After writing this post about how to write a dissertation I thought I'd take a break from light hearted, shorter posts about my week or my life and share my actual dissertation. If you're reading this as someone writing a dissertation on a similar topic and you wish you use some of the information provided in the essay, please remember to credit it properly.
“Isn’t it extraordinary how these little black marks on a page or screen magically become the powerful experience that is reading? Extraordinary too, for those of us who spend so much time reading to realise that for many, many people, reading is a difficult, unattractive experience.” – Miranda McKeanrney.
The expanding technological world has affected every person on the planet and one of the markets growing rapidly is digital reading. Books are now readily available to download at the touch of a button on any format from desktop to smart phone to tablet. Whilst it is not unusual to see a commuter on the train reading off a Kindle, children’s eBooks is a market that has taken a little longer to get going. This dissertation is an investigation into whether digital books for our children will help or hinder them and an insight into the way the market moves. Whilst primarily investigated from an educational viewpoint, I am exploring this topic as an aspiring children’s publishing illustrator interested in the long-term projections of the industry. I want to know whether eBooks threaten to overtake print books in sales and look into what moves are being made away from traditional publishing. I hope this will allow me to reflect on my own practice so it is current, tangible and transferable.
For the purposes of this dissertation any references made to ‘child’ or ‘children’ refers to any person below the age of 18, whilst the main focus group is the early reader stage (3-6 years old). Any reference made to ‘traditional’, ‘print’ or ‘hard copy’ publishing describes physical books aimed at children. Any reference made to ‘eBooks’, ‘eReader’ or ‘digital books’ refers to any electronic device you can use a reading app, or read on, not limited to designated reading tablets such as Kindle. ‘Heavy readers’ are defined as children who read at least weekly for an average of 45 minutes a day, ‘light readers’ are children that read at least weekly but for an average of 15 minutes a day and ‘occasional readers’ are those who read 1-3 times a month (Neilsen Book).
Learning to read starts from when you are a baby contradictory to popular belief that it begins in your school years. “Studies show that children who are read to from an earlier age have better language development and tend to have better language scores later in life” (Randerson, 2008). Learning to read in the first three years of life is a combination of interacting with adults and interacting with the reading material itself. Children learn literacy skills before entering the educating system from their real life experiences, for example what they see in the world around them, situations they may encounter, hearing people talking around them and picking up on words. This interaction with words and what is going on around them makes real life books, such as ‘First Day At School’ or ‘Going To The Dentist’ so approachable and successful. Children learn literacy skills before entering the education system and their language, reading and writing skills are all intrinsically linked, meaning children who are read to at an earlier age have a kick start when it comes to a closely monitored and assessed reading system in schools. Early literacy skills in babies include physically handling a book; turning the pages, learning to read left to right, top to bottom, recognising pictures and scenarios and story comprehension; all of which can be developed before a child can ‘read’ a single word (Shickedanz, 2013). It is important in a growing digital world to recognise that children are picking up literacy skills from infancy and whether these skills can be transferred into a digital reading media.
The eReader market is a relatively new one, having boomed in the past 10 years. Whilst Kindles and Nooks are commonplace for adults to read their novels, children’s digital reading is still very much developing. Whilst it is still undergoing some teething problems, children’s eBook’s have gained more and more interest. Scholastic’s Kids and Families Reading Report (4th Edition) has found that the percentage of children who have read an eBook almost doubled between 2010 and 2012 to 46%. Of the children who had read an eBook, one in five said they were reading more for fun, a staggering insight into the excitement surrounding this market.
