting. When given the choice between print and electronic books, 70 percent of children strongly or tend to prefer print. Additionally, children are five times more likely to read every day with print books rather than electronic books.

All of this tells us that children want to read books. Reading is fun for a child. They get to use their imagination, learn new things and (hopefully) receive positive feedback from parents and teachers.

Part 2: The big advantage of reading with a parent using traditional books.

As a parent, it can be hard to know the right way to teach your child to read. Although a variety of styles will serve you and your child best, research suggests that some forms of reading are more beneficial to learning than others.

Years of research have shown that a child beginning to read at an early age is associated with positive outcomes such as improved vocabulary, reading comprehension and school performance. Furthermore, when compared to toy play or watching TV, reading books aloud to children results in greater lexical diversity and more complex syntax (Krcmar et al., 2014).

But when researchers looked into the effect that technology had on children’s opportunity to learn to read at an early age, they found a clear contrast between reading from a traditional book and reading on a tablet.

One study found that children scored significantly higher on comprehension with traditional books than electronic books (Krcmar et al., 2014). They also found that parents engaged more with the child using comments, questions and answers with traditional books and children asked and gave more questions and answers with traditional books. This interaction had a significant effect on the child’s improved cognition when reading with a parent from traditional books.

Not only do print books elicit better dialogue between parent and child, but they provide fewer distractions during reading time. Research finds that parents engage in more distraction talk—conversation that has nothing to do with the content of the book—with electronic books. Parents have a harder time staying on the subject of the book and spend more time explaining how the technology is used. This reduces the cognitive benefits the child gets from reading together.

Why does that matter to you as a parent? The research says that children enjoy reading and are hungry for stories. They overwhelmingly prefer to read traditional books and traditional books are more likely to be habit-inducing so children read more often. Furthermore, children get more out of reading when they read with a parent. Time spent reading together provides an opportunity for child and parent to engage in a complex discussion that can have significant positive effects on the child’s vocabulary and reading comprehension.

As a parent, you should read with your child regularly. However, you should read print books over electronic books. Digital tools are distracting and lead to less engaging conversations between parent and child. If you are already taking the time to read with your child, you should get the full benefit out of that time together by reading a good, old fashioned book.

Part 3: Libraries in the home give kids a head start.

You may be asking yourself, “Should I just fill my child’s room with books that we can read together?” The answer is “Yes!”

The research makes it an easy question to answer. Studies have found that, regardless of social class, children in homes with books have higher educational attainment (Evans et al., 2014). It’s that simple!

The academic literature calls this phenomena “scholarly culture.” When homes have libraries, which simply means a collection of books, in them, it encourages a culture of reading and inquiry. This helps develop children’s cognitive skills, capacities and tastes that enhance educational performance and, consequently, both encourage and enable children to go further in school.

When a child goes from zero to a few books, it has a significant impact on their opportunity to reach high academic achievement. Although this effect becomes less dramatic at high quantities—the 100th book added to a library has less effect than the 10th book—the research still shows that the more books there are in the home, the more likely a child will perform well in school.

Conclusion

Even as technology advances, there is no substitute for reading physical books with a parent. Technology is distracting and doesn’t lend itself to the same cognitively enhancing discussion as traditional books. On top of that, having physical books in the home and creating a culture around reading gives children a leg up in education.

Ready to put this research into practice? Here are a few simple steps for turning your home into a reading haven.

  • Fill it with real books! Stop in at a used book store and stock up on books you can put in a home library or use as gift on special occasions.
  • Use technology to supplement reading learning, not replace it. A good rule of thumb is to teach children to read with books, and reinforce concepts with tech. But make sure to turn off continuous play and limit screen time to less than an hour a day to maintain retention.
  • Make the most of reading time. Let questions about the text flow between you and your child and don’t dumb down your language when answering them. This is how they expand their vocabularies and learn to build more complex sentences.

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References

Kleeman, D. (2016). Books and Reading are Powerful with Kids, but Content Discovery is Challenging. Publishing Research Quarterly, 32(1), 38-43.

Evans, M., Kelley, J., & Sikora, J. (2014). Scholarly Culture and Academic Performance in 42 Nations. Social Forces, 92(4), 1573-1605.

Krcmar, M., & Cingel, D. (2014). Parent-Child Joint Reading in Traditional and Electronic Formats. Media Psychology, 17(3), 1-20.

https://www.ccf.ny.gov/files/9013/8262/2751/AECFReporReadingGrade3.pdf