Books vs. E-Readers: Choose Books To Help Kids Read


The New York Times’ article “Is E-Reading to Your Toddler Story Time, or Simply Screen Time?” asks if e-readers are a good substitute for traditional books. The article highlights research suggesting that traditional books are more effective at helping kids learn to read than e-books, in part because kids become distracted by the games and other bells and whistles provided by e-readers. The article also underscores how traditional books foster dialogic reading, the process in which parents engage their children in discussion (dialog) about a book they read together. Because dialogic reading helps kids actually practice using language, there’s no surprise that studies show this helps kids use more words, speak in longer sentences, score higher on vocabulary tests, and have better expressive language skills.[1] These findings seem to be reasons enough to choose traditional books over e-readers.

That being said, I realize that e-readers—which can hold a child’s attention without a parent being present—offer a seductive alternative to traditional books. When my girls were infants and toddlers, I sometimes found myself chugging tea or coffee at 9 or 10 o’clock at night so I could read to them after a long day of work and child care. Still I remember sometimes waking up in the comfy chair where I read to them with one of my girls staring up at me, because I’d fallen asleep before she did. Such challenges can lead parents to question if traditional books are really worth the effort. I believe the evidence presented here shows that they are.

To fully appreciate the difference between the effects of providing children books vs. e-readers, we need to consider the reality of how our kids use tablets and other devices that offer e-reading capability. Many parents I work with complain that kids left alone with e-readers don’t use them to read, but instead use the devices to video game or play around on the Internet at the expense of reading or schoolwork. This isn’t surprising, as American children’s use of digital self-amusements completely overshadows their use of learning-based applications (see “Parenting Like a Tech Exec”).

Another concern about providing kids the mobile devices used as e-readers is that this may unwittingly increase their use of television, a medium which has been shown to displace kids’ reading and therefore diminish kids’ reading proficiency.[2] The Kaiser Family Foundation notes, “It seems clear that one of the main roles ‘new’ communication technologies play is to bring more ‘old’ media content into young people’s lives. Being able to access TV online and on mobile platforms has led to a substantial increase in the amount of time young people spend watching, to a total of just about 4½ hours a day (4:29), nearly 40 minutes more than 5 years ago (3:51).”[3] Apparently, giving kids more screens leads to more screen time.

Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan said years ago, “The medium is the message.”[4] How messages are conveyed (e.g., via tablet computer or book) may be as important as the content itself. While parents would hope their kids would use tablets to read, in actuality these devices are synonymous with gaming and entertainment—especially for kids. As noted in the USA Today article, “Games dominate Apple’s all-time apps list,” 15 of the 25 most-ever-downloaded paid apps for Apple’s iPad are games, including 5 of the top 6: Angry Birds HD, Angry Birds Seasons HD, Fruit Ninja HD, etc. When we provide kids a tablet, gaming is often first on their mind. In contrast, when we provide children a book, we send the message that reading is important.


[1] Parish-Morris, J, Mahajan, N., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Collins, M. F. (2013). Once upon a time: Parent-child dialogue and storybook reading in the electronic era. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7(3), 200-211.

[2] Comstock, G., & Scharrer, E. (1999). Television: What’s on, who’s watching, and what it means. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

[3] Rideout, V. J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved March 1, 2014, from, p. 15.

[4] McLuhan, M., & Fiore, Q. (1967). The medium is the massage: An inventory of effects. New York; Bantam.

Photo Credit: Levranii and leungchopan/Shutterstock

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