While young readers find these digital products very appealing, their multitude of features may diffuse children’s attention, interfering with their comprehension of the text, Smith and the Schugars found. It seems that the very “richness” of the multimedia environment that e-books provide—touted as their advantage over printed books—may actually overwhelm kids’ limited working memory, leading them to lose the thread of the narrative or to process the meaning of the story less deeply.
Such unnecessary flourishes can interrupt the fluency of children’s reading and cause their comprehension to fragment, the authors found. They can also lead children to spend less time reading overall: One study cited by Smith and the Schugars reported that children spent 43% of their e-book engagement time playing games embedded in the e-books, rather than reading the text.
They advise parents and teachers to look for e-books that enhance and extend interactions with the text, rather than those that offer only distractions; that promote interactions that are relatively brief rather than time-consuming; that provide supports for making text-based inferences or understanding difficult vocabulary; and that locate interactions on the same page as the text display, rather than on a separate screen.
Once the e-books are selected, parents and teachers must also help children use the e-books effectively … familiarizing children with the basics of the device … Parents and teachers should also assist children in transferring what they know about print reading to e-reading. Kids may not automatically apply reading skills they’ve learned on traditional books to e-books—and these skills, such as identifying the main idea and setting aside unimportant details, are especially crucial when reading e-books, because of the profusion of distractions they provide.
Lastly, adults should ensure that children are not over-using e-book features like the electronic dictionary or the “read to me” option. Young readers can often benefit from looking up the definition of a word with a click, but doing it too often will disrupt reading fluidity and therefore comprehension. Even without accessing the dictionary, children are able to glean the meaning of many words from context. Likewise, the read-to-me feature can be useful in decoding a difficult word, but when used too frequently it discourages kids from sounding out words on their own.