The Impact of E-reading By Felicity Carter
I used to love books. The colour of the cover. The smell of the paper. The excitement that comes with turning the first page.
But since my Kindle arrived, I haven’t touched a physical book. Originally I bought the Kindle for travelling, but I’ve since fallen in love with its ability to carry many books at once, let me read sample chapters before buying and download my choices instantly. So enamoured am I, that if a book isn’t available electronically, I don’t buy it.
I’m not alone. Market research firm IDC notes that in the first quarter of 2011, sales of e-readers in the US were up 105% over the year before, with no signs of slowing. While there are no Australian figures, the demise of Borders and Angus & Robertson suggests that e-books are taking a nasty bite out of book sales here.
So far, publishers in Australia report that children aren’t using e-readers. But change is coming; last January, US publishers saw a sudden spike in electronic sales of popular children’s books like The Chronicles of Narnia series. All those children who received e-readers for Christmas were downloading their favourite books. By February, the New York Times reported that Young Adult e-books had become 20% of all digital sales. Not surprisingly, publishers have rushed to develop e-books and apps for children.
It’s one thing for a confident reader to download a classic book onto their Kindle. But if physical books disappear, what could this mean for children who are learning to read? Is ‘enhancing’ a book with sound effects or videos a good way to get a child involved with reading, or does this spell the end of the book in favour of some electronic hybrid? And what could learning to read on an electronic device do to a child’s developing brain? Unfortunately, it’s too early to know, though research has begun in the US. What is very clear, however, is the general impact of the digital world on children.
Professor Monica Rosen from the Department of Education at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden recently completed a study looking at reading skills of primary school students since 1970, comparing Hungary, Italy, the US and Sweden. While reading ability has improved in Italy and Hungary over that period, it has dropped dramatically in both the US and Sweden, beginning around 1990. The study concluded that it was the computer and associated digital distractions that were responsible for the decline, rather than new teaching methods or social changes.
We have been participating in all the international studies from 1970 onwards, and we have had quite a negative assessment of the average reading level among the primary grades, said Professor Rosen. So of course we were looking for an explanation for this negative trend. Included in her study were surveys that asked key questions about children’s leisure time and a whole battery of questions about the use of computers. The data set she worked with was large enough that firm conclusions could be drawn: the change in reading ability correlates with the rise of computer use. What Professor Rosen also found is that Swedish children — who have always been at the top of international literacy tables — are now reading a semester behind children in 1990. Given that reading tasks today are not so dissimilar, it is a decrease that is worrying, she says and adds that a similar decline can be seen elsewhere.