Judging a book by its cover – Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
I’m a bookworm. One of the greatest challenges for me when I first moved overseas (in the pre-Amazon era) was to keep my home stocked with fresh reading material. On rare visits home, I raided used bookstores and shipped my loot back to Japan by sea mail. The Kindle I bought before my most recent move was one of the best gifts I’ve ever given myself. It feeds my need to read, and removes the anxiety of being caught without a book at hand.
Electronic books and the devices we read them on are great for many reasons — they save trees, they save space, and digital books never go out of print. In short, they represent a great development for voracious readers. However, research suggests that they may not be so great for children who are still learning to read.
Research into what happens when children read and interact with books on a computer screen or on a tablet is still in its infancy, but preliminary findings indicates that e-books, particularly enhanced e-books (where children touch items on the screen to make things happen), may actually interfere with a child’s literacy development. The goodies that attract children to interact with the screen also distract them from interacting with the text. There’s a risk that children could end up feeling engaged with books without actually developing the skills to read them.
Becoming a strong, fluent reader requires skills that aren’t easily developed with digital books:
Predicting. We want students to be able to identify genre, or predict what a story will be about by looking at the cover art, “walking” quickly through the pages, or reading the blurb on the back of the book. This is much easier to do with a book that has a cover rather than an icon.
Discovering preferences. We want students to browse bookshelves in order to discover their emerging tastes in literature. Searching an electronic catalog makes us more familiar with the contents of a category, but reduces the chance of a serendipitous discovery on the new arrival shelf at the library.
Skimming and scanning. Students can certainly go to different sections of an e-book or search for keywords, but that’s a different skill. There’s value in quickly flipping through pages to find information or to summarize.
Adjusting reading speed and approach based on the type of text and purpose. E-books are wonderful when our interaction with the content is essentially linear, as in following a story as it unfolds. They’re less than ideal when we need to jump around looking for specific information to answer a homework question or when we’re searching for a citation we vaguely recall seeing in a reference book. For text that explains concepts or provides information, a linear approach to reading is limiting. This may be why college students still prefer ridiculously expensive textbooks rather than the less expensive digital versions.
Aside from skills development, it’s still easier, and more cost-effective to purchase traditional books for a class library. If I purchase from a used bookstore like Better World Books, I’m also saving trees and contributing to literacy charities around the world.
Digital books are engaging; so let them be a reward for children working hard at becoming literate, or a motivator for the reluctant reader. However, let’s make sure our students learn all of the skills they’ll need to enjoy stories as well as story apps, and let’s celebrate their pride in being able to browse the library shelf for a book that looks interesting and say, “I can read it myself!”