Literacy and The Digital Shift: How Educators, Parents & Librarians Can Bridge the Cultural Gap

| March 6, 2013 | 6 Comments

Reproduction of Gutenberg-era Press on display at Printing History Museum in Lyon, France. Photograph taken by George H. Williams in July, 2004. Courtesy

The revolution is here.

Over 500 years ago, when the Gutenberg Press was introduced, many people did not understand how the cultural shift would reverberate in every institution within society. We have greatly improved research that can quantify and qualify our projections for the future now, but this does not do anything to hedge against the natural fear of change that is rooted deep in our DNA.

However, we are also one of the most adaptable species ever know to this planet, finding ways to accommodate a number of environmental, psychological and physical vulnerabilities into our increased dominance of everything that is associated with planet Earth. This includes a much better understanding about how a cultural transition can be both documented (for posterity), managed for current populations and adjusted to as quickly as possible to promote the best outcomes for future generations.

It is very hard for us to wrap our minds around this sort of ‘sea-change’ in our cultural way of life. We have no historical or even oral history from recent generations to guide us. This change, in my opinion, is more akin (in historical terms) to the technological shift encountered with the printing press in the 15th century. There is almost no way to guess how digital technology will change life for humans over the next five, fifty, five-hundred or perhaps (if we are lucky) the next five-thousand years … but one thing that is certain – this is one of the most dramatic changes to meet readers in a very long time. When we lament that the bookstore may go the way of the record store, we are only seeing the tip of this particular iceberg (imho).

What we can do as it’s happening:

With that lofty introduction, one might expect a diatribe about culture, adjusting to change and prognostications for a future we can barely recognize. That is not the intent of this post, however. My hope is too acknowledge that it is only natural for such a dramatic shift in the digital landscape to feel overwhelming. But as a parent, educator (and blogger), it is really a matter of pragmatic optimism that I rely on for my own daily solutions and advice to others. I know there is a great deal more to learn about digital literacy, the impact of ‘screen time’ on brain development for kids and issues that span the whole educational spectrum from special ed learning needs to ways to use tech to make teachers’ limited time more effective in the classroom. While I feel as impatient for more certainty in the research, I also know that the ‘wait and see’ approach can be a way to disguise complacency and anxiety about change, rather than a genuine interest in ‘best practices’. I often think we are better off seeking out ‘good enough practices’ to tide us over …

I come from a background in ‘pure’ research for maternal & child health, trying to find connections between parenting styles, educational attainment, poverty and academic success. I loved my time working in research, but one of the hardest lessons for me as a ‘real’ person is how long it takes for any of the research results to be published (often in obscure academic journals that professionals in those fields rarely have time to read, let alone implement the suggestions from what limited data is actually released to the public).

So when someone suggests that we should wait to decide how to develop programs for our kids today until the ‘research’ is out is not only impossible advice but also likely to miss a whole generation of kids while we decide which ‘stats’ are worthy of public consumption. And even after research is released, it is often mis-interpreted and manipulated for political purposes. I could become depressed about this fact, but honestly, it is somewhat empowering. If you are a parent, children’s librarian, educator, caregiver or otherwise involved with young people, you really are the front line. And as such, we need to make decisions that most effectively meet the needs of today’s children – not those born 20 years from now when we’ve crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s on our research projects.

So in the meantime, what can we do?

Most of all, we should try not to be paralyzed by the shock to our own systems that this digital shift brings. We are human and grew up with a wide variety of structures in our lives that may or may not be relevant for our kids. We need time to process these things but we also need to be able to move forward and discuss our concerns, even before we have any real certainty or ‘answers’ about the right direction for our own kids.

“We can’t always wait for research, but we can make educated guesses about media … and that’s our job as adults.” ~ Carisa Kluver,

We should realize that fundamentally, we are all unsure about the best kind of access, content and exposure to digital media for young people. Even the top researchers in the field that I know are unwilling to guess how the data might turn out, but they still make educated guesses for their own children & grandchildren. Kids will not stop growing up while we pursue long-term specialized research and we owe it to them to provide as much guidance as we can.

In many ways the issues here are very much ‘adult-world’ struggles about larger cultural issues. How a child reads a book or learns to memorize their times tables, however, is in the here-and-now. Most parents have no desire to hold hostage their child’s learning to a larger societal debate about screen time. We struggle with very detailed individual needs that our kids have educationally, socially, physically or on other levels of development, meaning we are best serving them by selecting from the widest possible resources – including print, digital, and anything else innovative to spark a child’s inherent love of learning.

