As the world of publishing gets accustomed to people putting down their books and turning on their computers, so, too, must the world of education evaluate what's happening to the reading habits of kids. The Pew Internet & American Life Project says that 93 percent of teens use the Internet, reading and composing language at frenetic rates. All that time online means less time curled up on the couch with a book. Does this spell the end of the book, and if so, should parents protest by throwing themselves in front of the keyboard and extending a worn out copy of The Grapes of Wrath to their blog-addicted teen?
There are some purists who say “Yes,” kids should be brought up reading books—hardcover, paperback, pop-up, nonfiction, graphic novel, whatever—as long as it sucks children into the printed word. According to Lynn Truss, in her book Eats, Shoot & Leaves, there is just something important about the tactile function of the book which simply can't be replicated on the screen. “The book remains static and fixed; the reader journeys through it. Picking up the book in the first place entails an active pursuit of understanding. Holding the book we are aware of posterity and continuity. Knowing that the printed word is always edited, typeset and proof-read before it reaches us, we appreciate its literary authority,” she says. “All these conditions for reading are overturned by the new technologies... The internet is a public 'space' which you visit, and even inhabit; its product is inherently impersonal and disembodied. Scrolling documents is the opposite of reading: your eyes remain static, while the material flows past.”
This act of journeying through a book allows kids to spend more time getting to know a character, which is one of the most important features of reading, says Jeffrey Wilhelm, a professor of English Education at Boise State University. “Most electronic media does not afford them this because they're skimming and moving from text to text,” he says. But, leading companies like Amazon.com and Sony are out to reinvent the book with electronic reading devices that store hundreds of books at a time. Amazon.com released their version of this reading device, the Kindle, last year. While it may seem people are divided into two camps (those toting Kindles, and the book purists), there’s actually a lot more to it.
Wilhelm, having used both the Kindle and the Sony eBook, says the history of literacy has shown that “being literate means having the capacity to use the most powerful tools to make meanings,” and that such devices, combined with online materials, are the future. “It doesn’t mean stories are going away, but it will be in a different form,” he says. It’s a form which allows the reader to simply double click on the word “wrath” and immediately be given the tools to define its meaning. It means being able to change the size and font of a text with the press of a button. Some electronic devices even have a voice function that shows how to pronounce multi-syllabic words.
This form is especially important for kids with reading difficulties, according to James Wendorf, Executive Director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). He says it individualizes the reading experiencing, allowing the user “to manipulate the learning environment so that they can be actively engaged in the written words.” Wendorf says far from being a crutch to lean on, these tools offer a strategy to be able to read—leveling the playing field for kids with disabilities. “These electronic tools are a blessing: they help develop fluency, increase access and open up more of the world to these kids,” he says.
So, should parents treat books like fax machines, cassette tapes, and other irrelevant technology? Not quite. “We would never want to see a dead book,” Wendorf says. “Books are very much alive. The experience of reading paper does reinforce what happens online and vice-versa.”
Wilhelm says parents and teachers shouldn’t see reading as a choice between paper and electronic. “We need both. We need to embrace the new technologies, and use it as a bridge to more traditional kinds of literacies,” he says.
That means parents should start kids out on traditional books, Wilhelm says, especially picture books which provide the multimodality proven so important to literacy. Once the book is a recognizable format, parents can feel more comfortable allowing their children to read electronically. “The physical artifact of the book is very important for beginning literacy. We proceed from the concrete to the abstract,” Wilhelm says. The name of the game, he says, is availability: make all methods of reading available to your kids, and model your own use of them. “Give them a wide variety of experiences and let them navigate their own story at their own pace,” he says.
It seems the general consensus among experts is that electronic reading is a good thing, because it’s encouraging kids to read more. Carol Rasco, the President and CEO of Reading Is Fundamental, says her organization “encourages children to read and discover the joy of reading, regardless of medium.”
So, don’t panic if your kids aren’t always reading the traditional way—just keep clearing a path to that bookshelf.