Home 9 In the Spotlight 9 ATG Originals: The New ABC’s of Children and Early Reading

ATG Originals: The New ABC’s of Children and Early Reading

by | May 7, 2020 | 0 comments


by Nancy K. Herther (writer, consultant and Sociology/Anthropology Librarian, University of Minnesota Libraries) <herther@umn.edu>

In her book, Children, Media and American History: Printed Poison, Pernicious Staff and other Terrible Temptations, Margaret Cassidy provides readable overviews of new media throughout history and how children, parents and educators have reacted and influenced the development of children’s works. In her analysis, it is clear that differing concepts of “childhood” have influenced adults’ reactions to children’s use of media. As we go through yet another transition to new media, her analysis provides perspectives on the constantly changing media environment that has included dime novels, comic books, television, video games and now Internet-based media.

Have you ever seen a toddler propped up in a grocery cart staring at a handheld computer screen as cartoon figures move about? This has long bothered me and, apparently, I’m not alone. Researchers today are beginning to use sophisticated neurobiological methods to learn more about books, media and young children.  Researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital have recently used MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to compare the brains of children who were read to and those that had largely used television/video entertainment.  The results of this study published in JAMA Pediatrics is quite eye-opening.


John Hutton led the Cincinnati team. Using MRI diffusion tensor imaging, they examined the white matter in the brains of 47 healthy children between the ages of three and five. Some had been read to frequently, while the others used television or other media-based entertainment.  As Hutton explained to CNN, “children are born with more neurons than they’ll ever have in their life, essentially a blank slate.  Depending on what type of stimulation the child has with caregivers- being talked to, being held, going outside, being read to– connections between these neurons are reinforced.”

(Red areas in this scan show a growth in organized white matter in the language and literacy areas of the child’s brain.)

(brain lacking the developmental areas which are key to school success)

Additionally, the Hutton study used cognitive tests on children finding that those who frequently read books with their caregiver scored higher on cognitive tests. “We found essentially the opposite effects of screen time,” Hutton said. “But, it does seem to be very localized in the sort of classic language and imagery tracks that are more directly relevant to reading.” Screen time, on the other hand, gets in the way of more than reading but also other key developmental options for children at this age.  “This is important because the brain is developing the most rapidly in the first five years,” Hutton said to CNN reporters, “kids who have more stimulating experiences that organize the brain are at a huge advantage when they get to school, and it’s really harder and harder for kids to catch up if they arrive behind.”


Writing in the New York Times in 2018, Dr. Perri Klass described her belief that reading offered “an intervention, based in pediatric primary care, to promote parents reading aloud and playing with their young children that could have a sustained impact on children’s behavior. All parents,” she noted, “should appreciate the ways that reading and playing can shape cognitive as well as social and emotional development, and the power of parental attention to help children flourish.”

“As reading to children plays an important role in language development, primary caregivers are often encouraged to read to their children from a very young age,” notes researcher Frank Niklas and colleagues in a recent study. “However, little is known about the age at which such reading should start.” In the past five years we have learned much about the critical need for reading, especially in the early years of life, and the results may surprise you.  “Reading and writing are necessary prerequisites for a successful school career. Therefore, it is important to identify precursor variables which predict these abilities early in order to identify children possibly at risk of reading or spelling difficulties,” the study explains.

An Ohio State University study estimated, in a recent article in Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, that children who are read to at home as preschoolers “enter kindergarten having heard about 1.4 million more words than kids who were never read to. Parents who read one picture book with their children every day provide their children with exposure to an estimated 78,000 words each year. Cumulatively, over the five years before kindergarten entry, we estimate that children from literacy-rich homes hear a cumulative 1.4 million more words during storybook reading than children who are never read to.”

This study concludes that “adult-child shared reading provides a context for joint engagement, which serves as a conduit for vocabulary development, and offers a richer lexical reservoir compared with adult-child conversations. Nationally representative data from a variety of sources suggest that as many as 40% of children are never read to by their parents. Such children are missing an opportunity for an important resource of word exposure, likely contributing to the Word Gap.”

