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May 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 8

The Learning Potential of e-Books

Built-in dictionaries, audio support, and other features make e-books a valuable addition to literacy instruction.

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Eight years ago, when I first began helping schools incorporate e-book reading into their curriculums, students were bound to desktop computers, and electronic books for kids were scarce. Today, there is a limitless supply of e-book titles, and advancements in e-book technologies allow for a portable and interactive reading experience. Improvements in technology, coupled with falling prices and a greater supply of books, have prompted a rise in e-book reading among kids. In fact, last year, 60 percent of all school-age children reported having read an e-book. Although most e-books are read at home, e-book reading at school nearly doubled in the last two years, from 12 to 21 percent (Scholastic, 2015).
Although there is still much to learn about the potential of e-books for schools, it is clear that effective e-book implementation can enhance students' literacy experiences (Larson, 2010; Moyer, 2012). But it is not enough to simply place digital reading devices in the hands of students and expect reading scores to improve. Readers need to be strategic in their use of e-books and their many features. To do so, they need effective reading instruction (Dalton, 2014; Larson, 2013). Let's examine how e-books and digital reading devices can effectively support literacy learning.

Customizing the Reading Experience

Perhaps the greatest advantage of e-books is the ability to differentiate literacy instruction for all learners. Students who struggle with reading or who have visual impairments may opt for a larger font or change the contrasting colors of font and screen. Students may also adjust page orientation, background, typeface, line spacing, or margin size to best accommodate their needs and preferences.
In addition, many e-books feature text-to-speech or professional audio narration, note-taking tools, dictionary support, and translation. These can be particularly helpful for English language learners. Teachers play a crucial role in helping students determine how to apply these tools and features to best suit their individual learning needs (Dobler, 2015).
A few years ago, I worked with a 5th grade classroom in which each student was given an e-reader loaded with books of varying reading levels. All titles were also available in print, providing students with a choice. When interviewing students about their reading preferences, I learned that struggling readers were the strongest advocates of e-books, suggesting that e-books helped them gain confidence in their reading abilities.
Students who normally would feel intimidated by a book's volume reported feeling less overwhelmed because they focused only on the text on the screen immediately before them, rather than on the seemingly insurmountable number of unread pages. One struggling reader, who often compared his thin leveled books with a classmate's thick Harry Potter books, explained, "On the Kindle, nobody else knows what I'm reading and that I'm a slow reader." To this 5th grader, the privacy of e-book reading came as a relief (Larson, 2013).
Easy access to a wide assortment of books is essential. With a few simple clicks, thousands of e-books for children and young adults are available for instant download. If a student finds a book uninspiring or too difficult, it's easy to change titles. Ideally, teachers and students can select books that suit diverse interests and academic needs.
In short, e-book reading can level the playing field as students strategically customize their own reading experience. To learn more about how students can use e-books to become strategic readers, access the lesson plan "Going Digital: Using e-Book Readers to Enhance the Reading Experience."

Developing Fluency and Vocabulary

Reading aloud to students has long been recognized as important to developing vocabulary and reading fluency. Students may reap similar rewards by accessing the audio features embedded in many e-books. Particularly well-documented are the benefits of audio support for students with special needs or young readers still acquiring basic skills (Biancarosa & Griffiths, 2012).
Audio features in e-books come in many forms, including professional narration, a far cry from early text-to-speech options featuring a computer-generated, robotic voice. A relatively recent advancement in e-book technology is what Amazon refers to as "immersion reading," in which professional narration is synchronized with a digital text. Currently, immersion reading is available on Kindle Fire HD and Android devices. If both e-book and audiobook versions of the same text are downloaded to the device, the text can be highlighted in the e-book while students listen to the audiobook. Recorded audiobooks, which often feature the author's own voice, well-known actors, or professional narrators, may offer an additional benefit by modeling fluent pronunciation and attention to proper punctuation and cadence (Gander, 2013; Moyer, 2012).
For struggling readers or English language learners, audio support is useful for introducing new vocabulary and for modeling fluent reading (Serafini, 2004). Moreover, the combined experience of listening and reading offers students who are reading below grade level a chance to interact with grade-level texts without concerns about fluency or decoding issues (Dalton, 2014). For advanced readers, combining e-book reading with audiobook listening will compel them to slow down and listen to every single word, preventing skimming of the text (Grover & Hannegan, 2012).
Recently, I worked with a 6th grade teacher and his students as they integrated immersion reading into their literacy curriculum. The students strategically accelerated or decelerated the narration speed and adjusted the font size of the digital text to support their individual needs (Larson, in press). They also used immersion reading to help them pronounce unfamiliar words, often in combination with the built-in dictionary. Katie, a reluctant reader, explained, "Sometimes I had trouble pronouncing a word, so I used the audio so I could listen to the word, and I used the dictionary so I could know the meaning of the word."
Two-thirds of the class listened to the audio recording for more than half of the book, but five students opted to read the e-book without audio support. According to Carlos, an avid reader, "the voice was distracting and [the narrator] didn't sound the way I read in my head." His comment emphasizes the need for autonomy as students decide which e-book tools are the most beneficial for them.
Many digital reading devices have a built-in dictionary, which makes the process of looking up words both convenient and effortless. In some cases, links to images, multimedia representations, language translations, online resources, and audio pronunciation may also be available.
During a visit to a 2nd grade classroom, I observed students looking up words from their weekly vocabulary list while reading a Junie B. Jones book on their e-readers. The room was buzzing with excitement, despite what I presumed to be a daunting task for many 2nd graders. Immediately after looking up a word, students inserted a digital note paraphrasing the definition or providing examples of the word's meaning. Students later gathered in small groups and enthusiastically discussed their digital notes. The teacher told me that she had never, in more than 20 years of teaching, had students reveling in dictionary tasks, but now "they look up words all the time, and they love to share their digital notes with one another." The e-book format made vocabulary instruction exciting (Larson, 2012).
For more ideas on how to use the e-book dictionary to support vocabulary learning, see the lesson plan "Digital Word Detectives: Building Vocabulary with e-Book Readers."

