The read-aloud: Paper or pixels?

 //  Oct 14, 2014

The read-aloud: Paper or pixels?

Paper or pixels? What’s best for the read-aloud? Increasingly, that’s the question both parents and teachers are asking as beloved picture books navigate to the screen. Indeed, figuring out the answer has become a full-blown debate that recently landed on the front page of The New York Times.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is unequivocal in its response to the challenge. The organization says: No digital before the age of two. And after age two, pediatricians recommend only limited screen time for young children—about an hour and a half a day at the most. 

Talk Trumps All

But, decades-long research indicates that we may not be focusing on the right issue—it’s not the medium, it’s the interaction surrounding the book or tablet that makes the difference. More than 30 years ago, language researcher Shirley Brice Heath made the astute observation that children become readers with the help of even just one “joyfully literate” mentor who demonstrates both the magic and the mechanics of reading.

In other words, engaging a child in rich conversation as you read a tablet may trump reading a traditional picture book without conversation. Formally known as “dialogic reading,”this interactive technique, based on the research of Grover Whitehurst, shows adults how to prompt children with questions and engage them in discussion while reading aloud to them. You help young children build the language and literacy skills that lead to successful reading when you expand on their responses, encourage them to retell stories, and repeat and elaborate on the names, objects, and events in the book.

Critics of digital picture books claim that the electronic bells and whistles often associated with animated stories may interfere with a young child’s attention and, therefore, with both conversation and comprehension.  

Reading researchers Schugar, White, and Schugar suggest that the very “richness” of the digital features ebooks provide may “overwhelm kids’ limited working memory” so they “lose the thread of the narrative” and “process the meaning of the story less deeply.” Distracted by an array of talking characters and pop-up text balloons, kids may pay more attention to the sound and visual effects than to the story itself.

Our Recommendations

Our recommendations are two-fold: First, as needed, turn off the unnecessary bells and whistles. Look for ebook features that enhance rather than distract from the reading experience—for example, additional background information that helps children make sense of the story or built-in pronunciation guides and dictionaries that define complex words. Second, no matter what text you are sharing with a child—in whatever medium—have fun discussing every aspect. It’s the warm and lively interaction around text that delivers the learning potential of the read-aloud.   

No aspect of the read aloud—whether print or digital—is too small for comment. Whitehurst’s rules of engagement may be helpful. The fundamental interactive technique in dialogic reading is the PEER sequence between adult and child. The adult:

  • Prompts the child to say something about the story
  • Evaluates the child’s response
  • Expands the child’s response by rephrasing and adding information to it
  • Repeats the prompt to make sure the child has learned from the expansion

Of course, there are many different kinds of prompts. You can ask children to describe what is happening in the pictures that accompany the text. Or ask them to describe what just happened in the story and predict what will happen next. However, keep in mind: a truly engaging read-aloud, whether print or digital, will naturally spark animated conversation.

And that’s where the learning magic lies. As parents and teachers read and discuss texts, no matter the medium, children’s vocabularies grow, their understanding of the world expands, and their comprehension becomes deeper and more sophisticated. And, most important, through their interaction with a “joyfully literate mentor,” children learn that reading, print or pixels, is one of life’s greatest pleasures. With your help, children quickly learn the most important lesson of all: reading is joyful, powerful, and opens a “world of possible.”  

Which read-aloud medium do you choose? Paper or pixels or both? Why?

Earlier this year, we asked parents to tell us what their favorite books are to read aloud with their kids. Here are more than 100 titles they recommended. What did we miss?