How ebooks can improve literacy

  • How ebooks can improve literacy

A National Literacy Trust study exploring the impact of ebooks on children’s reading motivation and skills has found some surprising benefits for particular groups of children – and in particular, boys and so-called ‘reluctant readers’.

The study, called The Impact of ebooks on the Reading Motivation and Reading Skills of Young People: a study of schools using RM Books was carried out after previous National Literacy Trust research showed that an increasing number of children and young people read using technology outside school – in 2014, almost 9 in 10 claimed they read on a device outside school – and a higher percentage said that they enjoy reading this way compared to reading on paper. Boys were significantly more likely to say that they read on screen than in print outside school, and the gap between boys and girls reading outside school narrowed significantly in relation to reading on screen compared to reading on paper.

Our ebooks study, involving more than 800 pupils aged 8 to 16 from around 40 schools across the UK, showed that boys in particular seemed to benefit from reading using this medium. For example, over a project period spanning an average of four months, boys made an average of eight months’ reading progress, compared to just over seven months’ reading progress for girls. There was also a dramatic rise in the percentage of boys who felt reading was ‘cool’, which almost doubled (from 34% to 67%) and the percentage that felt reading was difficult for them almost halved (from 28% to 16%).

Open doors

The impact was even more dramatic for boys who began the study with the lowest levels of reading enjoyment. In this group, the proportion who enjoyed reading using technology increased from just under half to more than two-thirds, but the percentage who enjoyed reading on paper also increased fourfold (from 10% to 40%). This would appear to indicate that being given access to ebooks may also have opened up the wider world of reading for some children. This is particularly good news when research shows that nearly twice as many children who include some print reading in their diet read at above the expected level for their age, compared to those who read only on screen.

International research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also found something special about digital reading for boys: “…the gender gap in reading …was …narrower in digital than in print reading for every country that participated in PISA in 2012. On average, girls outperformed boys by 38 points on the paper-based test (the equivalent of nearly one year of schooling) but by just 26 points on the computer-based test.”

Further research is needed to look in more depth at why reading on screen may have these particular benefits for boys. While OECD researchers have hypothesised that boys’ better performance on computer-based tests may be linked to their familiarity and comfort around computers and computer games, in the National Literacy Trust study, several children mentioned that practical features of ebooks, such as being able to change the size of the text, choose a background colour and read at your own pace, simply made reading more comfortable compared to paper books with close print. A fairly typical quote from a young person preferring to read using technology was, “In a paper book, your vision goes, there are so many words, words after words after words, but on a screen you can scroll down how you’d like.”

Increase the options

However, our study also found that many children prefer to read in the traditional way, and an increasing proportion don’t mind what they read on – as with adults, the ‘paper versus screen’ debate is increasingly showing itself to be a false dichotomy with different formats suiting different occasions and circumstances. So, in the same way as we would advocate offering children as wide a selection of reading genres as possible, perhaps we should consider giving children as wide a choice of reading formats as equally important. Teachers need to have the confidence to try this out and can do so through action research projects such as those embedded in our reading for enjoyment training.

It is worth noting that many ebook providers and platforms are not tied to a specific ereader device that you may have heard of – ebooks are definitely not synonymous with ereaders so you don’t necessarily have to find the budget for expensive, and limited, hardware to give digital reading a try. Schools with laptops and tablets or indeed a ‘Bring Your Own Device’ policy can easily try a few providers for size – book chapter samples and classic fiction are often offered free of charge. Also, while ereader ownership has increased over the last few years, children are still far more likely to own or have access to a device such as a smartphone, tablet or games console, making it possible for them to read ebooks outside school too – great if they find a title they can’t put down!


Irene Picton is a research manager at the National Literacy Trust (