How will iPad picture books affect young reader’s literacy?

| March 9, 2011 | 21 Comments
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Unwrapping Literacy 2.0

This post is part of a community effort to discuss literacy issues this week through “Share a Story – Shape a Future”. It’s sponsored by a group of “blogging librarians, teachers, parents, illustrators, authors, and literacy passionistas,” and represents “a collaborative venue to share ideas and celebrate everything reading has to offer our kids.”

I have been thinking a lot about the topic of literacy as I review iPad books at Digital Storytime. As the mother of a preschooler who is just now learning to read, the idea of digital books both delights and terrifies me. When I first read an iPad book to my son, back in April of 2010, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. What did these new picture books, with their instant appeal, mean for print books and more importantly, for reading as a pastime? Would my son ‘read’ or would he instead be distracted by books he could passively watch, or even worse, books that were more like toys and less like educational tools for literacy?

The first books I read with my son on the iPad were more of the ‘toy’ variety, which is probably why I was initially so distressed. As the spring turned to summer, I began to search for more variety in the iPad books I downloaded. The uneasiness I felt about the iPad and digital books in general began to gradually turn into excitement. By Autumn of 2010, I had already found a favorite developer, PicPocket Books, that had the kind of picture books I could actually read with my child at bedtime. My child’s favorite title, The Lucky Escape, is simply narrated, without any animation or interactivity. And my son has plenty to choose from with a mom as an app reviewer. This fact alone gives me hope for his future as a lover of reading.

Among the reasons I now feel so comfortable with the transformation in how my family reads picture books, is the long list of ways iPad picture books don’t feel like other kinds of digital media, particularly when I am sharing a story with my child. For instance, most digital books don’t turn my child into ‘zombie’ the way other media does. My son also doesn’t ‘beg’ for ebooks except as a way to extend bedtime – something that also happens with print books.

But the most important thing digital books provide that print books also offer, is space for conversation. Until I began to read digital books with my child, I wasn’t conscious of the importance of page turning. It is never ‘optional’ in print, of course, and therefore not a subject to ponder. I have discovered over this past year, though, that page turning is one of the essential qualities that makes something a ‘book’ – both in print and in digital form.

Most iPad books, even the animated ones, have settings for manual page turning. This may seem like a small thing, but this tiny act of turning the page, in and of itself, provides an opportunity for a different kind of engagement with an app. It gives a moment for reflection. I often ask my child questions about the story we are reading – the motives of the characters, the plot or related topics and his answers show real comprehension. If a book is mesmerizing, the fact that everything stops until a page is manually turned also gives an opportunity to repeatedly re-engage with the app in a way that discourages passive or unconscious entertainment.

There are even a few advantages to ebooks . It’s great to have easy access to a library of books on vacation, or to have a favorite book to share when stuck waiting for the doctor or between errands with your child. Many iPad books are also narrated with text highlighting as each word is spoken, giving a child the chance to make the connections between written and spoken language in a way print books never could. We still read a lot of print picture books with our child and don’t plan to give up print anytime soon, but iPad books have become an amazing addition to my child’s regular supply of books from our local library.

After giving this some thought, I came up with the following ways books on tablet devices may increase children’s literacy, not decrease:

– They offer a rare alternative to other digital media, right on a highly desirable digital device and in a way that actually gives books a fighting chance to be equally appetizing to our media-savvy kids.

– They are the only way digital media for kids, an already growing category of time in our children’s daily lives, might truly give back by sharing time with reading.

– Most book apps have a ‘Read Myself’ option and even when they don’t anything with a text story can always be muted and still have some of the magic of the iPad by having high resolution, back-lit illustrations. This means books at bedtime, a naturally dimly lit environment, can be particularly enchanting just from the color and light.

– Tired parents can more easily have a book read to both parent and child and may share more books with their kids as a result. Instead of 1 or 2 books at bedtime, a parent can share 3 or 4, for instance, which is no small thing in the lifetime of an early reader’s experience.

– In households that are not reading to children (1 in 5), these ebook apps represent one of the most realistic ways to quickly increase exposure to children’s picture books by children not even in school yet. The ease of use, instant gratification and reasonable prices for digital book apps, in addition to their high-tech appeal, makes the transition to reading easier for families that haven’t been reached by our otherwise extensive efforts to increase young children’s literacy.

– In households that don’t read enough to their kids, likely more than the 1 in 5 figure, digital book apps in particular can reach more families than ever with a product that feels cutting edge while delivering on most of the old-fashioned goals of reading.

And these books will likely become very accessible to families across the income spectrum as the tablet devices drop in price. They could provide inexpensive ‘entertainment’ in the minds of many parents, and even substitute for some of the other media currently being consumed by children. The number of good titles under $2 in our database alone shows that these ebook apps can be price competitive with used picture books, a staple for low-income households. And the barriers to access for families are much lower – the apps can be downloaded and shared at home without a trip to a bookstore, library or waiting for a delivery from an on-line print retailer.

And why does the effect of digital app books on literacy really matter? Only 3% of kids in a recent Scholastic study were reading on iPad’s in 2010, for instance. However, having talked to many parents with iPads, the transition from print to digital has been so natural compared to reading ebooks on a laptop, that I suspect it will be the wave of the very near future. I found reading ebooks on my laptop to be fun once in awhile with my child before I had an iPad, but with the iPad our family made an almost seemless transition to reading digital books nearly every day. The size of the device, the touch screen, battery life and of course the selection and ease of downloading book apps has made digital picture books a natural substitute for print books for the first time for many families like ours.

And this wave is not just for those that can afford an iPad. Right now a tablet computer may seem like an unlikely device for a low-income family, but consider how few poor Americans go without TVs, DVD players and other types of mainstream media. Inexpensive tablet computers won’t be far behind the TV in wide-spread acceptance across all income levels. I am particularly excited about the trend for titles to appear on Android devices as well, and really like the direction Oceanhouse Media, with their extensive selection of Seuss & more, has taken with their app development on multiple platforms.

I give it 2-5 years, tops, before some form of touchable tablet device will be a very normal way that picture books, full of timeless and modern stories, will be shared with children across the globe. And I’m not scared about this anymore. How about you?


For further reading, more blog posts from Share-A-Story:


Category: 100+ Reviews ... What I've Learned So Far, All About Apps, iPads in Education, Libraries and the Digital Shift

About the Author ()

Carisa Kluver is the the editor of, an iPad children's book review site. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MSW from the University of Washington. Before starting this project, she was a school counselor, health educator and researcher in child & maternal health.