impact of books - 2015-12-12_1-29-38My friend Nate Hoffelder, the owner of The Digital Reader, tells people in his bio: “I’ve been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there.”

Would that all children grow up to love books as much as Nate does! The right approach to digital-era literacy could encourage them. Don’t take book-loving for granted.

And so I hope that Nate and like-minded people will look far beyond the technical issues that bedeviled many U.K. schools that took part in a ground-breaking K-12 study. Researchers for the National Literacy Trust once and for all confirmed the value of e-reading in K-12, especially for disadvantaged students. “Fewer pupils eligible for free school meals felt that reading was difficult for them. The percentage that felt reading was difficult halved over the course of the project, decreasing from 26.7% pre-project to 12.6% post-project.”

Citing the tech challenges in U.K. schools and those elsewhere, however, Nate concluded: “Sadly, these stories are all too common, and with tech performing on that level we might as well stick with paper textbooks.” I suspect he was a bit rhetorical here for effect in his post headlined Children’s Reading Improves Faster with eBooks—If You Can Get the Tech to Work. Nate is a long way from the skeptic who wrote an anti-e-book-editorial in the Independent in response to the UK study. Still, I wish Nate had cut to the chase and played up the real issue. It isn’t just making the right policy choices, but also increasing the amount of money for the hiring and digital-era professional development of tech-savvy teachers and librarians—as well as for e-books and the right technology.

TeleRead’s Joanna Cabot is both a gifted journalist and a veteran teacher, and Nate noted the tech challenges that she and others had experienced in classroom experiments with e-books. Still, just as the UK study confirmed the advantages of K-12 e-reading, Joanna reached the same positive conclusion. E-books are worth the trouble. “My Grade 3/4 e-book unit was so successful,” she wrote, “that there was demand from other teachers to teach more reading!” Joanna, unlike most K-12 teachers, knew enough about both e-book technology and the basics of pedagogy. She was not a teacherbot acting on script from a school system or a corporation. Joanna smartly introduced the kids not just to Amazon books but also to public domain titles from Project Gutenberg. She encouraged them to think of books for recreational reading as well the academic variety. Joanna even showed her kids how to make their own mini e-books.

While I’m not suggesting we clone Joanna in the biological sense, we could in the professional sense—by encouraging teachers to be creative and self-directed critical thinkers, not just masters of the technology. Same for librarians, especially school librarians.

The good news from the U.K. study is that even without a focused national effort there or in the U.S., Joanna isn’t alone as thoughtful e-book pioneer in the classroom. The report, sponsored by RM Books, told how different e-reading projects targeted by age or by socioeconomic status. What a great departure from the one-size-fits-all philosophy of so many educators today. Now the challenge is to work toward an era when innovative and thoughtful professionals in schools and libraries are the rule, not the exception. Some of this can happen simply by turning around educators and librarians, a process that retirements of aging Luds will hasten. But that isn’t enough. The U.K. study noted that for want of enough people with the right knowledge, as well as due to other issues such as inadequate tech, many schools could not participate in the study in the first place.

More money for e-books and related goods and services—including good telephone support for kids and teachers alike, along with student-to-student tech assistance of the kind that some schools offer—could clearly help. In both countries, school library collections are pathetic, a situation that continues in the U.S., despite a White House K-12 e-book initiative.  What’s more, here in the States, public libraries can spend only around $4 per capita per year on electronic and paper content of all kinds, not just books.

With the above and more in mind, librarian Jim Duncan and I have kept calling for national digital library endowments in the States and elsewhere.  A major purpose of such endowments would be the promotion of recreational reading, especially of books that challenged children intellectually and in other ways. Citing mainstream academic studies in the U.S. and the U.K., I discuss the details in The K-12 and economic cases for a national digital library endowment. It turns out that the appropriate recreational reading can improve the odds of academic success.

Alas, so far, policymakers have not quite made the connection to the extent they should. Even the normally clueful Nate seems too focused on e-reading of textbooks in K-12 and not sufficiently enough on e-books for the joy of it. I recommend that he catch up with Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It, where a veteran teacher named Kelly Gallagher calls for a balance between must-reads and reads-for-fun. Gallagher himself at the time of the writing of Readicide was thinking of, say, more paper books for the classroom, as opposed to a full-strength e-book approach. I myself see a role for paper books for students preferring them. But the U.K. study nails down the enthusiasm and results that e-books can achieve—a point Nate himself acknowledged in a snippet he posted from the U.K. research, as accurately summed up by the Independent:

“The researchers studied the boys’ reading performance for an average of 4.2 months – and found that their reading age improved by 8.4 months during that period. Girls also improved at a better rate than the norm – showing a 7.2 month improvement. The study went on to show the percentage of boys who found reading difficult halved from 28 per cent to 15.9 per cent.”

