The book as an object has been taken apart and put back together in an electronic form as long as the technology to do so has been available. Books have appeared as floppy disks, CD-ROM’s, cassette audiobooks, as applications on tablet devices, e-readers, online and more. These changes trickle their way down the publishing stream and find themselves in the exciting and colourful world of children’s publishing. Regardless of how unique and intuitive these new book forms appear, even tech-savvy adults continue to struggle with whether or not they should introduce ebooks to their young children, and parents continue to value print books more (Zickuhr, Pew). Many fears surround purchasing eBooks for children, mostly due to “negative perceptions of screen time”, even though research shows children prefer reading ebooks more (Greenfield, Digital Publishing News). Pew’s survey on reading habits found 9 out of 10 parents with minor children think it is important that children read print books, with a whopping 81% believing print books are better than online books (Zickuhr, Pew). Without any concrete research presented to them, parents feel this way mostly because they want their children to have the “same pleasant book-reading experience they remember from when they themselves were children”, and also because they want to preserve the sensory experience of flipping pages of paper (Zickuhr, Pew).
Even with parents not entirely sold on e-technology for their children, publishers have gone ahead and adapted the basic ebook even more creating “enhanced ebooks”. In childrens publishing books aimed at younger ages (4-6) contain little text and high graphics already, so the enhancement is focused on added multimedia. Enhanced ebooks do in some cases, cross the line between book and game, and are harmful to the young child’s reading comprehension by setting the text aside and focusing their attention on moving images and interactive gaming. There are many reasons publishers are moving this way and while many researchers support basic ebooks, they are more wary of the impacts of enhanced ebooks; “some e-books appear to overdo these features, perhaps in an effort to make the reading experience more entertaining or simply to make the product more marketable” (Zucker et al. 53).
Studies suggest now that young children who are exposed to enhanced ebooks in place of print books during an age in which they are beginning to read have not only lower comprehension but also lack positive reading attitudes compared to children that read print, or standard ebooks (Flood, Guardian). With research against them, parents not entirely sold, and high costs associated with making these enhancements, publishers might want to refocus their enhancements into ebooks for children of an older age where they have been found more beneficial.
Enhanced ebooks come from a long line of attempts to merge the book with the online world. One such attempt, the CD-ROM book, was quite successful and mimics the enhanced ebooks implementation of multimedia to text. In Kathryn Matthew’s 1993 study on CD-ROM storybooks she explains that these storybooks “spring to life with sound effects, narration, music, movies, animation, built-in dictionaries, and translations in other languages… this mixture of visual, tactile, and listening modalities enables students to learn through their preferred modality” (Matthew 1). In her research on the effect of children’s reading using the CD-ROM book versus the print book Matthew’s concludes that the multisensory environment was beneficial to the students, but in order to benefit from CD-ROM books the students must have pre-existing literacy skills, as the CD-ROM did cause children to divert attention away from the text (Matthew 12).
The enhanced ebook shares many similarities to the CD-ROM, and is defined by a study on the relationship between electronic books and children by Tricia Zucker, Amelia Moody, and Michael McKenna.
“we characterize e-books as a form of electronic text that contains key features of traditional print books, such as a central topic or theme and pages that ‘turn,’ but e-books may also contain digital enhancements that make the reading experience qualitatively different, and perhaps more supportive… an e-book requires a text presented on a computer with an oral reading option (also known as text-to-speech) and some form of hypermedia (i.e., embedded images, sound, video, animation, and so on). E-books typically contain a combination of enhance-ments, such as animations or video that dramatizes the text, music, and cinematic effects that create mood, organizing elements such as overview screens or a table of contents, interactive activities or games, and “hotspots” (i.e., animations that are activated with a mouse click)” (Zucker et al. 49-50).
New enhanced ebooks from the publisher “Chronicle Books” include books like Chloe, Instead where children are encouraged to interact with the text and hunt for “easter eggs”, or features implemented into the book that you need to look for (Chronicle Blog). Marketing manager Alison Presley shares her favourite feature of the book saying,
“My favorite Easter egg is hidden near the beginning of the book. On this page, Molly is trying to explain exactly why her baby sister Chloe is so exasperating—Chloe’s always pressing random keys when Molly is trying to play the piano. Inquisitive readers who tap the keyboard like Chloe will be treated to surprise: an audio recording of someone banging on a piano. After you realize that some of the illustrations can be double-tapped to unveil surprises, the book becomes a fun game with little fingers tapping and poking at the screen.” (Presley, Chronicle Blog)
In books like Chloe, Instead, the studies suggest that rather than read along to the story, the young children once learning that illustrations can be double tapped to unveil surprises, will pay much less attention to the text, and most of their attention on double tapping every part of the illustration to see if it comes to life. This is especially harmful at ages when children are first beginning to read.