Lastly, a literature review published in Child Development in 2019 found that published research demonstrates that “caregiver-preschooler shared book reading is a key factor in young children’s emergent literacy, language development and reading achievement.”


Tiffany Munzer and colleagues at the University of Michigan “conducted a videotaped, laboratory-based, counterbalanced study of 37 parent-toddler dyads reading on three book formats (enhanced electronic [sound effects and/or animation], basic electronic, and print).”  The results, published in Pediatrics last April, found major differences in the types of “reading” and interactions between the two formats:

“Developmental benefits of shared book reading have been attributed to the quality of parent-child interactions occurring around books, particularly in pre-readers such as toddlers, who rely heavily on parents to understand story content. These interactions include the quantity of words spoken, how parents tailor content to children’s experiences to support learning, and asking open-ended questions to promote child expressive language. Our findings suggest that high-quality dialogic practices are less common, and parents and toddlers speak less overall and in a less collaborative manner when reading electronic books compared with print. Parents read the text less in enhanced electronic books, making more format-related comments and negative directives when reading electronic books.”

This study made specific recommendations for pediatricians:  “Given the decreased quantity of parent-child verbalizations and quality of interactions occurring with the electronic books that we studied, pediatricians may wish to recommend print books over electronic books with distracting features for parent-toddler shared reading. In considering affordances of electronic books that promote learning, software designers should limit irrelevant audiovisual enhancements for toddlers. Parents reading electronic books with toddlers should consider engaging as they would with print and minimize focus on elements of the technology itself.”

Another 2019 research article in AERA Open (American Educational Research Association Open) by researchers from the University of California, Irvine, similarly studied “questions about whether these digital stories are as beneficial for young children as print books read by a person.” Their design kept “the story, adult contact, and lack of discussion equivalent across conditions, [to enable comparison of] comprehension, sequencing, vocabulary, engagement and child vocalizations.”  Their findings similarly found questions about the impact on children’s “focus on reading and subsequent literacy.”

Clearly we have more to learn about reading and technology; however, the print book clearly has a future in the landscape of children’s literature, especially during the early years. However, as Amy Watson reports on the Statistica website, “Today’s children don’t know a world without smartphones and the internet. They are growing up in an age where entertainment and information is always at the tip of their fingers. It is no surprise, then, that they spend a considerable amount of their time with technology each day.”


Infiniti Research Limited’s most recent industry report defines interactive children’s books as being “targeted at the age group of 0-14 years and needs active participation from readers…The advantages of developing reading habits at an early stage will have a strong impact on the growth of global interactive children’s books market size. The market is expected to grow at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of over 3% during the forecast period.” 

A 2020 market report from Technavio suggests that “using interactive books for early literacy has been instrumental in driving the growth of the market. However, digital addiction might hamper market growth.” An analysis by Verified Market Research sees continuing growth for major companies: Pearson, Reed Elsevier, ThomsonReuters, Wolters Kluwer and Random House, suggesting that this segment “has been garnering remarkable momentum in recent years. Demand continues to rise due to increasing purchasing power and is projected to bode well for the global market.”

IBISWorld’s recent industry report on the Children’s Book Publishing in the U.S. reports that, although ebooks offer affordances, “sentiments toward print books have only strengthened among parents. In recent years, the sale of juvenile ebooks has fallen precipitously, illustrating its precariousness within the industry.”  This is not only due to growing research concern about developing reading in children, but also the rise of sophisticated gaming systems such as Fortnite, Call of Duty: Warzone and similar games that have eclipsed the market for ebooks in recent years.

OverDrive Education and ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) produced the 2019 K-12 Digital Content Report: E-Book and Audiobook Trends for the Classroom and School Library which found that today schools “allocate a higher percent of their library or media center materials budget to digital (at or above 50 percent), are heavy users of digital overall and in specific subjects, see the most benefits of using digital content and acknowledge many positive effects on teacher comfort, digital literacy and students needs and reading.” We can hope there is a divergence in the print/electronic investments for the pre-K through 3rd grade classes.

