From WhatsApp to Wind in the Willows: the digital v print debate

Sally Perry

‘All reading can be done on iPads’

At the ATL teachers’  union conference earlier this month the third motion on the final day called for an end to cuts and closures in school libraries. The motion was supported by a survey of 485 schools, and evidence of both good and bad developments in library provision – though more bad than good – was presented.

While all the implied reasons for the cuts could be challenged – they generally concerned priorities in space and funding – one justification, quoted in the press release and picked up by the media, stood out: ‘The new head has decided a library is no longer needed so is planning to get rid of it as all reading can be done on iPads’.

With World Book Night being celebrated on Saturday 23 April (also the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death), this is perhaps a good moment to reflect on what we know about the reading habits of the younger generations. However, before considering the claim thatthese habits don’t need to include print books, it is worth recognizing that digital reading (on iPads or any other devices) can be many things, from WhatsApp to Wikipedia to e-books. Clearly there are some types of reading that are ­only possible, and many that are without doubt more convenient, on a digital device, as anyone who has tried to borrow a library book after closing time or to read Bleak House while commuting can tell you. And e-books themselves can be everything from digital versions of print books to something that could be considered a different entity altogether, one that is interactive, game-like, multimodal, user-driven and often delivered as an app.

However, an understanding of the current position remains elusive. Even when the reading under consideration is limited to books, its purpose and the choice from what is available in terms of format and content (and who makes that choice) all need to be taken into account. In addition the playing field for young readers in a digital age is not only not level, but also constantly and rapidly changing, as the technology for digital reading, access to devices and provision of content by publishers develops.

So, with these caveats in mind, in the context of the school library where books are generally provided for either information or reading for pleasure (and hence developing literacy skills), what are some of the swings and roundabouts in the print vs digital debate?

Research is being undertaken from a variety of perspectives. In addition to research into academic considerations such as child development, psychology, implications for pedagogy and so on, there is research with a commercial perspective since, after all, the book is a commercial product and what publishers and booksellers choose to make available, and how they choose to present it, are central to the issue.

On the impact of digital reading, one of the outstanding messages of the research is that the devices themselves motivate reading and the developing of literacy skills. Research for the National Literacy Trust in 2015 with children aged 8 to 16, for example, showed that access to an ebook platform (RM Books) led to increases in reading progress, particularly for boys, and enjoyment of reading increased, particularly for boys who struggled to read. The coup de grâce for anyone involved in encouraging teenagers to read for pleasure is that the digital reading was actually seen as making reading ‘cool’. Looking at pre-school, primary and children at a special school using iPads, Flewitt, Messer and Kucirkova (2014) highlight tablets’ potential to support early literacy skills, noting particularly the increased motivation arising from the devices and the possibilities they provide.

Meanwhile the same National Literacy Trust report also shows an increase in reading in print as well as digital during the study, and in addition to benefits, much of the research available also identifies disadvantages in digital reading. Parish-Morris and colleagues, for example, concluded in 2013 that electronic features (in this case in electronic console books) had a negative effect on interactive shared reading in pre-school children, specifically on quality of language and on comprehension.

Young people themselves seem to have a surprising commitment to print. A survey carried out for The Bookseller Children’s Conference 2015 found that out of 1000 16-24 year olds 64% preferred print books. However, the survey also showed that they are more likely than 20-24-year olds to read ebooks. Yet a poll by First News, a newspaper for 7 to 14 year olds with a circulation of 2 million, found that 68% of the readers who responded prefer print to digital books.[1] .

At the risk of over-simplifying research findings, it might be said that the research available, for younger and older children, shows both advantages and disadvantages for digital reading, and of particular relevance to school libraries, reluctant readers, especially boys, stand out as a group which can benefit from digital reading, whereas keen readers tend to favour print.

In 2014 Sean Moss of children’s publisher Walker Books told The Bookseller that the number of teenagers ‘who read mostly digital is significantly lower than adults. We’ve seen that teenagers often start reading a series in e-format but once they become dedicated fans, they want to have a physical copy of the book too’. That attachment to the physical form and its representation of something more than the content, is worth noting.

Adult readers who prefer print often raise the importance of the physical object. They explain that their understanding of the ‘geography’ of the book contributes to the way they can process it – being able to find their way back to something they need to re-read, or make judgements and predictions about a plot based on how near to the end they are, are valuable tools in being an efficient reader. The design of the text, shade of the paper, tightness of the binding, all contribute to making one book or part of a book distinct from another. Taking away these signposts and landmarks is frustrating to a reader of any age who aims to extract the knowledge (in non-fiction) or find out what happens next (in fiction) in the most efficient way possible.

So (setting aside the practical challenges of managing collections of print resources and collections of e-resources and devices to use them on), while doing away with your school library in favour of iPads might have some benefits, it seems that you might be doing a grave disservice to some of its best customers. Until the implications are fully understood it seems rash, to say the least, to consider it a viable option. A good school library should contribute to a culture where reading of any sort is valued and enjoyed, and anyone who has spent time helping children find inspiring reading material knows that being able to choose books is crucial to becoming a keen life-long reader. Research by publisher and bookseller Scholastic in 2015 found across all ages (6-17) ‘a majority of kids (68%) say they would read more if they could find more books they like, and nearly four in 10 parents (38%) agree that their child has trouble finding books he or she likes. More than eight in 10 children agree their favourite books – and the ones they are most likely to finish – are the ones they pick out themselves.’

Developing taste, acquiring the confidence to experiment (and move beyond the current popular series) requires firstly a good selection of books to choose from and then skill in making judgements about books. A physical book provides many clues absent from an electronic one, from the cover design to a clear indication of the length.

The vast and growing amount of research available suggests that providing digital reading could inspire some readers but taking away print might disadvantage others. So here’s hoping that alongside the banks of charging iPads, the school library mentioned at the ATL conference will be able to sustain a collection of enticing, beguiling, printed books, selected and presented by someone who can help young readers find books that will inspire them to read, in whatever format suits them best.


Photo: Kathy Cassidy

[1] ‘Physical books vs e-books’. (2015) First News Issue 488, 23-29 October 2015, p 3

Posted in Literacy, Research matters
One comment on “From WhatsApp to Wind in the Willows: the digital v print debate

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