The two important strands of skills needed to develop literacy are “the ability to rapidly decode printed words, and the ability to understand and construct meaning from the language of a text” (Zucker et al. 50). Enhanced ebooks do not challenge the young reader as much as print versions do, and children who lack comprehension skills in reading will compensate with “context clues or picture supports” (Zucker et al. 52). Context and picture exist in print as well, but the enhanced ebook offers more than just context and pictures; including mood setting music, interactive elements, and moving scenes. If text appeared in print saying “The scary dog barks”, children would be encouraged to learn reading comprehension as the accompanying image of a large scary dog with an open mouth will not be enough context for the child to guess the text. In an enhanced ebook, this same sentence might be accompanied with a scary background tune, and a running dog, who when tapped, will bark out loud. Not only can the child easily identify the sentence without reading the text, the child has a chance to break from narrative entirely and continue to be entertained tapping the dog.
In a 2002 study on print versus enhanced ebook, Maria de Jong and Adriana Bus examined a control group of children with a mean age of 4 ½ years who were in kindergarten, the first year of school and also many children’s first time learning how to read (de Jong et al 145). They found many negative effects associated with reading enhanced ebooks to children. The children who used the ebook version of a book spent 43% of their time playing games, and clicked on animation buttons more than the buttons that read aloud to them (de Jong et al 149-150). Zucker et al. also references this study, and both researches conclude that there are still greater benefits to print or basic ebooks versus enhanced digital for most children.
Studies have also been done on children older and further along in their reading ability. Research done by Luca Colombo and Monica Landoni found that in the age group of 7-12, enhanced ebooks provided a better reading experience than basic ebooks (Colombo et al. 135). The basic ebook did not meet the students expectations, and the students who used the enhanced ebook used its features to “find meaningful contribution to the storyline” (Colombo et al. 143). Children at this age have already developed some literacy skills, and when these skills are used in conjunction with the interactive elements of an enhanced ebook, children are able to garner the full benefits the enhancements provide rather than be distracted by them.
Another important part of early reading development in children is the interaction of reading with parents or teachers. A study conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center worked with children 3-6 years old and their parents, finding that the enhanced ebook was far less effective when compared to print or basic ebook. The enhanced ebook “prompted more non-content related interactions”, and the children, “recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story” (Flood, Guardian). However, parents were surprised to find the engagement and interaction their children had with the package as a whole, with the study concluding that “‘print books were more advantageous for literacy building co-reading’, ebooks, and particularly enhanced ebooks, were better ‘for engaging children and prompting physical interaction’” (Flood, Guardian). While enhanced ebooks did not help the child with reading ability, it was a fun, and educational bonding opportunity for children and their parents.
The Cooney study does not dismiss enhanced ebooks all together, children love them and the potential to convert disinterested readers is important (Flood, Guardian). However in order to improve literacy, adjustments need to be made specifically in regards to multimedia elements. The Cooney study adds that “only adding features which are directly related to the story, while prioritizing literacy building over elements there ‘just for fun’ is a great start” (Flood, Guardian), while Colombo suggests ebooks that encourage focused concentration (Colombo 273). The common findings from all the researchers is that enhanced ebook have their benefits, and when used in moderation can be a great supplement to reading, but are no replacement for a young child’s print books. Enhanced ebooks should be used in moderation, much like a video games, or television. At a young age these ebooks provide entertainment, not help with literacy.
Colombo, Luca, et al. “Understanding reading experience to inform the design of ebooks for children” Proceedings of the 11th International Conference On Interaction Design And Children. ACM New York, 12 June 2012.
de Jong, Maria, and Adriana G. Bus. “Quality of Book-Reading Matters for Emergent Readers: An Experiment With the Same Book in a Regular or Electronic Format” Journal of Educational Psychology. 94.1 (2002): 145-155
Zucker, Tricia A, et al. “The effects of electronic books on pre-kindergarden to grade 5 students’ literacy and language outcomes: A research synthesis” Journal of Educational Computing Research. 40.1 (2009): 47-87