Reading on a computer screen became a must for millions of youngsters at the onset of pandemic-induced school closures when they lost access to classrooms and library books in school buildings. So quite timely is this recent meta-analysis that examines academic outcomes for children who read digitally versus via print media. Conducted by three researchers from Norway, it attempts to reconcile inconsistent findings on this question over the years. Yet that proved to be a tall order.
The analysts dive into thirty-nine studies from eight countries that met their selection criteria—the most important of which is that the studies have to be experimental or quasi-experimental; have to compare reading the same narrative in digital and print format for emerging readers between 1 and 8 years old; and have to provide effect sizes or sufficient information for them to be calculated. They are interested in whether digital books have the same effect as paper books on children’s comprehension and vocabulary if the only difference is the reading medium, how a dictionary impacts outcomes, how providing adult support during a book reading session influences the findings, and how the design of digital books might explain their effects, particularly through certain types of storytelling enhancements built into the reading platform. These include typical voice-alouds, but also enhancements that focus a child’s attention on the storyline—such as synchronizing visualizations or actions with the narration—such that the child is given visual and verbal clues.
The five main findings reveal that the simple question at the heart of the investigation, paper or digital, is not so simple after all. When comparing digital and paper books that only differed by digitization or lack thereof, paper books outperformed, as the use of digital books showed lower comprehension. But if digital books had story-content enhancements, they were more effective than paper books. The setting also mattered, though. In studies that took place in a school setting, paper books outperformed digital books. But studies that took place at home or in a lab showed no difference. In those studies that included low-income families, paper outperformed digital. In samples that included mainly middle- and high-income families, digital and paper had the same impact. Because the support of adults may have interacted with the medium in similar ways, the researchers tested the effects of enhancements controlling for that support and found that so-called dialogic reading activities were more effective during print-book reading than were the enhancements in digital books read independently. If digital books only had a dictionary and no story-content enhancement, there was no difference between digital and paper in terms of comprehension, although the dictionaries did boost vocabulary learning. Finally, genre also mattered. The outcomes were more positive for digital with nonfiction books, while the twelve studies with only fiction texts did not reveal differences between paper and digital.
What does all this mean? The researchers say that “screen inferiority” can be overcome by optimizing the design of digital books so that electronic enhancements specifically target story content—by, for example, prompting children’s background knowledge, providing additional context for events, or synchronizing visuals with the narration. They note that certain outcomes for digital reading, such as vocabulary growth, are more positive in newer studies, perhaps indicating that the quality of digital reading materials has improved over time. Dictionaries, an old-fashioned staple for emerging readers, don’t appear to help with comprehension in either format, perhaps because a focus on word meaning distracts young children’s attention from the story content. The researchers also suggest that low-income children may struggle with digital reading if they are more used to interacting with game-like activities on screens, although that is merely speculation.
These findings are quite germane to the latest updates to the NAEP Reading Framework, about which Fordham’s President Emeritus Checker Finn has recently written. He expressed concern that the “universal design elements” in the new NAEP reading framework—”intended to mirror typical (non-testing) reading situations to improve the validity of the assessment”—might actually backfire and instead conceal reading deficiencies. In helping to provide “orientation, guidance, and motivation” for students, the universal design elements sound quite similar to the “story content enhancements” and the “adult supports” in this study. But the question remains: How much help is too much when we’re assessing how well kids can read?
SOURCE: May Irene Furenes, Natalia Kucirkova, and Adriana G. Bus, “A Comparison of Children’s Reading on Paper Versus Screen: A Meta-Analysis,” Review of Educational Research (March 2021).