Why E-Reading with Your Kid Can Impede Learning

Parents tend to interrupt too much with "Don't turn the page yet" and "Click here!"

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A sizeable number of young kids will be getting e-readers this Christmas. Though not everyone is plunging in —  the New York Times recently reported that some adults are eschewing them for their children even while they embrace them for themselves — the appeal to parents is strong, especially when marketers pitch the devices as on-ramps to literacy.

What today’s gift-givers may not know is that the devices can unintentionally cause parents to hamper their child’s learning. This phenomenon first turned up a few years ago in research at Temple University on e-books for preschool and elementary school children. Instead of talking with their children about the content of the books, parents ended up spouting “do this, don’t do that” directives about how to use the devices. “Parents would put their hands over the kids’s hands,” said Julia Parish-Morris, the leader of the study and now a post-doctoral researcher in pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania. “They were trying to control their children’s behavior” to get them to move through the story chronologically, she explained.

Search “toddlers and iPad” on YouTube these days, and some of the same well-meaning but bossy talk is on display: Instead of asking their children about the on-screen content, parents bark: “Show me.” “Play it.” “Good job, go to the next one.” All this chatter may interfere with comprehension. When Parish-Morris at Temple tested how well children understood the stories on electronic devices, the e-book users did significantly worse than those who sat with their parents reading print. Parents may have interrupted more often because it was hard to get used to the device or too many images beckoned to be clicked. Either way, the kids ended up with “a jumbled version of the story in their brains,” she said.

(MORE: Annie Murphy Paul: Why Digital Literacy Will Never Replace the Traditional Kind)

A more recent study, led by Gabrielle Strouse at Vanderbilt University, also shows how much it matters what parents say and do while their children watch. Strouse asked parents of 3-year-olds to watch Scholastic books on video over several weeks, assigning the parents to “co-view” in different ways. She found that the children with mothers who merely pointed to something on screen or who didn’t talk at all showed fewer reading skills than those whose mothers were trained to ask questions about what might happen next and why. Strouse said it appeared that parents had to be trained on how to ask questions and prompt their children to talk about the video story, as it didn’t come naturally with the electronic version.

That conversational interaction, dubbed “dialogic reading” by Grover Whitehurst, director of education policy at the Brookings Institution, can be critical to learning. “The optimal situation is the back-and-forth interaction,” said Warren Buckleitner, an educational psychologist and editor of Children’s Technology Review, who led me to many YouTube videos of toddlers with their iPad-proud papas directing their every move. Several decades ago at Michigan State University, Buckleitner conducted studies on 3- to 5-year olds playing matching games on computers. His research showed that it’s not just commands from parents that can interfere with children’s engagement. Too many directives from software programs can have the same effect, ultimately shortchanging children’s learning. The best kids’ e-media, Buckleitner says, “lets children understand they are in the driver’s seat.”

Which may be another limitation of e-readers for kids — sometimes it’s hard for parents to just hand over the keys when what they’re steering comes  with electronic bells and whistles.