There are many theories into why parents and children have engaged with digital children’s publishing when it is still such a growing industry. Scholastic reported that 31% of parents who have read an eBook say that they now read more suggesting that if parents are enjoying it they might think it will encourage their child to become a heavy reader. The fact is we live in a technologically advanced world where digital access is as ordinary as going to the shops and children are exposed to that world from birth. Sam Leith (2011) said “the huge prevalence of texting, the internet, instant messaging and social networking means (…) the generation emerging is more engaged with the written word than any in living memory”. This obsession with technology means we are constantly connected, constantly talking and companies are in high demand to compete with each other to bring out bigger and better innovations in the digital world. It is no surprise then that this is apparent in children’s technology where parents are likely to give into a 3 year old who has an iPad at the top of their Christmas list or a teenager clamouring to keep up appearances with the latest phone. Because of this relentless need to keep up with the times more and more UK households have at least one tablet and where children are exposed to them, they too are becoming competent users at an early age (Childwise, 2014). A 2011 study in Germany by Stiftung Lesen Reading Foundation found that this early interaction with tablets and eReaders lowered the inhibitions of children when it came to their first interaction with a reading book. The study reported that children who did have access to eBooks were much more attracted than children who were not exposed to this facility. It is easy to presume then that parents have engaged with their children reading eBooks because those children have shown an interest by themselves. However, whilst parents and children have engaged with digital reading, those in the publishing industry have a much narrower view, having to remember the disastrous effect digital media had on the music industry (Horn, 2009).
There are many advantages to today’s children reading on a digital platform, mainly the convenience of the device. Laptops, phones and tablets are much easier to store in the house than a bookshelf full of thick titles and are a breeze to take on holiday. It’s a lot easier to pack a Kindle in your hand luggage than try and take enough stock of print books to entertain a 5 year old on a 2 week break away. Downloads are instantly available on an eReader, lots are free and those that aren’t are comparable in price to traditional books. The ease of the download feature means children have thousands of books at their fingertips and when reading a series can download the next instalment without having to wait to go to the shops or the library. As a one off payment for something that can give children endless reading material a Kindle or a Nook is cheap at the best part of £60 whereas an iPad will set you back a three figure sum and this compromise into a digital world for children is appealing to parents. Text adjustment features and read aloud services make digital books accessible to younger children who can click on a word they don’t understand and immediately have a dictionary definition and for children who have sight or hearing problems allows them to enjoy reading in a way that’s accommodating for them. 3 out of 4 schools in the UK are concerned about boys reading and 60,000 boys aren’t reaching the required level of reading at 11 (National Literacy Trust), however all reports indicate that eReaders are opening a new world of literature that boys are interested in. Scholastic found that 26% of boys who had read eBooks were now reading more books for fun, indicating that the use of technology for reading is something that appeals to them and encourages them to pick up a story. It has been suggested that one reason for this is it is not deemed ‘socially acceptable’ for boys to be seen reading. It can be perceived as a much more feminine activity to sit quietly and pick up a book. However reading on a digital device not only seems ‘cooler’ because it is technology but it’s a lot easier to hide what activity you are doing on a tablet from your peers than it is to hide a traditional book, again stemming from the misconception in boys that reading it not a cool activity to do. The National Literacy Trust found that 3 in 10 children in the UK do not own a single book of their own which is a devastating statistic. They said, “Children who grow up without books and without positive associations around reading are at a disadvantage in the modern world.” This research went on to explain that as a generation where technology is the norm, children who haven’t grown up with the written word run the risk of not getting a competent grounding in expressing themselves verbally and on paper, for example when sending emails. Therefore it could be said that encouraging children to read on a digital device not only engages them with literacy but could improve their technological skills too, adding to their transferable skills in later life. In contrast to a Western world experienced in using technology, digital books have also helped to get children in poorer parts of the planet to read with eBooks being shipped to schools in Ghana and Kenya that can’t afford to give their youngest generation a shelf full of titles. Without necessarily noticing, reading has become more digitally enhanced in the past 10 years or so by blogging, author’s websites, fan pages and digital newsletters and therefore digital reading isn’t such a big leap into the unknown. There is a market for children’s eReading that has many positives “helping to drive digital savvy readers toward the printed word” (Horn, 2009).
