Reading digital books can promote story comprehension more than reading the same books on paper. However, this occurs only when the digital books are equipped with content-related enhancements.
This finding comes from our quantitative review of 39 studies involving 1,812 children, most of whom were 4- to 5-year-olds. Only nine studies included children mainly from low SES families, and the rest focused on children from middle or high social economic status families or mixed groups. The studies were from the United States, Canada, Israel, and the Netherlands.
Digital books can offer oral narration and enhancements to replace an adult pointing, commenting, and explaining to a child. These enhancements provide background information and explain events. For example, in Elmo Goes to the Doctor, the reader can click each character in the waiting room and see why each one is at the doctor’s office. Likewise, hotspots in other digital books may elicit comments from characters that expand on the text and provide additional information to support comprehension.
However, not all digital books enhance story comprehension. A digital book that lacks enhancements – which is practically the same as the paper version – has less effect than a paper book. The most plausible reason is that the device on which the child is reading the digital book attracts the child’s attention at the expense of the story.
Our review also found that digital books can have enhancements that interfere with story comprehension. For example, many commercially published digital picture books include a dictionary. The reader can tap on individual pictures to make the name of the object or action pop up and hear the word spoken aloud. This enhancement has either no effect or a negative effect on children’s story comprehension. This is not surprising, given that focusing attention on word meanings distracts children’s attention from the storyline. Young children do not have the cognitive resources to focus on word meanings and the storyline at the same time.
Digital books: An effective alternative in families where book sharing is infrequent
Books are a crucial environmental factor for children’s language skills. They expose young children to more and richer language than do conversations between caregivers and children. But many parents do not establish daily book reading routines because of reading problems, lack of time or interest in literary texts, or prioritizing other activities, such as viewing films, over reading books.
Over the years, there have been family programs to promote book reading, often with disappointing effects. Even after intensive coaching of parents, such programs have produced only moderate gains in language and literacy. This suggests that book reading is unsustainable as a daily routine for many families. Therefore, access to high-quality digital books, which can be read by children independently, can provide a safety net, compensating for missing book reading with parents and other caregivers at home, at least as far as cognitive skills are concerned.
Of course, parents need to encourage their children’s use of digital books. However, optimal use of these books requires direct input from parents since sharing digital books nurtures parent-child relationships and socioemotional development.