B is for Books

Last week, I visited a sixth grade classroom in a local elementary school.  I was observing a lesson by a very creative teacher who was getting his students to learn a list of vocabulary words.  The vocabulary list related to an article the class was planning to read on Ancient Egypt and included words like primitive, descendants, ritual, fertile and flourishing.  To get the students to engage with the list, the teacher was leading a small group activity based on the board game Scattegories.  In the activity, the teacher selected a letter and the students had to list an item related to each of the vocabulary words.  For instance, when the letter D was selected, several groups identified the word “daughters” as relating to “descendants.”  The activity was a fun and interactive way to get the students to engage with the content and apply what they had learned.

In the next round of the game, the teacher selected the letter B.  I moved around the class watching the groups discuss the word list.  I was looking at one group’s selections when a dissonant moment shook me.  There, beside the word “primitive,” a group had listed “books.”  At first, I thought maybe the group was unique, that maybe one technologically adept student had lead the group to select the word.  As I moved around the room, however, I found that THREE other groups had listed books as their “primitive” item.  In total, almost half of the class had identified books as something primitive.  Shocking.

I need to say that the school I visited is not particularly wealthy or lacking in diversity.  The district draws students from a wide suburban/rural community that shares its roads with farm equipment and horse drawn buggies.  And books are primitive in the students’ eyes.

On first glance, the students’ views may be alarming.  Many would assume that this means that students aren’t reading.  The truth, however, is far different.  A recent study conducted by Scholastic found that children are still reading; they’re just reading differently.  With the advent of e-books and tablets like the Kindle and iPad, children are increasingly turning to electronic means for their reading.  The study found that number of children who engage with e-books has doubled in the last four years. 47% of children ages 6-17 had read at least one e-book.  Half of children age 9–17 say they would read more books for fun if they had greater access to e-books.  Looking more deeply at the report uncovers why children may see traditional print books as being primitive.  The majority of children who participated in the study said that e-books gave them the ability to carry more books at once.  Many students reported have a greater access to different types of books and the ability to easily look up words and view related contents when they struggled with concepts or vocabulary.  This level of interaction and access is not readily available in traditional print books and the sixth grade classroom I visited recognized it.

So, what does this wave of e-book usage by children mean for those of us working in institutions of higher education?  First, we need to identify that these students will be coming to our campuses in the near future.  These students see benefits of e-books and tablets and downsides of traditional print books.  But the reality isn’t that simple.  In a presentation shared recently at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting, researchers from West Chester University found that e-books that included distracting games and multimedia did not enhance readers’ experiences or learning, but instead undermined their comprehension levels.  While the researchers did not suggest banning the use of e-books, they advised using e-books that enhance and extend interactions with the content that are relatively brief rather than time-consuming.  They also recommended using e-books that provide supports for making text-based inferences and for understanding difficult vocabulary. E-books that incorporated these features provided less distractions for readers and supported learning better than others.

Moving forward, it’s important for colleges and universities to consider students’ desires for the convenience and accessibility of e-books in our courses.  But, selecting instructional materials that support student learning  is paramount to our work as educators. It may be primitive, but considering student learning is still the most critical part of what we do.

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