Related to
Early Years

Written by Keryn O’Neill, MA PGCertEdPsych, Knowledge Manager

Shared reading with parents and whānau is an important component of a stimulating home literacy environment. Such an environment has many benefits, including for young children’s emerging literacy skills.1  

The electronic book industry is rapidly developing,2 with new e-book apps for preschoolers being released on a weekly basis.3 These are often accompanied by claims of educational or developmental benefits for children which many parents believe.4

Different format: different outcomes?

Research regarding the impact of the differing book formats has produced mixed outcomes.5 This is not unexpected, as “many cognitive, content and contextual factors can affect how well young children will learn from storybooks in any format”.6

Depending upon factors such as the sample studied, methodology and outcomes measured, the use of e-books compared with print books has shown both advantages and disadvantages, as well as no difference. Some of these findings are described below.

In a study looking at the differences between the reading of electronic console(EC) books and traditional books with 3-year-olds, children’s comprehension of the story and recall of the sequence of events was enhanced in the traditional book format.7 It was suggested that distracting aspects of the EC book, such as sound effects, interfered with the child’s ability to understand the story.8 Another study found children (4-6 years) learnt more about the story from the print book format, whereas both formats contributed to word learning.9

Parents of children aged 1- to 4-years reported that their child enjoyed and paid more attention to print books than e-books.10 This contrasts findings with older children where e-books were associated with better engagement of children.11  

Detrimental effects of e-books on story comprehension may be due to the different formats, or the changed ways in which adults and children interact with books of differing format.12

Engagement with an e-book was greater than for a paper book among 4- and 5-year-olds but not younger children. It is possible that this reflects more interest in the e-book features and the chance to play with an iPad, than in the story they were being read.13

A meta-analysis of 29 studies (primarily with children from primary school age) found multimedia stories more beneficial for story comprehension than paper books, without an adult. There were no significant differences in children’s vocabulary or comprehension between the different book formats.14 It is important to note research in this area does not tend to use commercially available electronic books (rather, specifically designed books), so the results show “the potentials of electronic stories for children’s language and literacy development but we cannot generalise the results to the available electronic stories on the market”.15

Some aspects studied did not differ between formats. This included knowledge of characters and events, among 3 and 5-year-olds16 Recall didn’t differ between book formats among 3-5-year-olds.17

The importance of adult-child interaction 

Several studies have found that the types of interactions parents had with their young child differed depending upon the book format, with rich interactions likely to promote future reading. These were less likely to occur with the e-books.18 Interactions regarding the use of the device, or the behaviour of the parent or child were increased when reading e-books compared with print books.19 

As children age, their use of electronic books tends to increase, as does the likelihood of them reading alone rather than with a parent. Parent-child interaction when reading e-books reduced with increasing age of the child, however when reading print books, this decline in parent-child interaction did not occur.20

Electronic book reading with 7- to 9-year-olds and their parents was associated with reduced “interaction warmth” compared with paper book reading. Aspects such as posture and the way in which the book was held contributed to these differences in interaction.21 

Concern has been expressed that parents may think the enhancements in electronic books can replace their own interaction with their child during reading.22 One study found no differences in 4-year-old children’s comprehension between electronic and paper books. While the format of the book was not found to lead to significant differences, the role of the parent did.23 “It is particularly important that parents realize that parental engagement is associated with enhanced story comprehension, regardless of the device on which the story is presented.”24  

Interactive features: help or hindrance?

Highly interactive features of some electronic books may impede positive shared reading experiences. Adults and children may both be distracted by the features of e-books.25

Children and parents were found to become frustrated when parents’ attempts to read stories interfered with children’s own use of the device.26 Children appear less willing to share control over a digital device, whereas print books don’t pose the same challenge.27

The features of e-books can enhance engagement and not be distracting for 3- to 5- year-olds, but they did not impact children’s performance.28


Children’s experiences of reading differ depending upon the book format used.29 It’s important that parents and other adults realise that while e-books can be a useful addition to a child’s shared reading experiences, they should not replace opportunities for shared reading of print books.30 Benefits of e-books appear to be more likely with older children, who are reading independently, with less known about the impact on preschool children.31

Many studies used e-books developed for research purposes, so the same benefits cannot be assumed from commercially available e-books.