There has also been a great deal of controversy about how the internet & digital screen interactions may affect the way we think … [See MomsWithApps founder, Lorraine Akemann’s introduction to the book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains for a thought provoking read.] And much of the new research and discussion supports the idea that ‘screens’ are not all equal, that the type and quality of content consumed by kids is as important a factor (if not more important) than the amount of screen ‘time’.

I often want to change the dialogue from ‘screen time’ to ‘screen quality’ if for no other reason that to point out that this debate is not about how much our kids are using digital media but really about what they doing with the rest of their time, not only online but in physical, emotional, social, familial & academic spaces. Balance is the key to a happy life, and if screen time/quality is not in balance, it will have negative effects, no matter what content the child consumes (imho).

We can also look to our current institutions for guidance while we build our own bridges for our kids … including resources like School Library Journal, the Joan Ganz Cooney CenterCommon Sense Media and more … What are your favorites? Please share in the comments (I’m gathering resources to share with groups I present to, including PTA’s, Children’s Librarians, afterschool programs, PhD’s researching digital media, publishers & more …)

Kids, Families, and eBooks – Scholastic Report – Jan 2013

For parents, educators, librarians, caregivers and anyone else in a helping profession or role supporting children:

So, in the spirit of giving my own thoughts way before the research is truly certain here are some of my thoughts about the latest research from Scholastic’s latest study to help us form our own plan while we wait for the ‘final’ word on what is best or worst for our kids (news which will likely come when they are already adults):

  • The percent of kids reading ANY ebooks (includes book apps – so all digital books) since 2010 has nearly doubled – a very short time. This means book apps are relevant and likely to become even more so in the near future (and quickly). Once nearly every child is exposed to tablet mediums, it is useful for parents, caregivers, educators & librarians to know which media is most nutritious for learning and growing. What we ‘feed’ our kids in media content sets habits and impacts brain development in ways that can last a lifetime, so the logical thing to do while we figure out the real impact of this digital shift is to have quality content on offer whenever possible.
  • A majority of kids say they would read more books “for fun” if they had more access to digital titles. This means as access increases, the numbers of kids reading digitally will skyrocket, since at the very least, this medium is attractive to kids in a way print can’t always muster. Kids are willing to read comic books, for instance, over chapter books sometimes, too. But anyone with a struggling reader (or wanting to inspire a real love of reading in their child) doesn’t want to split hairs about the format. We want our children to *love* to read. And many children, including my own, go from reading book apps to reading print fluidly and without any of the hangups adults seem to have about the difference between a written word printed on a bit of tree vs a digital surface with much more potential to enhance or reinforce the text.
  • Nearly three quarters of parents are interested in turning their young readers onto digital titles. This means that while their is a huge media emphasis on the idea of a ‘culture war’ around print vs digital, for real families the logical solution isn’t either/or for digital. It’s how to blend this into their current screen time balance, how to find quality content and how to make the best use of an innovative new technology so their children are enriched by the digital shift.
  • 80% of young ‘digital readers’ say they still enjoy reading print books “for fun”. This means digital isn’t going to kill print (at least not in the way “video killed the radio star” overnight or silent-film stars became irrelevant after ‘talking’ movies in just a few years). This will be a longer transition, although also more transformative for the larger society than even the transition to digital music. Print has been around in recorded form for a *very* long time, so it is natural for us to worry that our kids might stop reading print entirely as a result of access to these ‘shiny new apps’ on tablet devices. So far the evidence seems to say this is not the case. I have found, with my own young reader, a love of print & digital that is nearly equal, just different for different types of titles. Digital may kill the pop-up book overnight, but not much else in the short-term.
  • 25% of boys who read ebooks report an increase overall in reading (all) books “for fun”. This is a huge & statistically significant finding … and an impressive one since getting many boys to read, especially after a certain age, is a challenge in many cases. Knowing we are engaging young boys so well means we have a better chance at helping them close the gap with girls for educational attainment. Until 3rd grade we say kids are “learning to read”, but after that they are “reading to learn” … so the drop in boy’s academic attainment in fields heavily dependent on reading (history, literature, psychology) begins to show after this point. Having a way to entice boys to read more and girls to engage more in science or math is something tablet tech seems much better positioned to accomplish than many of the previous educational advancements of the past few decades.

These are just a few of my thoughts as I’m digesting all the new research. I’m working on several projects including presentations to adults who work with kids and a book on digital media for caregivers & professionals that work with kids … and promise to keep you updated on any future inspiration. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from other parents/caregivers, educators and librarians out there about how they are managing this digital shift … your questions and the resources you’ve shared with me over the past few years have been invaluable!