Nevertheless, as with most things, there are some disadvantages to children reading eBooks. Screen time for children has been drummed into parents and guardians as being intrinsically bad for children for everything from reduced brain function to less exercise, yet an eReader has been advertised as good screen time. It has been suggested that the eBook is a guilty parents way of ensuring the child stays away from the television and sticks with reading when they haven’t got enough time to engage with the child themselves. “A young child will look away from a TV screen about 150 times an hour” (Wakefield, 2012) because they haven’t been engaged enough with what is happening in front of them, whereas a generation ago the TV would have been the highlight of any child’s day, leaving them enthralled for hours, no matter really what was on. This is because today’s children are over stimulated by screen time. The TV can be accessed 24 hours a day, there are designated children’s channels, they know how to use laptops and phones and can easily navigate the internet. It is hard to decide then, whether another form of screen time in the shape of a reading device will just add to this stimulation or will help them to focus on the one task of reading. One downside of reading on an eBook is the lack of ‘minority languages’ on them. It is hard to come by a Welsh language book for children on a digital device that isn’t ‘learning how to speak Welsh’, which for many parents and schools is a gap in the market. Whilst there are some stories in the Welsh language and other minority languages available, most are purchasable, not free like other children’s eBook apps and the stock is very limited. One of the biggest shortcomings of digital reading for children is the effect it will have on family reading time. Emily Buchwald said “children are made readers on the laps of their parents” and it is a valued part of a parent and child’s daily routine. The worry is that if children now start reading primarily on a screen this interactivity and communication between parent and child could be lost as it is much harder to read together on a tablet than with a book inbetween you. Whilst the moving pictures and sounds of an eBook are exciting and engaging at first, the development of illustration on screen is still in the early stages. Many books with illustrations are still subjected to small PDF style formats and are no match for a beautifully illustrated print book.
Although technology is moving forward and the written word is being digested in many forms, there are still advantages to a traditional print hard copy book; as Dr Seuss said “you can find magic wherever you look, sit back and relax, all you need is a book.” Scholastic reported that 80% of children who have read an eBook would still primarily read in print, suggesting physical books aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The demand for children’s books to be published digitally has got off to a much slower start than the adult market with 4.5% of children’s books sold in 2012 being eBooks, compared to 18% sold for adults (David, 2013). Print books are still considered a traditional gift from parents or grandparents to children and have a sentimental value about them you can’t get when passing an eBook story from one person to another. The family bond that comes from reading a print book cannot be compared to reading on an eBook. The act of cuddling up before bed and reading a story or two is something you remember when you grow up, something you do with your own children and for heavy readers, something you do for yourself before bed too. It is calming and soothes children into the transition from a hectic day to sleep, enjoying a quiet five minutes before bed and some one on one time with mum and dad. Illustrations in books not only grab children’s attention but also give them a lasting impact that cannot be replicated on an eReader. As previously mentioned illustrations on screen have a long way to go to being developed enough so that they match the quality of a print book, but also give children an early means of literacy before they can even read a sentence. As toddlers, children can link the pictures in a book with the themes of a storyline and can even recite an entire story based on the illustrations without being able to read a word, a skill my family learnt when my brother recited ‘The Wolf and the 7 Little Kids’. These literacy skills before they can read aids a child when it comes to education formatted reading for example associating pictures with the letters of the alphabet. The physicality of turning the pages of a book is something else that cannot be replicated on a tablet. It is something loved by so many older readers, and for babies it develops their growth by allowing them to grab hold of chunky pages and turn them themselves. ‘Physical books are tough [and] hard to destroy’ (Gaiman, 2013), some can survive water damage and most can cope with sticky fingers of a child; a digital device cannot survive the same battering of day to day life with a child. Screen reading relies on careful delicate hands and a lot more care than a physical book a baby can chew on! Comparable interactivity is one of the most controversial debates when it comes to eBooks vs print books. Whilst an eReader can provide music, animation and dictionary functions, print books can provide a different form of interaction. No eBook can replicate a pop up book, a pull the flaps book, a book with a finger puppet through the middle or the feel of a book with different textures inside for younger children. For older children the interactivity can be more comparable, however there are books on the market that allow the reader to dictate the choices of the character and effectively make their own ending to the story. The most valuable interactivity is that between adult and child, no matter what age, sharing and talking about books, something you cannot do so easily on an eReader.
