Apps are nice but books are better: How to read to your kid in a digital age (book review)

Remember that viral video of a 1-year-old trying to read a magazine like an iPad? Both funny and slightly horrifying, it gave us a glimpse of the strange, touchscreen-influenced way our digital-native kids may perceive the world. Recently, as my nine-month-old has become ever more aware of the world around her, I’ve been curious to hand her my iPad and see what she’d do.

Born Reading by Jason BoogInstead, I’m holding out and sticking to board books: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time before age two, and damn it; while I’ve broken every other parenting resolution I made, I want to stick to that one. And I’m extra-inspired to do so thanks in part to a new book, Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age — From Picture Books to Ebooks and Everything in Between, by former GalleyCat editor Jason Boog (Simon & Schuster, $15.99). Boog embraces the ways that kids can learn and become better readers through technology. But he also lays out a strong case for reading print books to your child from babyhood on, and backs it up with both evidence from experts and anecdotal experience from his own daughter, Olive.

Reading to a little kid seems easy: Don’t you just pick up the book and do it? In fact, I’ve been surprised by how hard reading to a baby can be, in part because it’s hard to tell whether anything is sinking in. I often think Alice would be as happy chewing my shoelace as she is reading a book with me. In fact, Boog argued, reading to a child means more than just picking up the book and doing it. “It turns out that all reading is not created equal…” he wrote. “Just having books around the house is not enough. Parents need to provide an interactive reading experience to reap the intellectual rewards inside of books.”

What are those intellectual rewards, exactly? Well, according to one 2013 study, “the right kind of reading — interactive reading — can raise your child’s IQ by more than six points. Born Reading is focused around teaching parents how to interactively read with their kids — and, when the time comes, to bring the same strategy to digital devices. Boog’s broken it down into 15 tips, like “Ask lots and lots of questions,” “Help your child identify with the characters” and “follow the things your child loves,” and shows how they can be applied to different books (as well as to apps and ebooks) and to different ages — even for children who can’t talk yet. (The video below shows some of these techniques in action. More resources are available on Boog’s website.) Boog also recommends books and apps by age.

When your kid turns two and the recommended screen-time ban is overturned, parents do not get the green light to stick the iPad in their toddler’s hand and go off to do something else (though Boog acknowledged that this may be inevitable in certain emergency or airplane situations). Instead, “parents need to be involved … No matter what kind of media your child is using — book, audiobook, iPad — make sure you have plenty of co-play time with your child.” Parents also need to test apps thoroughly before they let their kids use them, watching out for advertising, in-app purchases and “seductive details” that “can distract a young learner from the point of a learning experience.”

“If an app has a distracting feature like the ability to tickle a character, produce a silly noise, or an entertaining error message, Olive could spend ten minutes pressing the same button,” Boog wrote. “I’ve watched her mindlessly flip through an app, getting the same error messages over and over — as if the error messages themselves were a game.” The recommendation, again, is that parents insert themselves and make sure they are part of the app experience, rather than setting their child digitally free.

There are times when Born Reading makes the act of reading to a child seem like — well — like a lot of tedious work. The notion that your child will only get tangible benefits from reading if you read the right way can feel intimidating and overwhelming (though it’s certainly a good way to sell a book!). Yet I think that many parents will naturally do many of the things that the book recommends, and I liked the advice from author Jon Sciezka (of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, among other books): “I would be careful about abusing the idea of ‘interactive reading’ with kids. Just the fact that you are reading to kids or with them is wonderfully, emotionally, perfectly interactive. Have fun reading with your kids. Laugh at what you think is funny. Point out illustration details that crack you up. Let kids have their own opinion about their reading.”

My daughter’s not even a year old yet, but I’m already starting to see her developing her own opinions about her reading. In the past couple of weeks, she’s started smiling, kicking her legs and even shrieking when she sees certain books (this one, from my colleague Stacey Higginbotham, is a particular favorite). It’s a really nice reminder that interactive reading and app-using doesn’t just benefit the child: It’s also rewarding for the parent.