For parents, The Partnership for Reading, a collaborative effort by the National Institute for Literacy, The U.S. Department of Education, and the NICHD (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) has a free booklet on their website that brings “the findings of evidence-based reading research to those with an interest in helping all people learn to read well,” focusing on the Kindergarten through grade 3 years.

As one source explains, “authors and illustrators are writing to maintain the attention of children accustomed to the fast-paced sensory input of digital resources, such as computer and video games, smartphones, and tablet apps. Publishing companies have attempted to produce print texts that mimic or resemble digital texts in wording, style, type of images, or format. Some print texts even borrow concepts about page design from digital texts.” Change is all around us; however, the print page still has a major role to play.


Librarians have helped create the field of children’s literature and continue to be involved in all phases of the field as well as advocating for children’s literacy, enjoyment and rights.  Who better to consult about the value and role of books and other children’s literature?

Annette Wannamaker is the North American Editor-in-Chief of Children’s Literature in Education and Professor in the Eastern Michigan University’s Children’s Literature Program.  “I think books will survive,” Wannamaker explains, “as will comics and other print materials. People enjoy stories in multiple formats. As new technologies come along, they are added into the mix but don’t necessarily make older texts obsolete. It’s important, too, to keep in mind that what counts as reading changes with every generation and with new printing technologies. For instance, novel reading used to be considered a waste of time and an activity that was suspect, especially for vulnerable children and women who might have their morals corrupted, but now we encourage students to read novels.”

This technological shift needs to be taken into account when considering early childhood learning. However, Wannamaker believes that “very young children should only be looking at a screen for short periods of time, and benefit greatly from adults reading aloud to them, talking and singing with them, telling stories, or other interactions, all of which help them to develop cognitively and linguistically. Babies and toddlers using iphones or tablets on a regular basis is a relatively new trend, and I don’t think there’s been enough research yet to know exactly how these practices affect child development. If I were the parent of a young child, I would limit and monitor screen time until they enter elementary school, but I wouldn’t do away with it entirely.”

“Literacy in the 21st Century is digital literacy,” Wannamaker explains, “and we need to prepare young people to live and work in their future, not our past. Young people need to learn digital, visual, and mulit-modal literacies so that they can read, create, and think critically about new media texts. This means that, as they are learning to read and write on paper, children must also be learning to read, write, and create in virtual spaces.”

(Xi’an bookstore children’s area)


It would be difficult to talk with so many children’s librarians and not ask about those books and authors that mean the most to them.  First, this caution from Wannamaker:

“Classics, in both children’s and adults’ literature, are often books written by white, western, male authors and are characterized as having ‘stood the test of time’ because they have received accolades from scholars, teachers, librarians, critics, and other gatekeepers (very few of which are actual children, which is a problem because adults are deciding which books children should most enjoy, without a whole lot of input from child readers). Over the past few decades, this canon has been challenged, and rightfully so, as including a number of books with deeply racist, homophobic, sexist portrayals and themes. Additionally, the canon has typically excluded books written by cultural or ethnic minorities.”

Lisa Von Drasek, Curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota Libraries suggests these titles as some recent favorites that reflect a broad range of perspectives and ethnicities:

  • Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, illustrated by Ashleigh Corrin, Layla’s Happiness (Enchanted Lion Books)
  • Cheryl Minnema, author, illustrated by Julie Flett, Johnny’s Pheasant (University of Minnesota Press)

In the classic book Olivia by Ian Falconer, everyone’s favorite pig reminds us that “reading never wears me out.” Even if you don’t have your own small person to read to, there are plenty of schools and daycare centers that would love to have your time to perhaps inspire reading in the next generation! It’s our future as well as theirs.

Nancy Herther is a writer, consultant and soon-to-be retired Sociology/Anthropology Librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries and can be reached at herther@umn.edu.


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