I Don’t Hate Ebooks, But…


(Daily Telegraph headline – see the article here)

I don’t hate ebooks, but when I see headlines like ‘Ebooks boost boys’ reading abilities, research finds‘ emblazoned on The Telegraph website, I know that I am going to get pretty annoyed. We are a time-poor profession and we are under pressure for quick results and big improvements. The prospect of ebooks improving our students’ reading in schools is a seductive one. Ultimately though, as expected, when you dig into the evidence, the notion that ebooks would improve reading ability and make us shelve paperbacks poses a very simplistic solution to a deeply complex problem.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-reading in any way, shape or folio. My career as an English teacher is founded upon my deep love of reading and I have spent enough of that time lamenting the threadbare reading habits of many students (many boys, predictably). This week I came across the National Literacy Trust study on ‘The Impact of Ebooks on the reading Motivation and Reading Skills of Children and Young People: A Study of Schools Using RM Books‘ and I of course read with interest.

First, I will state my admiration for the Trust and the work they do to celebrate reading. Second, I think this study needs unpicking and questioning. Now, unlike a previous study by the National Literacy Trust, which gave a balanced ‘rapid’ literature review on the impact of reading – see here – the evidence of reading progress in ‘RM Books schools’ appears rather dubious. The claims are:

  • “The average reading progress made over the project period was 8 months. Boys made significantly greater progress over the course of the study than girls, with boys’ reading levels increasing by an average of 8.4 months compared with girls who made an average gain of 7.2 months.
  • Pupils who used RM to read more, made more progress, with pupils in the high usage group making an average of 8.8 months’ progress over the course of the project compared with an average progress of -1.25 months in the low usage group.” (Page 5)

Now, those towering high gains in reading progress by month are attention grabbing. They are at the heart of articles in on the BBC, in the Telegraph and more, for that reason. The problem? These stats are pretty much data junk. The data available from the 800 or so students was sourced from the schools, who were all running wholly different projects, on their own terms, and reporting different measures for the alleged improvement in reading skill, such as National Curriculum levels (those levels we chucked away), reading age tests etc.

If you scrutinise the case study further, any claims heralded from the study begin to crumble and fall away. First, hundreds of students dropped out of the trial; schools did similar. We hear little of them and there is no sense they are accounted for in the trumpeted months progress. You may ask, were schools or students randomised to avoid a biased sample? The answer – no. Was there a control group to try and establish whether ebooks were the cause of any of the supposed improvement in reading skill? Once more, the answer is no (they tried but failed – convenient?).  Could any improvements be subject to the excitement of being given a shiny new e-reader in a well funded trail (effectively exhibiting the Hawthorne Effect)? Very probably, but we can’t even viably tell from the evidence.

We pretty much cannot tell anything from this study about whether ebooks improve reading skills. RM books funds have secured some very positive publicity, but we should hold onto the purse strings of our school budgets for now. Am I being a grinch? Should we celebrate any boost in reading? Well, as the study shows,

“59.4% of pupils reported enjoying reading either very much or quite a lot before the project began. This rose to 64.1% post-project.” 

Reading went up a little. This is surely good, we can all agree. And yet, we quite quickly see a another seeming change in reading habits:

“…the frequency with which children read on paper outside class decreased slightly, though not significantly, over the same period of time. 31.3% of pupils said that they read daily on paper before the project began compared with 27.3% of pupils at the end of the project.”

No doubt the difference is small, but what happens when the shiny new e-readers aren’t replaced, or little Jonny can’t afford to buy a tablet like young Jane? Perhaps this tiny unintended consequence has a bigger impact than is evaluated in the study? It is hard to know because the controls for this research were so paltry.

The report shows, rather underwhelming given the triumphant media headlines that:

“Most pupils preferred reading using technology, but a high proportion did not have a preferred reading format.”

The much trumpeted boost in boys’ interest in reading by using technology is still unfounded. Beyond the headlines, there is little to support the supposition that E-readers should be on the shopping list for teachers. I am no Luddite with regard to technology: children can and will utilise technology to read, but we should not be hoodwinked into buying any particular brand of ebooks and expect a unique benefit. Let’s do better research and ask much better questions.


A Final Word…And More Research

Perhaps the old fashioned paper book isn’t dead yet. Another study, far superior in design, has emerged about the transformative power of reading for pleasure. A UCL longitudinal study (the study covers 6000 children from a 1970 cohort study) showed that reading for pleasure trumped the difference made by having a parent with a university degree. They discovered that “those who read books often at age 10 and more than once a week at age 16 gained higher test results at age 16 than those who read less regularly.” This finding of course pre-existing e-readers, so the context is different to ours, but I hope to hear much more about it.

Boys and girls reading lots – I’m all for that. Books, books and more books. On tablets, in libraries, on the bus, in the classroom, on screens and on paper. I’m all for it. Crucially though, paper isn’t dead yet. Let’s not be beguiled by easy headlines. The BBC News website asks:

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 3.21.44 PM

The answer, based on this study, is a clear no.

Instead, let’s start asking better questions about reading.


6 thoughts on “I Don’t Hate Ebooks, But…”

  1. Poor and sloppy experimental design once again trumpeted by the press serves to confuse parents and support the needs of technology vendors. We use accelerated reader to support those lower secondary pupils with weaker reading skills, and the focus via technology works. But once they are reading well, migration onto paper seems essential if they are to catch a love of books. On a tablet or chromebooks, distraction is but a click away.
    Deep reading for over 20 minutes at a time is how language and story swirl and improve literacy, vocabulary and creativity. Short cuts to read War and Peace are few!

  2. Mark Anderson

    It’s about championing books full stop; ebooks or otherwise. Multi-touch books can afford additional learning opportunities, but that’s not what is being discussed here. So no… not a grinch; just not seduced by catchy newspaper headlines.

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