Tuesday, January 5, 2010

E-reading: Are We Forgetting the Little Ones?

All the discussion about e-reading, whether online or on a device, seems to focus on the comfort/convenience of the reader or the profits of the publisher. Until I read this letter in Indian Country Today about pediatricians "breaking the cycle of poverty" by giving away books during well child visits I never thought about an important demographic being overlooked––kids––and not just the ones from low-income families though they will, of course, suffer most.

"Today in the United States, there are more than 11 million children aged 5 and under who are living in poverty. Millions of these children will arrive at their first day of kindergarten bright, eager, and happy – but with deficits in their reading readiness that leave them underprepared to read and learn. Sadly, starting one step behind decreases the likelihood that those smiling, eager children will ever catch up. Once behind these children are at increased risk for absenteeism, dropping out, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, and teenage pregnancy."
Obviously, I'm a big promoter of online publishing, and I have complained before on this blog about too many studies on the reading habits of young adults equating reading with books and ignoring  reading done online. So far I've passed on the Kindle based on price and a premonition that it will soon become a relic as better readers untethered by a single retailer hit the markets, but I'm resigned to the inevitable march toward e-reading, and, honestly, don't feel those same tactile connections to print so many fuss about.  However, this article got me thinking about children and what effect the digital age could have on their first contact with the written word.

I recall an elderly aunt attempting to introduce my then two-year-old daughter to Winnie-the-Pooh through the original chapter book by AA Milne. While she later came to cherish that book and read it and re-read it, as a toddler my daughter couldn't focus on a book with more words than pictures. Reluctantly I gave in to purchasing the bastardized Disney versions with the fatter, yellower, cartoon Pooh until she reached the age where she could focus on pages of words with few illustrations . There lies the problem, or at least as I see it, with kids and e-reading.

I'm relying on personal experience so I could be all wet here, but it strikes me that even if a toddler did have the dexterity to "turn" pages on a laptop or e-reader, and even if you didn't mind having your $300 Kindle double as a teething ring, could a child ever be engrossed by an e-reader version of Goodnight Moon And then there's the sense of ownership. Children own their books like few other things in their young lives. My daughter used her favorite books as a form of bonding, thrusting them into the hands of a person to whom she'd taken a liking, climbing into that person's lap and asking to be read to before she could even form words. Sitting with a book can also be a form of self-entertainment, one of the few things a toddler can choose to do alone. We all know how children will memorize entire books,page for page and word for word, at a young age, and claim to "read" them to us. Is all that possible with a laptop or e-reader?

While I haven't heard this issue discussed much, I imagine there could be some movement to continue printing books for the pre-school set, but what would such a small, specialized product cost? Already children of wealthier and better-educated parents get a jump on their education. Could this make that divide even worse? Then again, will better-off parents who grew up assuming New+Technology=Better Life even consider that an old traditional form of reading might be better for their kids? Or will they force e-reading on them as the better way, not to mention more convenient for the parent?

I am certainly no expert in child development. My concerns could be empty. Maybe reading on a Kindle is every bit as good for a child as reading a Golden Book. Maybe reading on devices will lure children into reading as much or more than books.

I'd be interested in know your thoughts, especially the teachers out there.

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