Reading with your children: proper books vs tablets

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Opal Eyes/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

By Nicola Yuill, University of Sussex

Most of us have an opinion about whether we prefer reading on screen or paper: but what difference does it make for children? The truth is that technology is now encountered from babyhood. Anecdotes abound of toddlers swiping their fingers across paper rather than turning the page, while parents and teachers express their fear of screen addiction as tablets introduce new distractions as well as new attractions for young readers. The Conversation

Ofcom figures tell us that children’s screen use rises sharply towards the end of primary school (from age seven to 11) and in the same period, book-reading drops. Increasing screen use is a reality, but does it contribute to a loss of interest in reading, and does reading from a screen provide the same experience as the feel of reading on paper?

We looked at this in our research on shared reading. This has been a neglected topic even though it is clearly a common context for children when they read at home. It might be their regular homework reading of a book from school, or a parent reading them a favourite bedtime story.

Warming up

We asked 24 mothers and their seven to nine-year-old children to take turns – mother reading or child reading – with popular fiction books on paper, and on a tablet. They read Barry Loser: I am not a Loser by Jim Smith and You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum by Andy Stanton. We found that the children’s memory for the descriptions and narratives showed no difference between the two media. But that’s not the whole story.

The interactions of parent and child were found to be different in the independent ratings from video observation of the study. When they read from paper rather than a screen, there was a significant increase in the warmth of the parent/child interactions: more laughter, more smiling, more shows of affection.

It may be that this is largely down to the simple physical positioning of the parent and child when using the different media, as well as their cultural meaning. When children were reading from a screen, they tended to hold the tablet in a head-down position, typical of the way they would use the device for solo activities such as one-player games or web-browsing.

This meant that the parents had to “shoulder-surf” in order to share visual attention. In contrast, when parents read to their children on paper, they often held the book out to support shared visual engagement, tucking the child cosily under their arms. Some children just listened without trying to see the book, but instead curled themselves up comfortably on the sofa.

Paper or pixels?
Megan Trace/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Keep taking the tablets?

Our research joins a growing list of studies comparing paper and e-books, but the answer isn’t a simple one. Shared reading is different to reading alone, for a start. And we may be interested in whether screen or paper makes a difference in how children learn to read, to understand, and enjoy reading. In short there are multiple perspectives to consider – developmental, educational, literary and technological – if we are to decide which medium is preferable.

Most studies have compared children at the earliest stages of reading, using paper books, e-books with audio and dictionary support to help less-skilled readers, and so-called “enhanced” e-books with multimedia, activities, hotspots and games.

Text with audio support helps children to decode text, and multimedia can keep a reluctant reader engaged for longer, so a good e-book can indeed be as good as an adult reading a paper book with their child. But we don’t yet have long-term studies to tell us whether constant provision of audio might prevent children developing ways of unpicking the code of written language themselves.

They think I’m reading; I’m playing Candy Crush.
George Rudy/Shutterstock

Re-design for life

There is also increasing evidence that adding multimedia and games can quickly get distracting: one study found that young children spent almost half their time playing games in enhanced e-books, and therefore they read, remembered and understood little of the story itself. But there is plenty of guidance for e-book developers on the what, where and how much of designing multimedia texts.

And that brings us back to perhaps the defining conclusion from our own study. Books versus screens is not a simple either/or – children don’t read books in a cultural vacuum and we can’t approach the topic just from a single academic field. Books are just books, with a single typical use, but screens have many uses, and currently most of these uses are designed round a single user, even if that user is interacting with others remotely.

We believe that designers could think more about how such technology can be designed for sharing, and this is especially true for reading, which starts, and ideally continues, as a shared activity in the context of close long-term family relationships. Book Trust figures report a drop from 86% of parents reading with their five-year-olds to just 38% with 11-year olds. There is a possibility that the clever redesign of e-books and tablets might just slow that trend.

Nicola Yuill, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


A world connected by words

Text by Nora Vasconcelos

Tree HousePhotos courtesy of Trish Nicholson

If you ever wonder if someone out there is reading what you write, the answer is Yes! Even though a big silence might surround you, all these words that you’re sending to the outer space, are echoing somewhere in the planet.

And this is when my good friend Trish Nicholson (@TrishaNicholson) comes in. About two years ago, or may be more, Trish and I met thanks to Twitter. Ever since, we’ve kept in touch, no matter the ocean in between.


Throughout this time, I’ve found in Trish a very nice loyal friend who’s supportive and caring towards her fellow writers.