If more children than ever before are reading digitally, it is easy to consider the next step to integrating that in schools and their learning. Whilst most schools teach primarily in print form, if children love reading on digital platforms at home it could have a negative effect if they are then forced to read with physical books in the classroom. However, eBooks could not overtake print altogether because not all families can afford an eReader for their child to take home with them and this could lead to competition within the classroom and have an adverse impact on the child. Having eBooks in the classroom would need to be cost effective and hard wearing enough to roll out to schools and it would be difficult to prioritise who gets what. There would need to be enough selection in class and enough stock for each child to have an eBook or at least access to one most of the time otherwise it is likely there would be jealousy amongst children who couldn’t use them which could lead to behavioral problems. The teachers would have to be taught the technology themselves to make them competent when teaching the children and dealing with any digital problems they might have. If children were to read primarily on eBooks it might make assessing their levels of capability more difficult. Alan O’Donohoe, a teacher, said, “If learners are using these resources independently and not sharing what they have learnt with others, it can be a shallow experience. If we are encouraging more use of one on one devices, we should also be encouraging more sharing of learning experiences.” However, whilst there are many challenges faced when considering how eBooks would be incorporated into school life, there are also many steps already in place that would ease the transition. Schools are already reasonably digitally equipped. The move from blackboards to interactive white boards when I was in primary education meant teachers had the internet, PowerPoints and other digital devices on hand to demonstrate learning to the children on a large scale. Most classrooms in primary schools have at least one computer or laptop available to the children and all comprehensive schools have a computer suite. ITC is a GCSE all students take and being digitally savvy is taught as a lesson to give this generation of children a decent grasp of how to navigate technology before they have left education for good. Another plus to having digital readers in the classroom is for helping students with learning differences. Many students who face these challenges find that reading on a digital format helps them gain better literacy skills and improves their overall performance. 1.2 million children in the UK have dyslexia (Imrie, 2013), which affects their reading and interpreting text. A lot of children with dyslexia find it hard to read certain text, for example capital letters, text on boards, black on white text, and have requirements, such as different lighting or coloured backgrounds for text that help them overcome their disability. eBooks can help children with these challenges by giving them the chance to alter the text in a way that helps them see it more clearly and not only makes it easier for them to read, but also encourages them to read more for fun. Another area that may need to adapt with the times is the use of libraries. Whilst libraries are on the decline as a whole in the UK, thanks to the ease of Googling something or buying a cheap second hand book on Amazon, libraries will need to move into the digital era if children’s reading changes with it. Most schools either have a library in them, take school visits to libraries or have a library van visit them so children are still engaged with them in some way. However to keep up with a changing and current market libraries may need to adjust their digital profile to stay in the game. Most libraries already have computer areas, links to the Internet and lend some digital downloads so it would not be a big leap into a more digital savvy world.
The biggest problem in the eBooks vs print books debate is the ongoing question of interactivity and keeping a child interested. One solution is by making print books more interactive by using gamification tools. Roxie Munro, an illustrator and author who I have spoken to uses these tools in her books, which are more educational to keep learning fun. She uses mazes, quizzes and lift the flap books to engage with her audience and keep them having fun when reading. Roxie has made countless apps and eBooks for children and has used her knowledge in the field to convert her print books into fun, appealing pages, knowing what holds their attention span the longest. She says “Engaging in games helps children with concentration, setting goals, problem-solving, working together, (…) perseverance and celebrate achieving goals”. This type of learning is not only fun and provides as much interaction as playing on a tablet, it also encourages the child to think of reading as fun and not as a chore. However, one pitfall of gamification to keep a child engaged is many parents will buy their child an iPad over a purely reading device because of the extra features it has. Despite the hefty price tag some children will be given an iPad because if you’re going to buy them a tablet to read on you may as well do it properly and get the camera, the video, the internet and the apps to get your moneys worth. However, with all the screen time and the over stimulation children have already, it could be counter productive to present a child with even more tools to play on. Do they really need all that technology or is that just distracting from the task in hand, which was actually to get them to read more?
