There has been much talk lately about use of ebook readers in schools, and what it all means, exactly. I think ebook readers can be a fabulous tool for older kids, but anyone who thinks they will replace paper for little kids has obviously not spent much time in a primary school! Let me reassure those people that paper, for kids, will survive for quite some time, and not for sentimental reasons either. It has to do with both the cognitive and tactile ways that kids learn.
1) The Cognitive Issue
Children learn in stages. They walk before they run, they speak in single words before they string together sentences and so on. Technology doesn’t change that. Learning to read happens in stages too. The child must first understand that the printed thing they are being shown contains words, which represent language. And then they must understand how to navigate through this language.
Part of assessing the reading readiness of a small child involves observing them interacting with the book as a physical object. I have done reading readiness assessments on preschoolers before, and trust me, they literally start with ‘is the child holding the book right side up?’ and go from there.
Do they try to turn the pages themselves? And yes, there does need to be actual, physical pages in order to assess this—pages go from left to right in English, but they go from right to left in Hebrew, for example. If you can’t see the child try to hold the book, turn the pages and touch the words as they play at reading, you can’t assess whether they have already figured out the way their language works when printed.
Does the child rely on other cues to try and tell the story? Do they play-read, for example, by describing to you the illustrations? Do they reach the final page in the book and announce ‘the end’ thus demonstrating that they understand how to determine their place in the text? They need the visual cues for this. And you need to see them interact with the physical object so that you can assess whether they are using these cues!
2) Tactile Learning
Which brings me to point number two: children are very touchy-feely little critters. They like–and need—to explore and learn through touch. Take math, for example. There is a very robust genre of educational product that has developed to address this need. It’s called the ‘math manipulative’ and my school has bin after bin of them: dinosaurs, teddy bears, race cars and so on. You give the child a handful and have them count them out. If you have seven dinosaurs right now and I gave you three more, how many dinosaurs would you have? How many red dinosaurs? How many green ones? And the child picks up each dinosaur and counts out the number as they decode the problem. A calculator can’t replace that!
Literacy is much the same process. When I am introducing a new story to my French as a second language classes, I often will bring in puppets of the main characters. One of the stories is about a cat who searches for a home, and finally finds one with a little boy. The first time I act out the story for the children using the puppets, I have the boy puppet embrace the cat puppet dramatically and I make loud smooching noises. The children think it is absolutely hilarious. And when we go to read the text directly, they have full comprehension and know exactly when we get to that part! I have another story I teach where the main character is a dog belonging to my principal. A large part of the entertainment value comes from the fact that the children all know the real, actual dog.
So, my conclusion? Ebooks—like calculators—can be wonderful tools for older children, who are past the point of needing to understand reading as a concept. They can save valuable paper and cut down on the heavy load they carry in their backpacks each day. But for the younger child, there will always be a market for paper books, and it has nothing to do with sentiment or nostalgia or the smell of paper or anything so ridiculous. What it comes down to is this: ebooks are the new calculator. Paper books are the new math manipulative. And the children will need both of them at varying stages of their learning lives.