Regardless of the format of the book, one of the most important aspects of shared reading with children in their early years, is the quality of the interaction that occurs between adult and child.


  1. Chen etal., 2016; Mol & Bus, 2011; Van Bysterveldt et al., 2010
  2. Richter & Courage, 2017; Strouse & Ganea, 2017
  3. Greenfield, 2012, cited by Parish-Morris etal., 2013
  4. see Parish-Morris et al., 2013
  5. Richter & Courage, 2017
  6. Richter & Courage, 2017, p.93
  7. Parish-Morris et al., 2013
  8. Trushell & Maitland, 2005, cited by Parish-Morris et al., 2013
  9. de Jong & Bus, 2002
  10. Strouse & Ganea, 2017
  11. Littleton et al., 2006, and, Verhallen & Bus, 2009, cited by Strouse & Ganea, 2017
  12. Strouse & Ganea, 2017
  13. Richter & Courage, 2017
  14. Takacs, Swart, & Bus, 2014
  15. Takacs et al., 2014, p.11
  16. Parish-Morris et al., 2013
  17. Richter & Courage, 2017
  18. Chiong et al., 2012; Parish-Morris et al., 2013; Strouse & Ganea, 2017
  19. Chiong et al., 2012; Richter & Courage, 2017
  20. Strouse & Ganea, 2017
  21. Yuill & Martin, 2016
  22. Strouse & Ganea, 2017
  23. Lauricella et al., 2014
  24. Lauricella et al., 2014, p.23
  25. Chiong et al., 2012; de Jong & Bus, 2002
  26. Chiong et al., 2012, cited by Bus et al., 2015
  27. Yuill & Martin, 2016
  28. Richter & Courage, 2017
  29. de Jong & Bus, 2002
  30. de Jong & Bus, 2002; Richter & Courage, 2017
  31. Richter & Courage, 2017


Bus, A. G., Takacs, Z. K., & Kegel, C. A. T. (2015). Affordances and limitations of electronic storybooks for young children’s emergent literacy. Developmental Review, 35, 79-97. 

Chen, P., Rea, C., Shaw, R., & Bottino, C. J. (2016). Associations between public library use and reading aloud among families with young children. The Journal of Pediatrics, 173, 221-227. 

Chiong, C., Ree, J., Takeuchi, L., & Erickson, I. (2012). Print Books vs. E-books. Comparing parent-child co-reading on print, basic, and enhanced e-book platforms. Retrieved from New York, NY: 

de Jong, M. T., & Bus, A. G. (2002). Quality of book-reading matters for emergent readers: An experiment with the same book in a regular or electronic format. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(1),145-155. 

Lauricella, A. R., Barr, R., & Calvert, S. L. (2014). Parent–child interactions during traditional and computer storybook reading for children’s comprehension: Implications for electronic storybook design. International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction, 2(1), 17-25. 

Mol, S. E., & Bus, A. G. (2011). To read or not to read: A meta-analysis of print exposure from infancy to early adulthood. Psychological Bulletin, 137(2), 267-296. 

Parish-Morris, J., Mahajan, N., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Collins, M. F. (2013). Once Upon a Time: Parent–Child Dialogue and Storybook Reading in the Electronic Era. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7(3), 200-211. 

Richter, A., & Courage, M. L. (2017). Comparing electronic and paper storybooks for preschoolers: Attention, engagement, and recall. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 48, 92-102. 

Strouse, G. A., & Ganea, P. A. (2017). A print book preference: Caregivers report higher child enjoyment and more adult–child interactions when reading print than electronic books. International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction, (12),8-15. 

Takacs, Z. K., Swart, E. K., & Bus, A. G. (2014). Can the computer replace the adult for storybook reading? A meta-analysis on the effects of multimedia stories as compared to sharing print stories with an adult. Frontiers in Psychology, 5(1366). 

Van Bysterveldt, A. K., Gillon, G., & Foster-Cohen, S. (2010). Literacy environments for children with Down Syndrome: What’s happening at home? Down Syndrome Research and Practice. Retrieved from 

Yuill, N., & Martin, A. F. (2016). Curling up with a good e-book: Mother-child shared story reading on screen or paper affects embodied interaction and warmth. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(Article 1951).