Do Tablets Help or Hinder Childhood Literacy?

Do Tablets Help or Hinder Childhood Literacy?

The Rosetta Stone, a tablet undeniably fundamental to world literacy / Flickr user jpitha

These days would-be readers are wooed by screen time, book time and everything in between.

But has the proliferation of tablets impacted young children's ability to read or their interest in opening up a good book? The Guardian's Stuart Dredge asks these and other questions, and in the process takes a long and leisurely stroll through the shifting landscape of early childhood literacy.

The numbers tell a conflicting story. A recent UK study suggests that 41.4% of 8- to 18-year-olds read daily outside of class in 2014, up from 29.1% in 2010. But according to publisher Scholastic, in the same time period a declining percentage of American youth reported that they like to read books for fun.

In fact, no one seems to agree. London bookseller Joanna de Guia fears that with games, apps and Internet access, tablets steal precious hours from actual reading. “I worry about a generation of children who don’t want to know what the end of the story is, because that’s how we make sense of the world.” De Guia recently launched Story Habit, which among other things runs “literature walks,” a decidedly English way to encourage children to read.

Others believe tablets can play a key role in building literacy skills. “A really good app or website could be a force for good," says Irene Picton of the UK's National Literacy Trust. "We often forget that books are a technology too, and one that’s had several centuries to evolve.”

The issue is further complicated because, as UK market researcher David Kleeman points out, “Screen time is no longer a viable term. It is hard to tell what ‘reading’ is today: we’re not really measuring the amount of content that kids are reading incidentally within games and apps.”

As for whether tablets can deliver rich readings experiences as well as books do, Picton says, “we need newer research, larger-scale research and a younger cohort.”

The problem posed by tablets is nothing new, and predates the English language itself. Says Picton, “Don’t forget the suspicion with which Socrates greeted writing. He thought that people wouldn’t remember things if they were reading them rather than listening to them. Now we’re worried about not remembering things because we’re reading them on a screen not a page.”

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