Read to your child early and often. Literacy experts have long maintained that this helps foster a love of learning and prepares youngsters for the complex academic tasks of the early elementary years. For centuries, of course, the go-to model was the print book, but the past five years or so have seen an explosion of electronics for little ones. Ever watched a tot access Mommy's iPhone with one deft screen-swipe of his chubby finger? Youngsters have caught on quickly to these new media.

But are these digital media-specifically, book apps and enhanced e-books-affecting a child's reading readiness, and if so, how? As a parent, do you feel overwhelmed by choice and unsure as to how to discern a quality product? Do you wonder whether such "screen time" cultivates a child's deep pleasure in words and reading, or is merely a distraction?

Though there are no easy answers, recent research offers insight into the effect of these new forms of media on children. This added awareness, in turn, is empowering literacy experts and developers to create digital forms that better educate and entertain.

Developing Digital Books

There are important distinctions between e-books, enhanced e-books and apps. E-books digitally replicate the print book, with enhanced e-books adding features such as audio, video, animation and pop-up graphics to that specific book. Apps, too, may exhibit these features but often operate more as an interactive or game.

The print picture book is, by its very nature, interactive, requiring that readers (or listeners) be attuned to words and pictures and how they connect to tell a larger story.

For Glenn Hovemann, editor at Dawn Publications, the key to creating a truly enhanced e-book is to deepen and expand upon this innate interactivity rather than build in mere distractions. With a 30-year track record of award-winning children's books, the California-based company is approaching its new electronic efforts in a manner similar to many publishing companies, large and small. It is carefully choosing from among its most popular backlist titles.

"It takes a lot of skill and time to create these products," Hovemann says. "They are expensive to produce but the prices [have been set very] low and disproportionate to their [actual] cost." Not every print book can or should be adapted, he cautions. Companies must think strategically: What specific aspects of the book might be enhanced and how might this add value or "layers" to the child's reading/learning experience?

Dawn released its first enhanced e-book last year, Over in the Ocean: In a Coral Reef. The print version, in both picture- and board-book forms, by Marianne Berkes, with illustrations by Jeanette Canyon, playfully examines a coral-reef ecosystem. Hovemann and developer Malachi Bazan used animation to show how the featured animals move and act, and they created a seek-and-find game to help young readers to learn more about the ecosystem. The audio provides a lively reading that emphasizes language patterns, rhythm and counting/math features. Bazan leverages his professional experience with Hollywood animated movies and video games to bring the book's seahorses, dolphins, clownfish and other characters to life on the screen. [Disclosure: Dawn is the publisher of two of my books, and it has been fascinating to witness the initial stages of their adaptation to digital form.]

Determining Quality

Mary Ann Scheuer, the librarian at Emerson School in Berkeley, Calif., believes that as a professional "passionate about getting children to read, the crux is how to balance interactivity that draws readers into the story with the many bells and whistles that distract them from understanding the story."

Scheuer became curious about book apps by noting how her own three children, now 13, 11 and 8, were drawn into their story worlds, and she cites William Joyce's The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore as an especially potent example. The act of turning the pages and activating the features made her daughters participants in the unfolding story, which proved to be a much richer experience than playing a video game or passively watching a movie, she says.

This busy librarian maintains a book-review blog (greatkidbooks.blogspot.com) and serves on a task force on book apps for the American Association of School Librarians. She also chairs the committee that judges the national Cybils Book App Award (cybils.com), one of the few award mechanisms to recognize the stand-outs in this burgeoning field. For quality book apps, parents might check the lists of winners and finalists for previous years.

Impact on Early Literacy

Another important resource is Reading Rockets (www.readingrockets.org), a national literacy initiative from WETA Public Broadcasting in Arlington, which began recommending digital media two years ago. As an organization "focused on best practices for teaching young kids to read," it is especially tuned into the possible short- and long-term effects such media may have on emerging readers, says Joanne Meier, Ph.D., Research Director for Learning Media, WETA Public Television and Radio.

Meier points to a study published last year from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, part of Sesame Workshop, that revealed differences in parent/child interaction and narrative retention. The enhanced e-book interactions tended to focus on the child's use of the device rather than on the story itself, and these children remembered significantly fewer story details than youngsters using the print version of the same narrative. On the other hand, the study did find that these digital media were very effective in "engaging children and prompting physical interaction."

"I think parents should [also] be aware of the risks of enhanced elements taking too much away from the beauty of the language within a book," says Meier. "There's magic in a shared reading experience, and that shouldn't get lost within interactive games or features that appear within an e-book."

Making Informed Choices

Recognizing that digital forms can positively and negatively impact a child's reading experience, parents can take steps to maximize the benefits while minimizing the disadvantages. A first step might be using digital media as a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, the print book and its read-aloud experience.

Another important choice is when to introduce such media. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time (including TV, computers and digital devices) for the first two years of life. Reading Rockets basically supports these recommendations, says Meier, while also placing an emphasis on how an activity is carried out. "Supportive, communicative literacy-based engagement with a child is a positive thing. Whether that is carried out with an e-book, an enhanced e-book or a print book, the objectives remain the same: foster a love for words and language, keep the conversation flowing, and keep a child's motivation to interact with print very high."

Increasingly, enhanced e-books and book apps are being used in the classroom and school library. Dawn Publications develops its electronic products with this in mind, says editor Hovemann, connecting them to national core standards for science and language arts and to classroom activities on their website dawnpub.com.

Today's digital media "have strong potential" to impart important skills through a playful medium, says Hovemann.

"One benefit of nonfiction apps and enhanced e-books lies in their ability to supply quick access to missing background information," says Reading Rockets' Meier. Youngsters can tap into embedded supplementary content rather than having to search out an external source.

In trying to get the most digital bang for your buck, Meier suggests looking beyond flashy graphics to consider a book app or enhanced e-book that (1) "expands the traditional reading experience" rather than just replicating the physical book; (2) goes beyond visual experience; (3) is easy to use, with "key features never more than one or two taps away"; and (4) "builds on a child's prior knowledge" and "layers the learning."

Be guided by your child's interests and learning style, suggests book-app critic Scheuer, whose oldest daughter prefers print as opposed to the youngest's embrace of apps. "Understanding how stories unfold, and that stories are related to printed words are essential early literacy skills," she says. When chosen and used judiciously, book apps and enhanced e-books can be "wonderful elements that contribute to the early literacy experience."

Things to Know

How to choose and use apps and enhanced e-books with young children.

  • Use as supplements to rather than as substitutes for the print book and its read-aloud experience. According to recent research, enhanced elements and devices affect the quality of parent/child interactions around the story, and may play a part in the child's recall of significantly fewer narrative details.
  • Try to avoid "screen time" (TV, computers, mobile phones, digital devices) for the first two years of life, as recommended by the American Association of Pediatrics.
  • Seek the recommendations of experts, including Reading Rockets 9 readingrockets.org), the Cybils Book App Award winners and finalists (cybils.com), and AASL's list of 25 best apps ( ala.org/aasl) to be released in a few months.
  • Look beyond flashy graphics and distracting audio effects for enhancements that enrich the learning experience and build on a child's prior knowledge.
  • Recognize that what's important is the time spent reading to your child and attending to her developing interest in words and story rather than the medium.

Mary Quattlebaum writes and reviews children's books and teaches at Vermont College's MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. maryquattlebaum.com