Whilst researching this topic I also compiled some information of my own. I created a questionnaire to be given to people of different professions based on children’s reading habits and the way they learn and I hoped this would give me a modern day view of how children were learning literacy skills. I gave my questionnaire to 20 individuals; 9 in the education profession, 2 in children’s publishing and 9 parents. This comprised 5 schools (one Welsh speaking and one in the United Arab Emirates), one government initiative working with getting children to read in underprivileged communities, 7 households and 14 children. All participants answered the same set of 11 questions based on how important they thought reading was for the children and how they thought children should be taught and encouraged to read. They also answered a set of 5 supplementary questions based on their profession and how that linked into the teaching and promotion of reading in young people. 100% of people I spoke to say they think the attraction for children of eBooks reflects a digital age. They think children are drawn to technology, because it is socially acceptable, it engages them and they have access to it 24 hours a day. 35% said they didn’t think reading for fun was as important to children and parents as it used to be and 90% said children should be encouraged to read in whatever form interests them. 60% said you could get comparable interactivity between eBooks and print books and the main reason for this was the interactions between adult and child when reading together. 70% of teachers said the children in their class read primarily in print although most said they had noticed the boys would rather pick up a comic or go on the laptop than choose a book in their free time. 90% of parents said their children read every day and 85% of those children were reading primarily in print. Whilst my sample size was small it gave me a very localised picture on children’s reading and how it is taught in schools and promoted where I live.
My parents also filled in my questionnaire and we discussed why they thought reading was important enough to be supported in my household when I was growing up. My brother and I learnt to read properly when we were 4 and we have never stopped reading print books from then. We are both still avid readers and I was interested in what my parents attributed this fact to in our childhood. They encouraged us to read by having a basket of books in the back of the car between us so we had constant access and were able to entertain ourselves on journeys. Before we were old enough to read words ourselves my Dad would make up stories for us that we could recite back and discuss with him, improving our vocabulary before we could spell a single word. We would always have at least one story read to us together on the bed before we went to sleep and some stories were chosen on the merit that they were short enough we could listen to a few! My mum said it was hugely important that they read to us because they could point at illustrations or show us a picture of some words and we would recognise that the next time, eventually developing our memories to remember word shapes or sentences. My dad said he believes our continued obsession with reading has been because we were encouraged to read what we wanted and therefore we eventually developed our own tastes and they have never stopped buying books for us. Both conclude the fact we were read to from infancy is what gave us the best stance when it came to learning to read for ourselves.
Author Joanne Harris rather aptly said, “Books may change shape but people will always need stories, and the shape of those stories may alter.” Because of the technological world we live in, eBooks and digital publishing for children are an inevitable transition into an ever changing market and the quest for innovation. “Ebooks are here to stay because digital is” (Harkaway, 2014) and it will become no more unusual than using a smart phone to Google on the go or talking on Skype on the laptop. The disadvantages of exposing our children to more screen time through an eReader have yet to be confirmed as “research is in its infancy” (Graham, 2014). It is hard to determine what is going on in a child’s mind whilst they are playing on an iPad or reading on a kindle and whether that cognitive development will hinder or help them. Though I am certain this will be investigated and tested at some point in the near future, the research is not quite there yet and until it is decided one way or another it is hard to conclude that reading on a screen would be harmful. It is likely that print books are more advantageous to younger children and babies as they give them the skills to grab them, to turn the pages and to start to piece together the puzzle that is reading. However, for the older more competent readers, particularly secondary school and upward an eReader might be the solution for the ease of storage and transport and the ability to have thousands of titles a click away. My own personal opinion is that nothing but print can give a reader the thrill of bending a new spine to start a story or the feel of turning the pages or the satisfaction from completing a huge fat novel. The sentimentality of keeping my favourite childhood books will dissuade me from moving onto eReading and as I now have a collection of current children’s books on the market for research into illustration, I couldn’t think of a nicer way to learn to read. I explored this topic hoping it would give me an insight into the changing market of children’s publishing and whether current trends suggested digital was the way forward. Whilst I can safely say eBooks are booming you can assume print books aren’t going anywhere soon and this will allow me to adapt my own practical work to cater for both print and screen.
In conclusion I think whilst the debate between eBooks and print will be forever on-going until one outsells the other, for the time being both have their place in the modern world. eBooks are fuss free, help children with difficulties and boys to develop a love of reading, and fit in with a technologically advanced planet whilst print books still manage to capture a child’s imagination and make readers on the laps of their parents. Clare Geldard summed it up as “whether children are reading a book, magazine or a Kindle, the fact they are reading and enjoying language is something to be encouraged” and I agree. So long as a generation of avid readers and lovers of the written word are being brought up, I think children should be encouraged to read by any means.
“The simplest way to make sure we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books and letting them read them”- Neil Gaiman.
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