I’ve spent a lot of time watching my three- and five-year-old daughters explore, play, and read on an iPad. While touch-screen devices are wonderful in many ways, they do a really lousy job in one particular area: deeply engaging kids in narrative. Interactivity is stopping children from falling in love with stories. This, I fear, will have long-term consequences, depriving children of one of the most important benefits of reading for pleasure, the essential inner work of imagination and empathy.
The trouble with tablets
More children now read on electronic devices than read physical books according to a recent survey of nearly 35,000 8- to 16-year-olds conducted by the UK’s National Literacy Trust. But screens don’t seem to be improving their experience of reading. Children who read only on-screen are three times less likely to enjoy reading (12 percent vs. 51 percent) and a third less likely to have a favorite book (59 percent vs. 77 percent). Other key findings:
- 15.5 percent of kids who read daily, but only on-screen, are above average readers.
- 26 percent of those who read daily in print, or both in print and on-screen, read at an above average level.
So why don’t tablets enhance the experience of reading? Most children will not fall in love with reading as quickly as they will get hooked on an interactive game. A touch-screen device makes it all too easy for a child to dismiss reading as boring or “flat” in comparison with the instant gratification of games and apps. There are simply too many distractions just a click away. Children are most likely to engage with stories in the right environment and context, and that means away from a screen.
Interactive stories are designed for young children who may still need guided reading, but that interactivity often creates more of a game experience than a reading experience. Instead of being the focus, the story becomes merely a background.
Best-selling children’s author Julia Donaldson, whose picture books dominate top 10 lists, explains why she vetoed an e-book version of her most famous title, The Gruffalo, in a 2011 article in the Guardian. “The publishers showed me an e-book ofAlice in Wonderland,” Donaldson said. “They said, ‘Look, you can press buttons and do this and that,’ and they showed me the page where Alice’s neck gets longer,” said Donaldson. “There’s a button the child can press to make the neck stretch, and I thought, well, if the child’s doing that, they are not going to be listening or reading.”
The typical argument for interactive stories goes like this: Soon enough, children will only read on screens, and where readers are going, publishers must follow. Kate Wilson, the founder of children’s publisher Nosy Crow argues that publishers must create reading experiences for touch-screen devices so that children will continue to read. “We shouldn’t go a little way down the digital path or do it half-heartedly and with reluctance,” she writes. “We should, I think, go to where our readers are going, and make sure that they read along the way.”
On books and bonding
Bedtime reading is, sadly, declining and there is some early evidence to suggest that screens are partly to blame. The tablet has become the pacifier of choice in the modern family and both parents and children see using a tablet as a solitary experience rather than a shared activity. A recent poll showed that only 13% of parents read to their kids every night. Interactive stories will never be a substitute for reading a book with a young child. Physical books offer a parent and a child a unique opportunity to bond. During a bedtime story, the only stimuli are the adult’s voice and intonation and the book’s pictures. The best stories require interpretation and stimulate discussion between parent and child.
Reading for pleasure is not instinctual. Unlike the instantly alluring tablet, engaging with stories is an acquired skill that takes time and effort. Parents should encourage a balanced “diet” of online and offline reading—both for older kids reading by themselves and for toddlers who need guided reading—to provide them with the necessary mental space to engage with a story in a deeper way.