The shift to digital media has brought many advantages to my life. I can own as many books as I want to without taking up any space in my house, for instance. I live in an expensive, very densely populated city. Real estate is expensive. Who has the space to store all that paper?
Two blogs I follow recently dug up this 2015 chestnut from the New York Times which suggests that “the loss of print books and periodicals can have significant repercussions on children’s intellectual development.” The source for this allegation is a 2014 study that looked at the impact of the size of home libraries on the reading levels of 15-year-old students. The ones in homes with larger libraries had higher measured reading levels. Actually this chestnut is older than a year since some earlier research reached a similar conclusion.
So why am I suspicious? I am in the midst of reading a fascinating book called Expecting Better which aims to debunk exactly theories such as these. The author, Emily Oster, is an economist who turns her expertise in economic theory onto the at-times alarmist ‘research’ on pregnancy and parenting. She encourages readers to be critical of studies exactly like this one.
Now, let’s imagine what Oster would tell us to do when looking at this study. One of her big issues is that people often fail to understand the difference between casual and causal links. For instance, she cites an oft-repeated study on the impact of alcohol on pregnant women where 40% of the women also did cocaine. Could it be that women who were more likely to drink large amounts were more likely to engage in other risky behaviour—and might that risky behaviour be the cause of the problems their children had?
The write-up on this library story says that they accounted for parent’s wealth, education and occupations. Fair enough. Still, the information so far definitely falls into the casual, not causal. Could it be that parents who happen to have more than one hundred paper books are also doing other things with their kids which might at least in part account for their higher literacy scores?
And you have to look, too, at what the study fails to measure. Even one of its authors admits in the NYT piece that it’s preferable if parents actually read the books too: “It is a big question of whether it’s the books themselves or the parental scholarly culture that matters—we’re guessing it’s somewhere in between,” she says. In other words, just owning the paper isn’t enough—which supports my assertion that this is a casual and not a causal connection. The paper books don’t cause the literacy jump. They just happen to be there, amidst a bunch of other factors which may or may not be contributing too.
Now, let’s look at the actual gains reported. The study cites an average improvement of 1.5 grade levels over the benchmark for that age and points out that ‘diminishing returns’ kick in for libraries above 500 books. Interestingly, diminishing returns also kick in when you go more than about 1.5 grade levels above the child’s grade benchmark as well. I teach with a program called ‘Developmental Reading Assessment’ (DRA) and they explicitly tell teachers to stop assessing further when the child is two grade levels above the benchmark. It is not just reading proficiency you are after; it’s meaning and comprehension. The content of a book intended for 12-year-olds may not be appropriate for an 8-year-old even if they could technically sound out the words.
And what about the whole digital question? The study didn’t look at that specifically because e-books were not widely available in all the 42 countries they looked at. But if you accept the idea that it is the parental involvement and not the mere presence of the paper which matters, there is no reason to suggest that e-books wouldn’t be just as good. And, too, I have alway maintained that it is a false binary to assume that this is an either/or question. If I buy e-books for myself and picture books for my baby, which I then read to him or her, aren’t I doing well? If I take the baby to storytime at the library, and still read e-books personally for me, am I really going to harm their reading level?
That is still an unanswered question. Oster, with her economist background, would likely only accept evidence on this front from a properly controlled study. You’d need to take a certain quantity of people for whom all other factors—including parental involvement—are equal, then give half of them a hundred e-books to read, and the other half the same hundred books in paper. That’s the only way to properly answer a question like this.
And finally, Oster encourages her readers to critically engage in their own risk assessment, which may yield different results for every person. Myself, I am not too bothered by my future child’s hypothetical reading level unless they are drastically behind in some way. I don’t see the benefit, given my experience teaching reading, in pushing a child to be several grade levels above. If they happen to naturally be good readers, as I was, fantastic. But I am not losing sleep over this unless there is a problem. I am not interesting in filling my house with paper on the off-chance it will make them slightly better at a skill for which they may already be doing just fine.
So it will be a mix in my house, as it is now. Some of the books we have are paper. Some are not. I suspect most of the baby’s books will be physical ones, at least until they hit the chapter books phase. When that happens, I am happy to get them a device to read on. And I am happy to keep buying them paper for books which look better that way, like those lovely kids fact books about animals and dinosaurs and so on. We’ll do baby storytime at the library, but we’ll also do letter tracing games on a device when they learn these skills. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. And I suspect, given our family backgrounds, and our—for lack of a better word, parental involvement—will make our kid turn out just fine. It’s not about the paper.