We know that COVID-19 and its associated changes in our work and learning habits have caused a marked increase in the use of technology. More surprising, perhaps, is the impact these blocks have had on self-reported book enjoyment by children and youth and the overall positive impact this has had on reading rates.
A recent poll from the UK, for example, showed that children spent 34.5% more time reading than before the lockdown. Their perceived enjoyment of reading increased by 8%.
It seems logical – locking up with less to do means more time for other activities. But with the increase in other distractions, especially digital ones, it’s encouraging to see many young people still gravitating towards reading, if given the opportunity.
In general, most children still read physical books, but the survey showed a slight increase in their use of audiobooks and digital devices. Audiobooks were particularly popular with boys and contributed to an overall increase in their interest in reading and writing.
There is no doubt, however, that digital texts are becoming more common in schools, and more and more research is exploring their influence. Such a study showed no direct relationship between the frequency with which teachers used digital reading instruction and activities and their students’ actual engagement or reading confidence.
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What the study did show, however, was a direct and negative relationship between how often teachers asked their students to use computers or tablets for reading activities and how much the students enjoyed reading. .
These results suggest that physical books continue to play a vital role in promoting the love of reading and learning in young children. In an age where technology is clearly influencing reading habits and teaching practices, can we really expect the love of reading to be fostered by sitting alone on a digital device?
The limits of e-books
In schools and homes, we often see e-books used to support independent reading. As teachers and parents, we have started to rely on these tools to support our emerging readers. But overdependence has meant the loss of the potential for engagement and conversation.
Studies have shown that children perform better when reading with an adult, and it’s often a richer experience with a printed book than with an eBook.
Reading when you’re young is still a common experience. My own seven year old is at an age where reading to me at night is a crucial part of his development as a reader. Relying on him to sit alone and read from his device will never work.
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This is not to deny the usefulness of electronic books. Their adoption in schools was guided by the desire to better support learners. They offer teachers a vast library titles and features designed to attract and motivate.
These built-in features offer new ways to help children decode language and also provide lifesaving support for children with special needs, such as dyslexia and impaired vision.
Research, however, suggests caution rather than mass adoption of eBooks. Studies have shown that the extra features of eBooks, such as pop-ups, animation, and sound, can actually distract the learner, interfere with the reading experience and reduce understanding of text.
The book as an object
Real books may lack these interactive features, but their visual and tactile nature plays an important role in reader’s engagement.
Because books exist in the same physical space as their readers – scattered and found objects rather than applications on a screen – they introduce the role of choice, one of the big influences on engagement.
Although generally a reluctant reader, my child loves to flip through books and look at pictures. He might not necessarily read every word, but books like dog man, Captain Slip and Bad guys provided a fantastic opportunity to hire him.
We even managed to link reading to our kids’ favorite online games. Their Minecraft textbooks have become valuable resources and are even taken to friends’ homes during games.
Many of our books are not in the best shape, proof that they are lived and loved. Thrift stores and school fairs provide an inexpensive option to add variety, and bookcases are also great for supplementing home shelves.
But cuts to library budgets and collections, such as those recently announced by Wellington Central Library, threaten to further undermine the role of the physical book in children’s lives.
School libraries, too, are often the first space to sacrifice when budgets and space restrictions tighten. This encourages the adoption of digital books and further reinforces the dependence on technological alternatives.
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Of course, digital technology plays an important role in helping children engage and learn, often in powerful new means it would otherwise be impossible.
But in our rush to adopt and build on “digital solutions” without a clear rationale or consideration of their actual use, we risk underestimating the power of objects made from paper and ink.
As we emerge from a pandemic that has accelerated digital progress, we cannot let these developments obscure the place of real books in real life – as opposed to virtual lives.