Is E-Reading to Your Toddler Story Time, or Simply Screen Time?

To Read or to E-Read with your child? If that is a question you have asked yourself, you may be interested in the following article.

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Clifford the Big Red Dog looks fabulous on an iPad. He sounds good too — tap the screen and hear him pant as a blue truck roars into the frame. “Go, truck, go!” cheers the narrator.

Does this count as story time or is it just screen time for babies?
It is a question that parents, pediatricians and researchers are struggling to answer as children’s books, just like all the other ones, migrate to digital media.

For years, child development experts have advised parents to read to their children early and often, citing studies showing its linguistic, verbal and social benefits. On the other hand, no screen time for children under 2 and less than two hours a day for older children is recommended.

At a time when reading increasingly means swiping pages on a device and app stores are bursting with reading programs and learning games aimed at infants and preschoolers, which bit of guidance should parents heed?

The answer is not yet entirely clear. Part of the problem is the newness of the devices. Tablets and e-readers have not been in widespread use long enough for the sorts of extended studies that will reveal their effects on learning.

A handful of new studies suggest that reading to a child from an electronic device undercuts the dynamic that drives language development.

“What we’re really after in reading to our children is behavior that sparks a conversation,” said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology and co-author of the 2013 study. “But if that book has things that disrupt the conversation, like a game plopped right in the middle of the story, then it’s not offering you the same advantages as an old-fashioned book.”

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Of course, e-book publishers and app developers point to interactivity as an educational advantage, not a distraction. Many of those bells and whistles — Clifford’s bark, the sleepy narration of “Goodnight Moon,” the appearance of the word “ham” when a child taps the ham in the Green Eggs and Ham app — help the child pick up language, they say.

There is some evidence to bear out those claims, at least in relation to other technologies. A study by the University of Wisconsin in 2013 found that 2-year-olds learned words faster with an interactive app as opposed to one that required no action. But when it comes to learning language, researchers say, no piece of technology can substitute for a live instructor — even if the child appears to be paying close attention.

Patricia K. Kuhl, a director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, led a study in 2003 that compared a group of 9-month-old babies who were addressed in Mandarin by a live instructor with a group addressed in Mandarin by an instructor on a DVD. Children in a third group were exposed only to English.

“The way the kids were staring at the screen, it seemed obvious they would learn better from the DVDs,” she said. But brain scans and language testing revealed that the DVD group “learned absolutely nothing,” Dr. Kuhl said. In other words its being ‘talked with’ not being ‘talked at’ that teaches children language.

“Similarly, perhaps the biggest threat posed by e-books that read themselves to children, or engage them with games, is that they could lull parents into abdicating their educational responsibilities”, said Mr. Snow of the US National Association for the Education of Young Children.

“There’s the possibility for e-books to become the TV babysitters of this generation,” he said. “We don’t want parents to say, ‘There’s no reason for me to sit here and turn pages and tell my child how to read the word, because my iPad can do it”.

toddler choosing

Jennings, Paul, The reading bug : and how to help your child catch it
French, Jackie, I spy a great reader : unlock the literary secret and get your child
Fox, Mem, Reading magic [DVD]

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