Her blog Words in the Tree House ( is like actually being there, inside her tree house, built in a huge pine tree, overlooking a wetland and distant forested hills, having interesting conversations about her various trips, either to the Himalayas or the Philippines; the books she’s read such as Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, and the ones she’s written, like Inside Stories for Writers and Readers.

Words of a child, words of a woman
Trish started writing when she was very young. Back then, she pretended to deliver stories about animals for a newspaper, although, she says, at that time, her writing was taken over by school work.

Once she finished her studies in anthropology, she spent a good deal of time travelling in 20 or more countries. “During those years my writing was for my personal journals, not for publication,” Trish says.

Most of her early trips were decided by her work in rural aid and development, so they were often in isolated parts of developing countries. Other travel was for research, in Asia and Australia.

A good place to start
By that time, she settled in New Zealand, and took advantage of the opportunities that the digital publishing industry was offering. It was then, when the idea of writing travelogues started.

She saw that Collca (, an electronic publisher, focused its work on non-fiction short eBooks and Apps on a range of topics. “They wanted to start a BiteSize Travel series and I made a formal submission to them with a few ideas based on my own travelling. The result was my first two travelogues: Masks of the Moryons, and Journey in Bhutan”, Trish remembers.

According to her experience, small independent and digital publishers can be more flexible, “and the whole process is simpler and quicker. It is also easy to have colour photographs which would be too expensive in a print book”.

As Collca accepts direct submissions, she didn’t need an agent, so, for new authors, Digital publishing is a good place to start, Trish says.

Did you ever think that you could become a published author?
It wasn’t something I thought about or consciously aimed at in the early days. It just happened a step at a time: the published articles came first, then I was invited to contribute a chapter to a book; a publisher commissioned me to co-editor and revise a book on tourism, and another publisher accepted my submission of a book on management.

What has been your experience of working with Collca?
Mike Hyman at Collca works closely with me, discussing every aspect of the work including my views on titles and covers. We work on marketing together. And he is innovative, always open to new ideas – he accepted my study of human evolution and storytelling – From Apes to Apps: How Humans Evolved as Storytellers and Why it Matters – as the first in a new popular science series. He doesn’t mind my writing in different genre. This is a freedom I really appreciate.

Her latest book
Trish has recently published her latest book, Inside Stories for Writers and Readers, where she explores the relationship between a reader and a writer when a story is read.

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“I discuss inspiration, character, theme, voice etc. analysing 15 of my own stories to reveal insights into story elements. Although it is about creative writing and reading, it is not a how-to book, but more like a companion or an entertaining friend.”

How is this book different from the BiteSize ebook you published last February?
Inside Stories is a full-sized book, and is available as a paperback as well as an eBook, which gives readers more choice – some people like both. And there is a bonus, From Apes to Apps will be included in the print book.

The craft of writing
Rather than a strict routine, Trish has the habit of writing during the mornings after breakfast, stopping at any time when she feels tired, or keeping on, if the words flow especially well. Often, she edits or researches in the afternoon, and reads in the evening.

What kind of stories do you enjoy writing the most? Why?
I especially like writing flash fiction – very short stories of around 500-1000 words – because it has a tight focus on a particular issue, and there is a challenge to use just the right words and find a resolution in such a small space. The shorter ones take a lot of editing to get right, they are often more difficult to write than longer stories.

What story would you like to write at some point?
Although my stories are based in various locations – Texas, Scotland, England, New Zealand – they are all in Western cultures. I would like to write stories set in other cultures, in places I have travelled. My doctoral studies were in anthropology, so this is of particular interest to me.

Can you share some of your experiences as a blogger?
The two most important things I found in having a blog are, first: to be realistic about how often to post so that I could write good quality articles. I keep to the same standards as if I were submitting a piece for formal publication, and second: it is essential to use social media – I use Twitter – to relate to people and let them know the blog posts are there. I post every week – articles about travel and about writing, photo-essays, or reviews. It is a good discipline to have to write an interesting piece each week.

Around the world
Trish’s journeys to India, China, Peru, Bhutan, Tibet, Italy and Spain, have given her the opportunity to cultivate her interests in cultures, mountain trekking and old cities, enthusiasm that might as well take her one day to countries like Sri Lanka or Mexico.

However, her most recent idea for a book is focusing on a long travel narrative about the years she spent in Papua New Guinea. “It shares my adventures working with local people in isolated parts of West Sepik Province. This country has the most diverse cultures and challenging environments on earth, and it’s one of the last stands of wilderness, both beautiful and dangerous.”

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