E-books and Early Elementary Education: A Balancing Act of Technology and Teaching Pedagogy


Meteoric change in publishing occurred over the last decade as e-books became both more widespread and more interactive. Many publishers delight over the ever-evolving abilities of e-books, adding more technological bells and whistles to further distinguish e-books from print books in hopes of increasing value-added from a consumer standpoint. While many adults embrace the convenience and adaptability of e-readers and tablets for their reading needs, the ubiquity of screens has given pause to many educators who are now faced with difficult decisions as to how to best implement screen-based technologies into their classrooms. To many teachers who see busy and exasperated parents frequently passing off their iPhones to their children in order to entertain them, more screen time seems to be the last thing their students need. This excess of screen time begs the question — do e-books belong in early elementary school classrooms?

While some recent studies illustrate e-books’ success over print books in their ability to attract young readers and increase their initial interest in reading, other studies reveal e-books result in poorer comprehension, more easily distracted students, and passive reading experiences for emerging readers. Yet other studies demonstrate e-books’ ability increase students’ early reading skills at a faster rate than traditional print books. With such conflicting data, it’s no wonder many schools are hesitant to invest in e-books. This report sifts through these contradicting studies to pinpoint ways in which teachers can use the right e-books to the benefit of their students, and how publishers can use these findings to create better content for e-books for children in early elementary school environments.


In order to clear the air around e-books in early literacy it is imperative to make clear distinctions between the vast varieties of e-books currently on the market. In Lisa Guernsey’s 2011 School Library Journal article “Are Ebooks Any Good?”, Jeremy Bruek, a leading researcher in children’s digital reading research who is developing a rating scale for e-books in regards to their educational value, argues that the name “e-book” is “too broad,” giving little indication to the vast difference between commercially developed enhanced e-books, unenhanced e-books, and enhanced e-books developed for educational purposes. So far in his studies of one hundred children’s e-books, Bruek has found only a few e-books suitable for educational purposes. Later on in this article Ben Bederson, co-director of the International Children’s Digital Library, gives a prime example of the multitudes of unsuitable e-books when he discusses his experience downloading a Toy Story e-book for his five-year-old daughter: “It was 25 percent book and 75 percent movie.”

These types of enhanced (or in this case, over-enhanced) e-books are the focus of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s QuickReport, which found that enhanced e-books were “less effective than the print and basic e-book in supporting the benefits of co-reading because it prompted more non-content related interactions.” (In this study “co-reading” indicates guided reading with an adult or an adult reading to a child. “Non-content related interactions” include displays of interest in the device, rather than the story). The study also found that children reading enhanced e-books “recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story.” While this evidence is fairly damning, the study did find that both enhanced e-books and basic e-books were more enticing to emerging readers than their print counterparts.

The QuickReport demonstrates that while many enhanced e-books should be avoided in literacy-building activities, basic e-books were on par with print books for comprehension and content retention, yet they share enhanced e-books ability to excite emerging readers with a new, fresh reading experience; therefore, using basic e-books in teacher-led reading activities has the potential to marry the best that print and digital have to offer to emerging readers.

With the difference between e-books and enhanced e-books clearly illustrated, one more distinction begs to be made: the difference between commercially developed enhanced e-books and educationally developed enhanced e-books. Bruek worries that many companies running enhanced e-book subscriptions are “… putting money into something that isn’t sound from a pedagogical standpoint.” So what, if anything, makes an enhanced e-book suitable for emerging readers?

The answer to this question comes from a 2009 study by Ofra Korat, Adina Shamir, et al. entitled “Reading electronic and printed books with and without adult instruction: effects on emergent reading.” The researchers in this study examined the effects of enhanced e-book and print book reading on children’s emergent reading skills with and without adult instruction. In the study, 128 Israeli kindergarteners from low socio-economic status families were divided into four groups. The groups were assigned to read an e-book independently (EB), read an e-book with adult instruction (EBI), read a print book with instruction (PBI), or were given the traditional kindergarten curriculum as a control for the study. E-book groups read their e-books while working in pairs on desktop computers, rather than on e-readers. The researchers discovered that: “…the EBI group achieved greater progress in word reading and CAP (concepts about print) than all other groups. The EBI group also achieved greater progress in phonological awareness than the EB and the control groups.” These findings seem to completely contradict the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s study; however, in their report, the researchers clearly define the type of enhanced e-book they used for the study:

“Emphasis was made on the size and font of the text (big and clear) and on the optimal amount of text which appears on each page. The text was highlighted congruently with the narrator’s reading (at the word level), in order to help children connect between the written and the spoken text and thus promote reading ability and CAP. Clicking on specific words enables listening to the sound of the words at the syllabic and sub-syllabic levels in order to promote the children’s phonological awareness.” (pg. 914)

The educationally developed enhanced e-book clearly attempts to mimic many of the cues and prompts that an adult would initiate in a co-reading environment. It prompts children to interact digitally with the text, but only to make connections or practice chunking words by their syllables in order to sound out full words. While these enhancements are a massive improvement over commercially developed enhanced e-books’ bells and whistles, the report indicates that educational enhanced e-books alone were not enough. Teacher instruction was the key to unlocking enhanced e-books’ potential to increase early literacy skills in emerging readers.


Publishers can take three things from these studies: 1) emerging readers are captivated and excited by digitally displayed books, 2) any enhanced content should be considered from a pedagogical standpoint, 3) e-books should be designed with both e-reader and desktop computer use in-mind.

