Middle Graders and ebooks: What’s the Story?

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Parents prefer reading print books to their children, rather than electronic books, and children in turn prefer to be read to from print books.

This is the conclusion of a study published last week by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to studying and promoting children’s reading. The study interestingly contradicts another study released by the Cooney Center earlier this year which concluded that children prefer reading electronic books to print books, and moreover, that they experienced no losses in retention and comprehension in reading electronic books.

The study released earlier in the year, however, observed only 24 families with children ages 3-6 reading print books and ebooks in the Summer and Fall of 2011. 1,200 parents were involved in the study released last week.

This most recent study also revealed that the retention and comprehension of the children under observation went down when engaged with enhanced ebooks, as the interactivity not directly tied to the narrative caused the children to become distracted.

The Cooney Center’s decision to pursue these surveys was in part inspired by a November 2011 New York Times article that suggested that parents do not like reading ebooks to their children because of negative perceptions around children spending too much time in front of a screen.

As a publisher of children’s ebooks with no print operation, I find these studies significant. But neither of them addresses the demographic that my humorous Kingdom of Patria series seeks principally to entertain: the middle grade audience, ages approximately 8 to 13. There is no study of which I am aware that surveys this demographic’s engagement with ebooks.

I can readily understand, both as a parent and children’s author, why parents of children ages 3-6 prefer reading print books to ebooks, and why children prefer being read to from print books. For children in this younger group, reading is snuggle time with the parent, and the kinds of books enjoyed are usually picture books in which illustration and often physical design play a crucial part in the reading experience. An electronic reading device is simply not as attractive a medium when it comes to snuggle time, and its small screen, even if it is a full-color e-reader or iPad, cannot provide the sensuousness that illustrations in a well-designed print book provide (and if sensuousness is attempted through interactivity, retention and comprehension falter, as the one Cooney Center study shows).

But what of kids ages 8 to 13? They’re into beginning chapter books and full-blown middle grade novels. Illustrations, while often a part of such books, do not play as large a role as they do in picture books. What is their experience with ebooks, either when reading aloud or when having them read aloud by a parent? Do they prefer ebooks to print? Is it a wash?

There is an even more fundamental question: how many middle graders are actually reading ebooks? Given the increasing prevalence of digital books generally, I’m inclined to say that “more and more” children ages 8 to 13 are reading digitally. But I don’t have any data to back up this hunch.

So I turn to you.

If you have or know children in the middle grade years, then how would you describe their experience reading ebooks?

Are they in fact reading them more and more? Do they read them more than print books, or are they still predominantly reading print books?

If your family reads aloud–and I hope it does–do you ever read from an ebook, or does the very thought of that make you cringe?

  1. I have two kids, a 10 year old boy and an 11 year old girl.

    A few years ago we got the girl a Kindle because she’s a voracious reader running out of room for her books. She does read on it sometimes, but she very much prefers print books – I think she likes the look, feel, and smell of them, which is something I can very much identify with. That said, having only an ebook version doesn’t prevent her from reading something.

    My son, on the other hand, pretty much commandeered her Kindle until we got him his own this past Christmas. Most books bought just for him are bought as an ebook (unless we’re in a physical bookstore – then you just have to leave with a physical book). He’ll still read print books, but he prefers an ebook.

    I write reviews of middle grade books for parents, so I read a lot of the same books my kids do. I like the ease and compactness of the Kindle, but the experience just isn’t the same – I miss the variety of fonts, the way the physical book is laid out, etc. However, when a book is only available as an ebook, I’m not missing out on any of that because I’m reading it as it was originally designed.

    So far I have not read an ebook aloud to them. I’m not sure why. Maybe because an ebook isn’t sitting on a table with its lovely cover reminding us to get back to it?

    Anyway, I would agree with your hypothesis that for middle grade readers it’s less of problem to publish only an ebook. That said, part of me would love to see a physical copy of the Patria books with illustrations in the style of the website.

  2. Thanks so much, Amanda, for stopping by and for sharing the experience with ebooks in your household. Thanks, too, for encouraging me to think about print versions of my Patria books with illustrations by Ted Schluenderfritz. It’s an idea, perhaps, I’ll have to revisit…

  3. Great post, Daniel. I’m a reader, author and aunt to sixteen children. Some of them prefer prefer paperbacks and some eBooks. When I decided to publish my book LIGHTMASTERS, I wanted to be able to offer both the print and ebook formats. Paperback is my favorite format. I will only read eBooks when there is no print version available.

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