Interacting with the Text

Most e-books enable students to annotate passages or compose digital notes that document their responses as they read (Dwyer & Larson, 2014; Larson, 2010). In school-owned print books, students are often not allowed to add notes or highlight passages; but in e-books, such actions should be not only permissible but also encouraged.
Students can use e-book note-taking tools to compose an alternate ending to a story, summarize supporting details and ideas, or offer interpretations and analysis of text. Teacher-created prompts can initially guide student responses. As students become more familiar with response writing, they require fewer guidelines.
By accessing students' markups and notes, teachers get a glimpse into each reader's mind. Knowing what students understand, question, and respond to while reading helps teachers assess comprehension and plan subsequent lessons (Larson, 2010).
The lesson plan "e-Book Reading and Response: Innovative Ways to Engage with Texts" offers additional ideas on how students can use e-book note-taking tools to respond to and interact with text.

Not a Replacement

But what about "real" books? Won't students miss turning pages, "hugging" books, and browsing through stacks in the library? These are valid questions, often posed by concerned educators who love literature and want to instill a passion for reading in their students. I, too, love curling up with a book and will forever treasure trips to the library and favorite bookstores.
Electronic books are not meant to replace traditional books, but it is crucial for students to become proficient readers of many different forms of text. Consequently, educators need to understand how to effectively integrate e-book technologies into education settings. In addition, e-books offer boundless opportunities for differentiating literacy instruction and customizing the reading experience to help all of our students become successful and confident readers.

Biancarosa, G., & Griffiths, G. G. (2012). Technology tools to support reading in the digital age. The Future of Children, 22(2), 139–160.

Dalton, B. (2014). E-texts and e-books are changing the literacy landscape. Phi Delta Kappan, 96(3), 38–43.

Dobler, E. (2015). e-Textbooks: A personalized learning experience or a digital distraction? Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 58(6), 478–487.

Dwyer, B., & Larson, L. (2014). The writer in the reader: Building communities of response in digital environments. In K. Pytash & R. E. Ferdig (Eds.), Exploring technology for writing and writing instruction (pp. 202–220). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Gander, L. (2013). Audiobooks: The greatest asset in the library. Library Media Connection, 31(4), 48.

Grover, S., & Hannegan, L. D. (2012). Listening to learn: Audiobooks supporting literacy. Chicago: American Library Association.

Larson, L. C. (2010). Digital readers: The next chapter in e-book reading and response. The Reading Teacher, 64(1), 15–22.

Larson, L. (2012, November). Exploring the affordances of digital readers to build vocabulary. Paper presented at the 62nd annual meeting of the Literacy Research Association, San Diego, CA.

Larson, L. (2013). From print texts to e-books: The changing nature of literacy. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 49(4), 168–173.

Larson, L. C. (in press). E-books and audiobooks: Extending the digital reading experience. The Reading Teacher.

Moyer, J. E. (2012). Audiobooks and e-books: A literature review. Reference and User Quarterly, 51(4), 340–354.

Scholastic. (2015). Kids and family reading report (5th ed.). Retrieved from Scholastic at www.scholastic.com/readingreport/Scholastic-KidsAndFamilyReadingReport-5thEdition.pdf

Serafini, F. (2004). Audiobooks and literacy: An educator's guide to utilizing audiobooks in the classroom. New York: Listening Library. Retrieved from www.frankserafini.com/classroom-resources/audiobooks.pdf.

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