Nearly all studies of emerging readers and e-books highlight the increased interest young readers have in e-books over print books. Unfortunately, many publishers are currently over-delivering interactive content and distracting young readers as a result. These same readers will still be enthusiastic about e-books with much fewer enhancements, and educators and parents will feel better about incorporating those e-books into co-reading activities. At the end of “Are Ebooks Any Good?” Julie Hume, a reading specialist in University City, Missouri, discusses her success with the online reading program TumbleBooks, a Toronto-based company that enhances commercial print books for educational e-book use. While TumbleBooks e-books do contain some music and animation, their main interactive feature is the option to have to story read aloud with corresponding highlighted text, or to read the story independently. To test out TumbleBooks Hume split her students into two groups: one group received her original curriculum of co-reading in small groups with her guidance and one group used the TumbleBooks program. After three months, the TumbleBooks group scored 23% higher than the group that received her regular instruction. Hume contributes their progress to the “strong model of fluency” that the TumbleBooks narrators provide; however, she also cautions that while these e-books are great for building students’ confidence, they shouldn’t replace print books for fear that students will begin to rely on having books read to them, rather than decoding the text on their own. Given this concern, it would make sense for publishers to develop enhanced e-books that have the option of having their enhancements “locked” in order to revert content back to basic e-book format. This would allow emerging readers who are excited by e-books to practice reading independently, without the temptation to revert back to having the text read to them.

It’s easy to say that publishers should consider e-books from a pedagogical standpoint, but in reality not many publishers have first-hand experience in early childhood education. Luckily, in 2009, Kathleen Roskos, Sarah Widman, and the aforementioned Jeremy Bruek published an investigative report of analytical tools for assessing the quality of e-book design that publishers could use as a guide for developing pedagogically sound enhanced e-books. “Investigating Analytic Tools for e-Book Design in Early Literacy Learning” examines three analytic tools and their capabilities to assess the effectiveness of various e-book designs taken from a sampling of books from multiple easily accessible online resources. While the purpose of the study was to observe which tool gave the researchers the best information about the quality of e-books, rather than to explicitly report what kinds of e-books are best for emerging readers, it does highlight the types of designs and calls to actions the researchers were concerned with. Factors studied included book handling, navigation, multimedia, contiguity, redundancy, coherence, personalization, paths of attention (look-read-search-read vs. look-look-click-read-listen to and look-listen), and comprehension over print processing (i.e. understanding the text over reading independently). Publishers should consider these factors when producing e-books while they wait for a definitive tool to be developed for assessing the quality of enhanced educational e-books.

The last recommendation for publishers – to develop e-books for desktop computers rather than touchscreen devices – at first seems counter-intuitive. The reality is that very few schools can afford tablets and e-readers, but 97% of U.S. classrooms in 2009 had at least one computer. Scholastic’s Kids & Family Reading Report, Fourth Edition notes that while e-reading across a variety of devices is on the rise, in 2012 children reported reading e-books on laptops or desktops at roughly the same rate as those who read on tablets or e-readers. Another way to look at the data is that 41% of children polled are reading e-books on non-touchscreen devices; therefore, publishers specializing in children’s e-books who want their product to be accessible to as many readers as possible should develop e-books that can be used with simple point-and-click enhancements rather than swipes, pinches, or graphics that are activated by tilts in device orientation that will only be useful on a tablet. Coincidentally, removing many of the enhancements created for e-book use on touchscreens also removes the same enhancements that result in distractions and decreases in comprehension and text awareness.


Educators and researchers are key partners for helping publishers develop enhanced e-books that will both delight emerging readers and improve their early literacy skills. The recent studies that pinpointed e-book enhancements’ shortcomings should be heeded by publishers who in turn should scale back on superfluous additions to text in favor of enhancements that support comprehension and retention, and encourage emerging readers to decode text and read independently.

Teachers should embrace basic e-books as a way to engage students in new literacy activities, as well as a way to teach them about developing good reading skills for use in a variety of text formats and circumstances. Educationally developed enhanced e-books should be viewed as an exciting new supplement to early literacy curriculums and should be used in conjunction with traditional print book activities to develop strong independent reading skills. With adult instruction and guidance, e-books can be introduced into classrooms to the benefit of early elementary school students.



Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8

Technology in Early Childhood: Advice For Parents and Teachers From A Trusted Source

eBooks and Literacy in K-12 Schools

Enhanced ebooks are bad for children finds American study



  1. KC,

    This is a great paper. I’ve never given much thought to e-books in schools, only thought about introducing children to e-books via parents. But I think you make some really great points, none of which I can disagree with. E-Books, especially in early childhood education, should be pedagogically designed. They shouldn’t have all of the “bells and whistles” of the enhanced books, but I can see why having the ability to read the text out loud and highlight certain words can be beneficial for educators and children.
    Perhaps this also becomes an issue between education publishers vs commercial publishers, in that the one may not be as well versed in what the education community needs in an e-book as the other. It could be that new companies need to be created (or old ones refurbished) with the educational e-book criteria you have outlined in mind.
    I think your point about designing these applications/books for desktop computers is a fair one as well, and one I know you’ve brought up in class before. Not every school system has the money to invest in state-of-the-art tablets. Not only that, but tablet technology is still increasing at an ever-expanding rate, forcing people (or school systems, for that matter) to buy a new tablet only a year after they bought their last.
    I agree that e-books introduce a new way for children to interact with what they are reading, which, as you’ve shown, is beneficial to their growth and development.

    Great job!


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