Are E-Readers Value-Added?

ResearchBlogging.orgA recent paper from the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy came across my desktop yesterday called e-Reading and e-Responding: New Tools for the Next Generation of Readers.

In it, Lotta C. Larson describes her observation of 10 fifth-grade students who were given access to an e-reader containing two recent award-winning books, both by Christopher Paul Curtis: Bud, Not Buddy, and The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963.

She observed that at first they used the e-reader's highlighter function to mark passages that they thought they might be quizzed on. Once they realized they would not be tested on the literature, their use of the e-reader's tools shifted a bit:

They also highlighted funny, interesting, or unusual expressions such as "woop, zoop, sloop" and "the thing was positively alive with germs!" (from Bud, Not Buddy). Derogatory terms, including vulgar and insulting expressions-- "Shut the hell up and enjoy the damn cookies" (from The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963)--were also popular.

Students often used invented spellings, letter and number substitutions, and emoticons: "Poor him...he brought it on himself, 2 bad 4 u."

It is not clear to me that using twitter or txt msg shorthand (e.g. "2 bad 4 u") is a triumph of the e-reader.

More importantly, there are some important things missing in this paper. To start with, there is no description of the 10 children. Were they already avid readers? After using the e-books, they all indicated that in the future, they'd rather read e-books than dead-tree books, but how much did they like reading in the first place? What was their family background? Did their parents encourage reading? Read to them as kids? What was their socioeconomic background? Were they consistently surrounded by such technology throughout their childhoods, or was the e-reader a novelty?

There is also no control group of kids who were given those two books to read in dead-tree format. I haven't read either of those books but since they are both award winners, I wonder if the texts themselves are the thing that engaged the kids. In a recent conversation with the librarian at my former elementary school, one of those titles (Bud, Not Buddy) was mentioned as a favorite. Also, would the digital notes taken by the e-reader students be substantively different from pencil notes taken by dead-tree students?

She concludes:

Rosenblatt's (1938/1995) transactional theory of reader response explains that each reader breathes life into the text through personal meaning making and individual experiences. e-Books clearly offer new opportunities and extended possibilities for personal interpretation of and engagement with texts (Hancock,
2008; Larson, 2009).

eBooks may indeed offer new opportunities, but I totally fail to see how this study supports that statement. How are these kids' "individual experiences" or "engagement with texts" any different or improved by the use of an e-reader?

Forget "extended possibilities": I don't even see how this study even suggests that e-reading can be functionally equivalent to dead-tree reading, let alone functionally extended or improved.

I don't categorically deny the possibility that e-reading can be value-added. But first, I'd need to be convinced that it can at least be value-matched.

Larson, L. (2009). e-Reading and e-Responding: New Tools for the Next Generation of Readers Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53 (3), 255-258. DOI: 10.1598/JAAL.53.3.7

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I haven't read the study - but sometimes when kids take notes they transcribe directly - just copy out of the book. Maybe the fact that they translated to their own language means that they read it and engaged? Also, clearly not just skimming for an answer to a question. I don't ever remember taking notes on fiction books when reading them for class... how about training and instructions to the children?

Is it a requirement of scientific studies that the source of research funding be named in any papers? This one sounds suspiciously like it's been commissioned for a 'purpose'.

Christina (@1):

sometimes when kids take notes they transcribe directly - just copy out of the book

What I'm referring to is annotation on the text itself - in this case in the margins of a book, or with the equivalent in a digital e-reader. Also this paper didn't mention training, though that could be useful, I suppose. But training in using the technology does not equal training in taking good notes, and I think the latter training is more valuable. One would assume that kids in general would be pretty adept and using these devices. They'd probably find things to do with them that the adults would never consider.

Don (@2):

Is it a requirement of scientific studies that the source of research funding be named in any papers?

I suppose it depends on the journal. This paper didn't indicate the funding source, though it doesn't smell fishy in that way, at least to me.

Well said (written).

I am a big e-book advocate. In the interest of full disclosure, I have a Star Trek tattoo also. That said, this study hardly qualifies for the title. This seems more like an advertisement for an e-reader. I don't know why people bother to studies that are so obviously flawed.

By bart.mitchell (not verified) on 20 Apr 2010 #permalink