Ebook vs. Print Book Study: 5 Takeaways

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A recent meta-analysis found that children ages 1 to 8 were less likely to understand picture books if they read the ebook version instead of the print version, but only when the ebook didn’t have effective enhancements. 

For the analysis, researchers examined more than 39 studies involving more than 1,800 children. Though generally print picture books outperformed their digital counterparts in terms of reader comprehension, if the ebooks contained enhancements that reinforced story content not only did the print advantage go away but students learned more. 

Natalia Kucirkova, one of the study’s authors and a professor of Early Childhood and Development at the University of Stavanger, Norway and Open University, United Kingdom, discusses the implications of the study for educators. 

1. Students Tend to Learn More From a Print Book Than an Ebook 

Several previous meta-analyses looking at how reading comprehension differs between print and ebooks have found small advantages in comprehension for print. Researchers call this the “print advantage” or “screen inferiority effect.” 

On one hand, Kucirkova’s research builds on this body of evidence. “We found a negative impact of digital books on children’s, 1- to 8-year-olds' learning when comparing digital and print books, mirroring the results of meta-analyses with adult readers,” she says. 

But research also demonstrated that when it comes to childhood reading not all digital books are equal. “Our results are significantly moderated by the design of the tested digital books and may reflect the rather low quality of enhancements in the digital books available for young children,” she says. 

2. An Ebook Can Outperform Print Version with the Right Enhancements  

In the analysis, Kucirkova and her co-authors categorized digital book enhancements as either story-related or not story-related. “Those that are story-related improve children’s story comprehension and learning of vocabulary because they direct the child’s attention to the story and its learning elements,” she says. 

Story-related enhancements can take various forms, for example, a prompt question for the child that makes them reflect on the story content, or a word that is highlighted as it is being spoken aloud. “The enhancements that are not helpful for story comprehension are hotspots and mini-games that distract and overwhelm children,” says Kurcirkova. 

3. Ebooks Appeal to Certain Students  

“Ebooks are popular among children with little history of reading at home, and children who are reluctant readers,” Kucirkova says. “Also, given the customizability of ebooks, children with special educational needs or those who want to advance reading at their own pace prefer ebooks, or at least they like ebooks as much as print books.”

If possible, educators should provide a healthy mix of print and ebooks to meet the needs of all readers. 

“Depending on the technology availability in the classroom or home, a digital book can be read on multiple devices simultaneously, thus engaging families or groups of children,” she says. “Also, all children can have their own copy of the digital book open on their personal device, if they have one.” 

4. Educators Should Assess an Ebook Before Assigning One 

The use of digital books needs to be planned just like the use of print books. “Consider the entire cycle of the reading activity,” says Kucirkova. “What happens before the reading session starts, how does the digital book fit with the lesson objectives and individual children’s needs/skills/preferences. Does the content of the digital book promote dialogue among children?” 

Ebooks should be vetted just like print books so educators can become familiar with the story and any features, and also check that there are no embedded ads or add-on purchases as there are with apps. 

Educators can also explore guiding documents on Children’s Digital Books, an international collective of researchers and children’s books authors chaired by Kucirkova that provides resources to educators about best practices around ebook use. 

5. Further Research Is Needed to Understand Ebooks 

Kucirkova would like various types of ebook enhancements to be studied further. “Some digital books have some very exciting features, for example when children can move characters around the screen to perform actions described in the story,” she says. “Children may remember a story better if they can physically manipulate story elements, and such books may also stimulate children’s empathy.” 

In addition, she’d like to further study the role of ebooks in various subage groups within the 1 to 8 age range, in particular how print books and ebooks stack up in terms of reader motivation. “Only a few authors included motivation as an outcome measure in the studies we meta-analysed, so we couldn’t formally evaluate it, which is a pity as reading motivation is so important in young learners,” she says. 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.