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More Research on Digital Reading Needed, Group Contends

A prominent child-advocacy group is calling for stepped-up research into the impact of digital technology on children's reading.

"'Reading' used to mean sitting down with a book and turning pages as a story unfolded. Today it may mean sitting down with a device that offers multimedia experiences and blurs the line between books and toys," according to a release accompanying a new report, titled "Children, Teens, and Reading," from San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media. "All of this has a led to a major disruption in how, what, when, and where children and teens read, and there is much we don't yet know."

Last week, Education Week took an in-depth look at an emerging body of research suggesting that screen-based digital reading may be harming students' comprehension and learning.

Common Sense Media provides independent reviews and rating of children's media. In a comprehensive review of existing research and data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the Kaiser Family Foundation, children's book publisher Scholastic, and others, the group found an abundance of evidence pointing to worrisome trends in children's reading habits and abilities over the past two decades.

But there is a paucity of research into the impact that increasingly prevalent digital reading technologies such as e-readers and tablet computers may be having.

As a result, the group suggests the creation of an inventory of digital reading platforms and products, as well as further research into six key areas: 

  1. How do children and families use e-books?  The emphasis should be on better understanding how e-books are used in the real world, as opposed to experimental settings, Common Sense Media argues.  That could mean better analysis of what platforms and embedded functionalities are actually being used.
  2. How does e-reading affect the amount that children and youth read?  Data from the federal government and others indicates that reading rates among adolescents have dropped "precipitously," the group says; according to the National Center for Education Statistics, for example, just 53 percent of 13 year-olds and 40 percent of 17 year-olds are now weekly readers, down from 70 percent and 64 percent in 1984.  What role is technology playing in that trend?
  3. Does e-reading affect how children read? Research indicates that people tend to read on screens in short bursts, rather than with sustained focus. Many now also worry that the new generation of e-readers are replete with unhelpful distractions. 
  4. Do e-readers improve literacy in early childhood?  Despite the promises of e-readers to help young children learn to read through audio prompts and other tools, many parents continue to prefer print books when "co-reading" with their kids, according Common Sense Media. There is also some evidence that children retain and understand less when co-reading with a parent on e-readers versus in print.
  5. Does reading on a screen effect comprehension and retention? See last week's story for more on this.
  6. Does the platform affect the amount of parent-child interaction when reading together? 

The market for digital reading products has exploded, with a dizzying array of new platforms, functionalities, and titles now available. Research needs to keep pace, Common Sense Media argues.

"The nature of technological development and academic research is that we often don't know the answers to our most important questions until the use of a new technology is underway," the new report reads. "This is likely to be the case with reading as well."

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends.

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