Reading with Young Children: Something Old and Something New?

co-readingFollowers of the Center’s blog and research initiatives will know, we have been closely following the evolving, but not yet precisely documented transition from print to digital information that is impacting just about everyone these days. Our perspective on this phenomenon is to identify the ways in which digital books, games and other content is shaping household interactions, as well as the types of opportunities children have to learn outside the home—in schools, museums, libraries and the like. Our work is grounded in what we refer to as the “ecology of human development,” a research theory originally advanced some three decades ago by Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner of Cornell, and now being updated by scholars such as Brigid Barron of Stanford University and our own Director of Research at the Center, Lori Takeuchi. Our interest in the types of interactions and preferences that families are sharing when it comes to the integration of new technologies into their relationships, and in promoting young children’s learning, has led the Center to focus on how media are influencing “learning together.” One key line of work is our focus on early reading development, because parents and caregivers dramatically shape early literacy habits through their own actions, and, of course, what results often sets the foundation that children have in a basic competency that is central to their long-term success.

We are pleased to share the results today of a large-scale parent survey on “co-reading” that was conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center over the course of four months this spring. To follow up on insights revealed in our Print vs. E-books QuickStudy, Cooney Center Research Fellow Dr. Sarah Vaala and Director of Research Lori Takeuchi conducted a survey among 1,200 parents to ask them about their attitudes and practices toward reading books with their 2-to-6-year-old children. Because the Apple iPad has demonstrated a quick rise to dominance in the tablet marketplace, this report delves into iPad owners’ (approximately 500 of the participants) practices and their perceptions surrounding the use of e-books in their kids’ literacy development. While iPad owners are not representative of parents across the nation as a whole, we did found noteworthy patterns of perceptions and use of e-books among the families in this sample that we believe warrants broader conversations. Given the speed with which many lower-income families are now adopting iPads and other tablets, we believe that this study poses emerging, and more generalizable questions for researchers and designers. Our study was designed as a quick exploration of parents’ perceptions and practices of young children (6 and under) during a time of rapid growth in the e-book industry. With this survey, we were primarily interested in how parents today are reading books with their children, and how their perceptions of e-books compare to print books for learning and engagement, as well as what factors contribute to a parent’s decision to read or to not read e-books with their kids. The main findings are set out below. To read a copy of the full report, go to

iPad owners who read e-books with their children see certain features as helpful for early readers, and others as distracting.
Parents reported that audio features were most helpful for their young readers, including the option to click on a word to hear it read out loud. Conversely, embedded games and videos were found to be distracting, contributing to a perception among some parents that co-reading e-books with their children was “difficult”.

Parents with iPads vary in their perceptions and expectations of the experience of reading e-books with their children.
We found that just because a parent owns an iPad and enjoys reading on it herself does not mean that she will prefer reading with her child on the device. But those parents who do read e-books with their kids tend to feel positively about features in e-books that can help children learn to read on their own.

Perhaps most interestingly, reading e-books has not replaced reading print books together in families with iPads.
Even among parents who enjoy reading e-books with their children, the majority still prefers to read print books over e-books with their kids.

As innovation in the e-reading space and parent-child interactions naturally evolve, we are confident that experiences with co-reading will similarly be reshaped. Above all else, the research-based principle of spending a dedicated amount of time together (about a half hour for preschoolers) exploring print–whether it is in a physical book, or on screen–should remain a staple of effective practices for the foreseeable future. It is up to all of us to remember that the new technologies can be delightful allies in doing what generations of parents and caregivers have taken to quite naturally. When it comes to reading we need to effectively blend “something old with something new.”


Download the report.

Illustration by Baiba Baiba