The positive impact of reading for enjoyment on young people’s learning and future career opportunities has long been evidenced by international and national research. Equally, young people’s enthusiasm for technology is well recognised and the increasing affordability of smartphones and tablets, and wider availability of broadband, has lead to a significant increase in access and ownership across all social backgrounds (seven in ten children aged 5-15 had a tablet in the home in 2014).
While much of young people’s screen time is spent socialising, watching videos or playing games, access to portable electronic devices also provides them with the opportunity to read ebooks. The National Literacy Trust’s annual literacy survey questions thousands of children and young people aged 8 to 16 about their literacy behaviours. In 2012, children reported reading more on electronic devices than in print form for the first time, confirming the central role of technology in young people’s literacy lives. More than half said they’d rather read using electronic devices, compared to just under a third who’d rather read in print. Data collected in 2014 will unpick this further.
Easy does it
Given this preference, should schools be offering ebooks, as well as print books, to pupils? To date, published research on the impact of ebooks on young people’s reading motivation and skills shows little consensus. However, the National Literacy Trust is currently engaged in a new study with RM Books that aims to help schools to determine which pupils may have most to benefit from access to eBooks, and will report in October 2015. Interim results from more than 1,000 pre-project survey responses show that children and young people from all backgrounds, of both genders and across age groups say they read more using technology, prefer to read and enjoy reading more this way. As one pupil said: “I am always on my [tablet] so it is a good way of using it.” Children from less advantaged backgrounds, boys and older children showed more positive attitudes to reading using technology, suggesting that offering reading in this format may have the potential to impact positively on some of the traditional indicators of poorer literacy performance which include socioeconomic background, gender and age.
There are some compelling case studies showing that ebooks have been used successfully to encourage reluctant readers to give it reading a try. Teachers and librarians have hailed the benefits both for less confident readers (one pupil, reading a Hi-Lo title, mentioned “No-one could see what I was reading” as a positive) and voracious readers, who may have already worked their way through the school’s paper library. It is important to keep expectations realistic – a screen can’t, in itself, transform a reluctant reader into a bookworm overnight, and a significant percentage of young people prefer to read on paper, or don’t mind either way. A common attitude, expressed by another pupil, is: “I like reading using paper because it feels more like ‘proper reading’ but using an electronic device is convenient and easy.”
While it is unlikely that ebooks could ever replace ‘traditional’ books, school librarians have also noted some unexpected benefits. For example, ebooks allow a library to expand beyond its physical shelf capacity; they remove the need to chase up returns of ‘hard copies’ of books (as an ebook’s loan period ends automatically) and digital titles don’t suffer from physical wear and tear. More importantly, by ‘renting’ ebooks for short periods, for example over a term or two, librarians can plan future rentals to reflect recent popularity; helping to spend their budget more efficiently and creating an increasingly bespoke library to suit the needs and preferences of their pupils.
If you are thinking about giving ebooks a try, research providers thoroughly, and remember that wifi, hardware, staff capacity and technical confidence will all be factors contributing to the success of your digital library.