That was not all. The study also found that fathers and mothers valued reading more than they did before the children started e-reading, especially in low-income households. Pre-project, 41 percent of the students receiving free meals agreed with the statement that “My parents don’t care whether I read or not.” Post-project, the figure dropped to 30 percent. Talk about e-books as encouragers of family literacy, the logical next step! The recreational reading potential is huge not just for disadvantaged kids but also their parents.

What’s more, the potential will be even greater if well-trained teachers and librarians can show students and parents how to find the right e-reading technology for them. E-reading devices are like eye glasses or hearing aids. People need to be outfitted, so to speak. They also need to be taught how deal with navigational issues of e-books as opposed to treating them like paper books with the standard page-flipping. Ideally this could happen through one-on-one sessions for both generations and for grandparents, too, if they are interested. Simply put, we need genuine e-book literacy, not just literacy in the traditional sense. Cell phone book clubs and other innovations could add to students and parents’ knowledge of e-book tech, in addition to whetting their interest in reading.

Such efforts outside the classroom are essential. As Joanna can tell you, much and perhaps most learning takes place at home or elsewhere after school. It is wasteful, wasteful, wasteful to get the children all fired up about e-reading at school without encouraging them to do the same afterhours when they won’t face such distractions as bathroom breaks or noisy classmates.

Finally, continuing on the theme of recreational reading, let’s not confuse the “mission critical” issues of Net-connected computers for standardized testing with the degree of reliability needed for recreational reading. If connections at home break down, students can download e-books at school or perhaps the local public library. Not that I’m happy about failures of any variety. But once again, we are talking about additional resources of the kind that a national digital library endowment and existing funding mechanisms could help provide—for both recreational reading and the textbook variety.

To find out more on the endowment concept: Check out articles in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Library Journal and Education Week. The EW piece drew 103 Likes.


  1. ” Even the normally clueful Nate seems too focused on e-reading of textbooks in K-12 and not sufficiently enough on e-books for the joy of it. I recommend that he catch up with Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It, ”

    No, I’m not too focused on textbooks and not enough on the joy of reading; my point was more that the tech isn’t really there yet for schools to implement large-scale e-reading programs, no matter what the programs are being used for. Everyone else was focused on the benefits (they were reported on extnesively), so I wanted to draw attention to the problems.

    I think the best solution might be to wait a few more years until all the kids have cheap smartphones, and build programs around those devices. That way the programs can draw on the knowledge the students accrue outside of school, and don’t have to provide all the support.

  2. @Nate: Thanks, but it would have been nice for your TDR post to have distinguished more between true recreational reading and textbooks. A student reading for fun can always download at school or the library or a fast food joint, for example, if the WiFi at home is down. No such luck with an interactive textbook chapter he or she must read that night for a test the next morning and McDonald’s is about to close.

    Now, as for waiting a few years—well, there’s no guarantee of nirvana if we laze around and don’t do anything. And the money from the endowment could encourage development of the right apps and other measures to simplify K-12 tech. Besides, new tech support issues may arise. Best approach is to get the proper support infrastructure in place now, among other measures.

    Of course, easier-to-deal-with tech is just one reason for a national digital library endowment. Teachers need to know the proper pedagogical techniques, not just master the hardware and software. Not to mention the issue of expanding the range of reading choices—one of the best ways to promote recreational reading by children and parents alike.

    Clearly, an endowment could at least help in a lot of areas, and we know the money is there–with 400 Americans together worth more than $2 trillion. What else should the rich spend it on? Larger yachts? Besides, as anti-guillotine insurance, so to speak, measures like the endowment would be remarkably cost-effective for them.

    Years ago William F. Buckley Jr., hardly a commie anarchist, wrote two “On the Right” columns in favor of a well-financed national digital library system with provisions for hardware. I remain baffled why today’s policymakers and philanthropists have yet to catch up with WFB. Here’s a chance for you to play contrarian in a way that would help the kids, as opposed to quite unwittingly giving the Luddites more ammunition.

    Happy holidays.

  3. When you consider what K-12 schools in the US spend on paper textbooks, the idea of providing students with a device that does all that a stack of textbooks can do and much, much more is almost a no-brainer.
    The catch is in the content. Somehow, many who are involved are of the belief that someone else, someone authoritative and approved, has to create the content of those eBooks. Moreover, those others have to be compensated for each and every copy distributed to a student.
    Rethinking that paper-bound conception of content creation and distribution would make digital eTextbooks a bargain as compared with paper pTextbooks.

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