And for reference:


From: Scholastic’s Press Release:
New Study on Kids’ Reading in the Digital Age: the Number of Kids Reading eBooks Has Nearly Doubled Since 2010


Kyle Good

Sara Sinek
Follow @Scholastic on Twitter for live data reveal today, Jan. 14 at 11 am (EST) #KFRR


Overwhelmingly children who read ebooks still read primarily print books for fun;
Half of parents say their child does not spend enough time reading books that are not assigned for school

NEW YORK, January 14, 2013 — In the fourth edition of the Kids & Family Reading Report™ , a national survey released today, kids age 6-17 and their parents share their views on reading in the increasingly digital landscape and the influences that impact kids’ reading frequency and attitudes toward reading.

The study, a biannual report from Scholastic (NASDAQ: SCHL), the global children’s publishing, education and media company, and the Harrison Group, a leading marketing and strategic research consulting firm, reports that:

  • The percent of children who have read an ebook has almost doubled since 2010 (25% vs. 46%).
  • Half of children age 9-17 say they would read more books for fun if they had greater access to ebooks – a 50% increase since 2010.
  • Overall, about half of parents (49%) feel their children do not spend enough time reading books for fun – an increase from 2010 when 36% of parents were dissatisfied with time their child spent reading.
  • Seventy-two percent of parents show an interest in having their child read ebooks.

Findings reveal the potential for ebooks to motivate boys, who are more commonly known to be reluctant readers, to read more.

  • One in four boys who has read an ebook says he is now reading more books for fun.

eBooks may also be the key to transition moderately frequent readers (defined as kids who read one to four days a week) to frequent readers (those who read five to seven days a week).

  • More than half (57%) of moderately frequent readers who have not read an ebook agree they would read more if they had greater access to ebooks.

Even so, the love of and consistent use of print books is evident among kids, regardless of age.

  • Eighty percent of kids who read ebooks still read books for fun primarily in print.
  • Fifty-eight percent of kids age 9-17 say they will always want to read books printed on paper even though there are ebooks available (a slight decline from 66% in 2010), revealing the digital shift in children’s reading that has begun.

“We are seeing that kids today are drawn to both print books and ebooks, yet ereading seems to offer an exciting opportunity to attract and motivate boys and reluctant readers to read more books,” noted Francie Alexander, Chief Academic Officer, Scholastic. “While many parents express concern over the amount of time their child spends with technology, nearly half do not have a preference of format for their child’s books. The message is clear – parents want to encourage more reading, no matter the medium.”

The report also notes that the gender gap in reading frequency and attitudes towards reading is narrowing; however, the narrowing of the gap is driven more by decreases among girls than it is by increases in boys.

  • Among girls since 2010, there has been a decline in frequent readers (42% vs. 36%), reading enjoyment (39% vs. 32% say they love reading), and the importance of reading books for fun (62% vs. 56% say it is extremely or very important).
  • Among girls ages 12-17 there was an increase in the amount of time they spend visiting social networking sites and using their smartphones for going online.
  • Among boys since 2010, there has been an increase in reading enjoyment (20% vs. 26% say they love reading), and importance of reading books for fun (39% vs. 47%). Reading frequency among boys has stayed steady, with 32% being frequent readers.

“While highlighting opportunities, this report remains a call to action to stay focused on increasing reading frequency among our children because the more they read, the better readers they will become and the more they will love it and continue to read,” continued Alexander. “Literacy is a critical doorway to success in both school and life, particularly as the digital world increases access to information. Our children need to gain the skills learned by reading, such as the ability to analyze, interpret and understand complex texts and to separate fact from opinion.”

The study also looked at the influences that impact kids’ reading frequency, and parents ranked extremely high. The report found that having a reading role-model parent or a large book collection at home has a greater impact on kids’ reading frequency than does household income. Plus, building reading into kids’ daily schedules and regularly bringing home books for children positively impacts kids’ reading frequency.

Additional findings of note include:

  • Kids say that ebooks are better than print books when they do not want their friends to know what they are reading, and when they are out and about/traveling.
  • Print books are seen by kids as better for sharing with friends and reading at bedtime.
  • Consistent with the 2010 Kids & Family Reading Report, nine in ten kids say they are more likely to finish a book they choose themselves.
  • Thirty-one percent of parents who have read an ebook say they personally read more books now than they read before starting to read ebooks.
  • Thirty-two percent of parents say they are reading new kinds of books they never thought they would read, including children’s books and teen fiction.

The study was conducted by Scholastic and managed by Harrison Group, a YouGov Company. Survey data were collected by GfK, and the source of the survey sample of 1,074 pairs of children age 6-17 and their parents was GfK’s nationally representative KnowledgePanel®.

To download the Kids & Family Reading Report and access audio sound bites,

To learn more about Scholastic, visit their media room at To learn about our global literacy campaign, visit


Category: 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.