Reading to a young child is one of the iconic and wonderful experiences of growing up, especially the “read to me” years. Reading together offers countless rewards, from sharing a story, to learning things, to the pure joy of slowing down and spending time together. Proven benefits include enhanced language development, attention span, and most measures of cognitive function and academic achievement. These are correlated with access to books in the home, reading time per day, and days reading per week (a minimum of 3 is cited). This often seems daunting, with so many emails to return, blogs to peruse, and IRL (in real life) chores to complete, but in our wired era where work-home-play are smeared into pixelated paste, it is more critical than ever to slow down and unplug for those precious 20 minutes (as below: me reading Baby Unplugged: Yard with a small but mighty friend on a recent trip).
The emergence of children’s e-books and “smart baby” media, often hailed as a renaissance, pose an insidious threat to this unplugged time. Convenience and cool factor aside, their key selling point is emphasis on “learning,” adding academic blobs to smeary work-home-play childhoods. Through overt marketing most toys, videos, and apps are advertised as developing skills we only recently had to advertise (consider this: did Dr. Seuss and the inventor of blocks plaster their creations with “educational”?), discounting the critical role of human interaction. This makes it easier to hand off an iPad/Leapster or turn on a DVD and then leave the child alone to “learn.” For most electronic toys, of course, parents tend to retreat as fast as they can (or, sweet rebellion, remove the batteries), lest the cloying drumbeat of “A! Apple! Good job!” drive them insane. Ditto overeager cartoon characters and electronic tutors “teaching” children about words and the world.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way.
Whether by device or human, reading as a child listens is not an optimal scenario. Though lap/snuggle trumps any gadget operating system via the human contact/warmth factor, by far the most robust benefits are via dialogic reading.Dialogic reading is a dynamic, even magical process, involving back-and-forth interaction between grownup and child. Amazing concept: human communication requiring at least two actual humans. It can be divided into four steps via the acronym PEER: Prompt the child, Evaluate response, Expand response, Repeat prompt. A nifty description of the process and its benefits is here. An Example:
“What is that?”
(child responds – imagine a cute version of the Charlie Brown wah-wah teacher)
“That’s right, it’s a manatee!”
(the child beams)
“It’s a blue manatee.”
(the child nods and maybe says blue-wah-wah)
“Can you say, ‘blue manatee is the best?'”
(indeed they can, with much beaming and applause)
“What is that?”
(child runs their finger across a smudgy screen, presses some buttons)
“No, sweetie, don’t touch that. Here, let me – no, that’s my email. No, wait, not Angry Birds, I mean that…”
Oh, wait. I forgot. This doesn’t work so well with iPads (see my recent post “And eBook makes three’s a crowd”). Scratch that.Unfortunately, the too-often scenario with them and other such gadgets is:
“What is that? Look, he/she’s using my iPad!”
(silence, gazing, smudging…)
“He/she’s so good at it!”
(more silent smudging…)
“And so quiet!”
(more silent smudging, gazing…)
“Wow, that’s amazing. I’m going to get some coffee…”
The benefits of dialogic reading were illustrated in a nifty 2011 study at Vanderbilt University
. Ironically, it was designed to test educational benefits of co-viewing videos. 81 parents watched video books with their 3 year-olds over several weeks, divided into 2 groups. One group was trained in dialogic viewing, with PEER interactive questioning and feedback as described above. The other group watched more passively, as is usually the case.The results were clear, validating the central role of humans. Children with more interactive, dialogic parents showed dramatically higher reading skills and comprehension than those less interactive
. Of critical note
, parents had to be trained in the dialogic process
in this context, which did not come naturally with electronic media, per their report. This makes sense, because movies and TV are typically passive “quiet time,” and apps and other games tend to be single-player focused, with the device assuming the role of teacher/caregiver. Talking during movies and TV is generally shushed and considered annoying (assuming it penetrates the video trance), and few people enjoy someone directing them as they iSurf or play video games.
A suggestion from the study, best taken with a grain of salt, is that videos might offer educational benefit when co-viewed in a dialogic way, though these pale in comparison to dialogic reading. Again, this requires practice and discipline. It does not mean merely sitting on the sofa together, or intermittently pointing at Elmo. It means fully engaging with the child. And I deeply believe that due to its distracting format, e-media is and will always be an inferior means to fully engage a child.
Besides, if you’re going to go dialogic – why not just cuddle up and share a real book?
Speaking of dialogic: who’s got some favorite stories they love to share with kids? Present!