May 2, 2017

Chicka Chicka USB: Whether print or digital, toddlers can follow a story


If you’ve seen a toddler tackle a smartphone, with that creepily innate ability to swipe left and right through all your photos, this story will come as no shock to you: a recent study shows that preschoolers have the same level of story comprehension regardless of whether the story is presented in print or digital format.

The study, presented yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, looked at children’s word learning and story comprehension, as well as their interest in stories read aloud versus stories presented on a screen. Thirty-eight children, all three or four years old, listened to four storybooks: two print, and two digital. The print books were read aloud by an adult; the digital books came from Speekaboos, which creates interactive stories with animated page turns, characters that move with the story’s action, and light-up text.

Upon finishing each story, the children were assigned tasks to gauge their comprehension and vocabulary. They also had to place the story’s events in the correct sequence.

The upshot? No significant differences across media. The children showed equal reading comprehension between formats, and, just as importantly, were equally motivated to learn, regardless of whether the title was a fancy light-up digital book or an old-fashioned print one. And while the children did struggle with story comprehension, those struggles were over the stories themselves — not the format.

One of the study’s coauthors, NYU Professor of Childhood and Literary Education Susan B. Neuman, said in a press release, “It’s possible that when it comes to books, we have overestimated the means of delivery and have underestimated the importance of the content conveyed in the media.”

But perhaps this study isn’t a wholesale validation of more screen time for your toddlers. Many other studies do show that “video deficit”—highlighting the negative impact on children’s learning when material is presented by video rather than an actual person—is a real concern in children’s development, suggesting that screen time should be limited. And it’s worth mentioning that this study was funded by Amazon — who definitely have a stake in younger generations’ ready adaptation to digital reading.



Susan Rella is the Director of Production at Melville House, and a former bookseller.