Digital vs. live book reading—does it matter for preschoolers?

Young children using storybook apps instead of having the book read live to them—what do we think about this?

The impact of digital media on child learning has received quite a bit of attention of the past couple decades. This study not only reviews much of that literature, but adds some relevant data.

The researchers recruited 3- and 4-year-old children enrolled in a Head Start program. The resultant preschool group had a range of language skills, from significantly delayed to above average, but with the average child in their group falling in the low-average range (as measured by the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-4). A within-subject design, the kids all received readings from several age-appropriate stories, with comprehension measures following. However, some were read live, and others were via video. The stories were pulled from Speakaboos*, which is an app designed to read stories to 2–6-year-old kids, with video animation and interactive literacy-supportive features. The researchers removed the interactive component from both the live and video conditions, though—so these Speakaboos stories were video-only for the “digital” condition, then they used screenshots of the storybook pages and printed them to create books for the “live” condition. So truly the only difference was whether someone was reading the kids stories live vs. via video.

Are there differences in reading comprehension, word learning, or enjoyment of reading when the book is read live vs. read digitally?

They found that the medium did NOT have an impact on: words learned, comprehension, or motivation to read more. The thing that DID impact all of these (words learned, comprehension, motivation to read more) was the story itself. Certain stories gained better child outcomes, simply based on their content (e.g. those that were easier for the kids to understand).

Though “…certainly not a substitute for parent­–child interactive reading…” (the live condition wasn’t dialogic at all), digital stories may certainly have their place in literacy support.

Neuman, S.B., Wong, K.M., & Kaefer, T. (2017). Content not form predicts oral language comprehension: the influence of medium on preschoolers’ story understanding. Reading and Writing. Advance online publication. doi:10.1007/s11145-017-9750-4.

*Speakaboos is an app that you can download for free. It allows you a week- or month-long free trial, but then switches you over to pay ~ $5–8/month, depending on which plan you choose.