What’s the difference between a child reading a digital picture book on a screen and reading the same book, printed? Small children often find digital books fascinating; they also become excited with the opportunity to enjoy a printed book. They’re both books, right? So, what’s the diff?
Important to note here, is that what are often called digital books are often not just books in the strictest sense. Some digital books, like those found for free at Unite for Literacy and the International Children’s Digital Library, offer text and lovely images, closely paralleling printed books. However, these days, the phrase digital books for children often refers to what are effectively digital games and video-rich puzzles built around a simple narrative. These features add a whole new dynamic to reading, potentially overshadowing what is no longer a literacy event. These bells and whistles offer a distraction from both the text and the parent-child interaction and bonding typically associated with shared book reading. So any comparisons between printed book reading and digital book reading must first be inspected for whether they are both simply books or whether we are effectively being asked to compare apples with apple pie. One of those is inarguably good for children. The other is delightful in the short term, but a steady diet of it is not necessarily all that healthy.
Still, even simple digital books are a bit magical. Tapping here, swiping there, zooming on images with the spread of fingers, changing fonts or having a page read to them with the touch of the screen all add to the reading experience. These are aspects that are unique to digital versions of even simple books. When we buy or check out a child’s digital book, we know that we get more than the story or the information. That along with the ability to store hundreds of books in a pocket-sized device portend to make digital books a fabulous addition to our reading lives.
Printed books are compelling because aspects of their physical features create excitement in the children, predictably due to the page by page unfolding of a story, and the touch, feel and sense of progress that come with a book’s covers to open and pages to turn. Printed books have heft and texture. They can be two dozen shapes and be supple or stiff. Printed books also have what avid readers know to be a captivating smell. They make noise when the pages turn and the spine cracks when the book is flattened onto a lap or table. All of that enriches the already wonderful experience that reading brings.
But bottom line…
What can’t happen with digital books (again, not to be confused with game-like activities within which are embedded some text) that are read with family members cuddled together and those that have been printed and read in a like manner?
- Fluent and expressive language?
- Pleasant conversation around topics and plot twists?
- Engagement with new words and worlds?
All that’s different is the package. Absent that disparity, we might just call them all old-fashioned, good reads.