The Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA) explored the topic of reading by garnering the opinions of South African professionals and parents about the value of reading to our children from paper books.
Reading books to children from an early age is an acknowledged factor in early childhood development (ECD) as it not only strengthens the bond between adult and child, but helps little ones develop cognitive and conversational skills.
Our digital world has pros and cons, so it’s not surprising that a debate on the merits and pitfalls of e-books against the printed page wages on.
Educationalists and a committed body of parents have unequivocally expressed their support for the time honoured paper book, especially as it evokes fond memories of their own early reading experiences.
Educationalist Dr Lauren Stretch, founder of NGO Early Inspiration, is an ECD specialist and an enthusiastic proponent of the paper book. She believes that early contact with books teaches children to respect and care for them, while physical contact with a volume – turning the pages – creates a greater feeling of engagement with the medium as opposed to merely holding a tablet.
She also regards time spent huddled over a book with a parent, grandparent or baby sitter as absolutely invaluable.
“This is an incredibly nurturing experience. Parents can engage with their child or children in a calm and soothing environment. Often when children use a device they do so alone, and don’t enjoy the interaction that can be gained during their first steps towards reading proficiency.”
This process helps the child gain the ability to concentrate and contributes heavily towards auditory, sequencing and memory skills at an early age. Just as important, it inspires a love of reading.
Conversations with mothers of young children show that they are in unanimous agreement with her comments:
Quiet time and story engagement
“I am the mother of a book-obsessed little girl. Reading a book together allows us some precious quiet time. Holding a book and turning the pages, naming the hidden characters in a well-illustrated story helps us to interact with one another as does the narration of the story. Books have also taught her the value of things, and that they need to be treated gently so that a favourite story can be revisited and enjoyed,” says parenting magazine editor Mandy Lee Miller.
Cape Town primary school librarian Debbie Feldman is adamant that books offer a physicality that attracts children more than the sterility of an e-reading device.
“Children like books as a medium because they love the smell of the paper and being able to turn the pages. This is particularly evident with picture books as they like to guess what the next illustration holds in store, making turning the next page an adventure. Children can also use the illustrations as a guide to the storyline which in turn supports their progress in comprehending the written text,” says Feldman.
“Reading with your child creates a bond and an enjoyable, relaxing experience in which parents and children can share interests and explore the world. This leads to the association of reading as an activity that brings joy. What’s more, experts suggest that reading to children for 20 minutes a day improves their chances of success in school,” says Lizelle Langford, READ Educational Trust’s public relations and fundraising manager.
Another equally supportive view comes from preschool teacher and mother of a three-year-old-boy, Heather Step.
“Reading with your child not only builds a love of books but a relationship with them that can extend to other rewarding activities. We have a routine every night. He acts out scenes from the book we are reading after his bath. And this has led to regular and much-enjoyed trips to the library where he can enjoy the experience of seeking out the books he is going to enjoy at home.”
Regular reading with your children not only provides them with an invaluable source of stimulation but equips them to excel in an educational environment. Educational researchers have established that one of the key indicators to predict a young person’s ability to gain university entrance is a history of reading with their parents from infancy.
Tablets take away true engagement
Touch-screens are great at a lot of things, but engaging children in a narrative is not one of them. Why? Because interactivity stops young ones from falling in love with stories and reading for pleasure, the cornerstones of imagination and understanding.
A device makes it very easy for a child to dismiss reading as ‘boring’ in comparison with the instant gratification of games and apps. There are simply too many distractions. Children are most likely to engage with stories in the right environment and context, and that means away from a screen.
According to a UK survey of almost 35,000 eight to 16 year olds, screens don’t seem to improve children’s experience of reading.
• A child who reads only on-screen is three times less likely to enjoy reading
• 15.5% of children who read every day, but only on screen, are above average readers.
• 26% of those who read daily in print, or both in print and on-screen, read at an above average level.
Interactive stories are designed for young children who may still need guided reading, but that interactivity often creates more of a game experience than a reading one. Instead of being the focus, the story becomes merely a background.
International children’s author Julia Donaldson explains why she refused an e-book version of her most famous title, The Gruffalo, in a 2011 article in the Guardian. “The publishers showed me an e-book of Alice in Wonderland,” Donaldson said. “They said, ‘Look, you can press buttons and do this and that’, and they showed me the page where Alice’s neck gets longer,” said Donaldson. “There’s a button the child can press to make the neck stretch, and I thought, well, if the child’s doing that, they are not going to be listening or reading.”
Most children’s apps are crammed with interactivity with no objective apart from getting kids to tap on the screen. In storybook apps, the stream of sound and movement signifying nothing, it does not allow the cognitive and emotional space required to deeply engage with a story in the way that an old-fashioned book does. When we’re engaged in a story, we’re actually feeling the story, imagining how the characters feel and how we would feel in the same situation. That experience is hindered when children are busy trying to figure out what happens next when they tap on the screen.
During a bedtime story, the only stimuli are the adult’s voice and the book’s pictures. The best stories require interpretation and stimulate discussion between parent and child.
The moral of the story…
Parents should encourage a balanced mix of online and offline reading, both for older children reading by themselves and for toddlers who need guided reading to provide them with the necessary mental space to engage with a story in a deeper way.