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Learning to Read: Will E-Books Help or Hinder?

Published:  June 1, 2011
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Is it an e-book or a video or a game? Those are the questions posed by the new e-book offerings for young kids. The screen shot above is not a book per se; it is an alphabet tracing application made for the iPad by a company called Montessorium. But its focus on getting children to interact with printed letters by tracing them with their fingers (a new and surely controversial take on a classic technique used with cards that show letters with sandpaper texture) is an example of the new possibilities afforded by tablet-based technologies.

It used to be that e-books -- especially the black-and-white, text-heavy kind -- were primarily for adults. But with iPads and Nooks becoming more abundant, it is now possible to sit down on the couch with a young child and experience a beautiful picture book electronically. Could these interactive books help to engage struggling readers? Or are they going to introduce yet more distractions at a time of increased urgency around literacy learning and when only one-third of American fourth graders can claim to be proficient readers?

These are questions that I dig into this month in a feature story for School Library Journal. Here's how it starts:

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?

Keep reading the article, "Are E-Books Any Good?," over at the website for the School Library Journal, which held an e-book summit last year.

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