Digital Literacy: Could e-books be a detriment to reading fluency?

Digital books have been around for a while now.  I’ve read a handful of books on my low-cost model Kindle and a couple on the Kindle app on my iPad.  I like having the flexibility to use digital books.  However, there just is something about a physical book that is special.  I definitely would know; I have lots of them.

While digital books are great green space-savers, could they actually be hindering reading proficiency?  At first, that concept seems silly: the built-in dictionaries can give instant access to unknown words, the read-aloud functions can help pronounce words or even pages, and the font size can adjust for eye problems.  But let’s look closer at those.

If you aren’t careful, those “helpful extras” can quickly and easily turn into “distracting extras”.  Videos that pop up in text books that enhance learning?  Sounds great: but now the student has to stop reading, focus on the new content, and then return to the reading content trying to remember what was being said before the video.

Annie Murphy Paul reported, for the New York Times, on a recently presented study by Heather Ruetschlin Schugar and Jordan T. Schugar from West Chester University.  The researchers found that among middle and high school students, “reading comprehension…was higher when they read conventional books” versus digital books on iPads.

Paul, summarizing information presented by the Shugars, states succinctly:

Parents and teachers to look for e-books that enhance and extend interactions with the text, rather than those that offer only distractions; that promote interactions that are relatively brief rather than time-consuming; that provide supports for making text-based inferences or understanding difficult vocabulary; and that locate interactions on the same page as the text display, rather than on a separate screen.

In addition, Paul states:

Adults should ensure that children are not overusing e-book features like the electronic dictionary or the “read-to-me” option. Young readers can often benefit from looking up the definition of a word with a click, but doing it too often will disrupt reading fluidity and comprehension. Even without connecting to the dictionary, children are able to glean the meaning of many words from context. Likewise, the read-to-me feature can be useful in decoding a difficult word, but when used too often it discourages children from sounding out words on their own.

So are digital books going to kill literacy rates?  Probably not.  However, if you don’t apply the same methods to learning how to read when using digital books as was done with physical books, we may have fewer and fewer people willing to read 500+ page books.


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