Thursday, 8 January 2015

Digital books: Can we really assess effectiveness on language and literacy outcomes?

There are an increasing number of studies which have examined specific design features of digital books and their effectiveness on reading outcomes.  Digital books provide opportunities to introduce a number of different additional features, for example: integration of a computer tutor/assistant to provide feedback (Kegel & Bus, 2012) or to pose comprehension questions (Smeets & Bus, 2012), easy access to a digital dictionary (Korat & Shamir, 2008), greater interaction via hotspots aimed at increasing story understanding (Korat & Shamir, 2008), additional games to support and develop language and literacy skills (Segers & Verhoeven, 2002), dynamic rather than static images (Verhallen & Bus, 2010; Verhallen et al., 2006) and the inclusion of other multimedia additions such as video, sounds and music (Verhallen et al., 2006). 

The studies noted above have examined the extent to which these features pose challenges or opportunities to support and develop children’s language and literacy skills.  In most cases, these additional features have been found to be beneficial to children’s language and literacy skills; although gains to language and/or literacy are often smaller than one might predict. 

Indeed, digital texts are not necessarily beneficial to children’s literacy skill and development when compared to traditional texts, if children are too distracted by the additional features of the digital texts (e.g., games) at the expense of the story (e.g., de Jong & Bus, 2002).  Therefore, there is a need for well-designed, evidence informed, digital texts which are supportive of children’s language and literacy skills, in addition to being engaging.  A fairly outdated content analysis of commercially available digital texts (de Jong & Bus, 2003) suggests that many of the design features which could have been beneficial to children’s language and literacy skills are not optimally developed (e.g., incongruence between the story/text and images/hotspots/games) nor optimally used by children. 

Indeed, what is interesting about this last point is the greater number of ways in which children can navigate/read digital books compared to more traditional books. Davis et al., (2012) commented on individual differences in children’s user style as they engage with digital books, suggesting different navigational profiles of readers:  Knowledge seekers (those that actively seek information), feature explorers (those that spend much of their time accessing non-prose features) and apathetic hypertext users (those that don’t extensively interact with the content or non-prose features). 

As the potential numbers of ways in which readers can interact with digital books is greater than traditional books (at least from a design perspective), this does pose difficulties for researchers interested in the extent to which digital books support children’s reading attainment.  Most of the studies cited above were carried out under experimental conditions.  However, in reality, we cannot control how children independently ‘read’ or ‘navigate’ digital books.  It is therefore challenging to know the real increases in reading skills that may come from digital books, as opposed to the potential increases.


Davis, D. S., & Neitzel, C.  (2012).  Collaborative sense-making in print and digital text environments.  Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 25, 831-856. doi: 10.1007/s11145-011-9302-2

De Jong, M. T., & Bus, A. G.  (2002).  Quality of book-reading matters for emergent readers: An experiment with the same book in a regular or electronic format.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 145-155. doi: 10.1037//0022-0663.94.1.145

De Jong, M. T., & Bus, A. G.  (2003).  How well suited are electronic books to supporting literacy?  Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 3, 147-164.

Kegel, C. A. T., & Bus, A. G.  (2012).  Online tutoring as a pivotal quality of web-based early literacy programs.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 104, 182-192.  doi: 10.1037/a0025849

Korat, O., & Shamir, A.  (2008).   The educational electronic book as a tool for supporting children’s emergent literacy in low versus middle SES groups.  Computers and Education, 50, 110-124. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2006.04.002

Segers, E., & Verhoeven, L.  (2002).  Multimedia support of early literacy learning.  Computers and Education, 39, 207-221.

Smeets, D. J. H., & Bus, A. G.  (2012).  Interactive electronic storybooks for kindergartners to promote vocabulary growth.  Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 112, 36-55. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2011.12.003

Verhallen, M. J. A. J., & Bus, A. G. (2010).  Low-income immigrant pupils learning vocabulary through digital picture storybooks.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 54-61.  doi: 10.1037/a0017133

Verhallen, M. J. A. J., Bus, A. G., & de Jong, M. T. (2010).   The promise of multimedia stories for kindergarten children at risk.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 410 – 419. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.98.2.410

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