Print vs Digital Books

Print vs Digital Books

Print vs Digital Books: Mrs Wordsmith at the London Book Fair

Mrs Wordsmith CEO and Founder Sofia Fenichell was invited to speak to the crowds at the London Book Fair last March! Among other things, Sofia shared some research insights into the future of paper and digital books.

Sounds pretty interesting, huh? Don’t worry if you missed it, we’ve summarised the key points:

The power of books

“When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy.” - President Obama

  • Reading breaks barriers. Data from all around the world reveals that reading enjoyment is more important for children’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status.[1]  

  • Reading helps us develop empathy. “Reading for pleasure is oriented towards finding personal meaning and purpose and related to the human need to make sense of the world, the desire to understand, to make things work, to make connections, engage emotionally and feel deeply”.[2]

  • Stories are versatile and storytelling is evolving. In this era of digital revolution, children can become immersed in story worlds on smartphones, tablets, and E-readers, which provide vast opportunities to engage with stories.

  • Story worlds create a sense of what’s possible. The experience of narrative helps children to understand the symbolic potential of language: its power to create possible and imaginary worlds through words.

Print or digital?

Paper and quality of attention

  • Paper books do not contain distracting games or visual effects; children focus on the story itself. And there are no audio features in paper books, meaning texts cannot be read aloud by a device. Kids have to read it for themselves!
  • Attention quality seems to be higher when we read paper books, but, as a study by Time indicated, 20-somethings switched between electronic devices 27 times an hour.

The potential and possibilities of digital reading:

  • Playfulness and interactivity: digital reading supports interactive experiences that correspond to the dynamics of 21st century learning.[3]  

  • Personalisation: the choice of texts and possibility of self-paced reading facilitates the reader’s engagement and increases motivation.

  • Endless possibilities: Digital books allow children to create their own story endings, story characters and even record their own voices when reading. Entertaining such ‘what if’ scenarios contributes to the development of children’s creative thinking.[4]

  • Social interactivity: with digital books, readers can share their experiences with others despite geographical distance. For young children, this happens best through digital platforms that give rise to conversations and interactions between children, and also with their teachers.

So how do we balance paper and digital, and do what’s best for children’s brains?

Maryanne Wolf writes that readers today need to develop “twin reading brains”. According to Wolf, our goal should be to build “biliterate brains” in children who are “expert flexible code-switchers” in both the skimming style of reading fostered by digital and the immersive, reflective reading required for engagement with print.[5]

Whether it’s print or digital, the value of shared reading is undeniable:

  • Shared reading trains children’s brains. It causes the firing of an immense number of neurons, creating new circuits and strengthening existing ones.
  • Studies have found that children who are more exposed to reading environments at home develop larger neural circuits that support narrative comprehension, which in turn facilitates learning to read and write.[6]

  • As long as we put shared reading at the heart of how children consume books, and find ways to keep children focused on the narrative and on reading for themselves, the combination of digital and paper reading is a powerful one.


    [1] Clark, C., and Rumbold, K. (2006). Reading for Pleasure a research overview. The National Literacy Trust.

    [2] Cremin, T. (2007) Revisiting reading for pleasure: diversity, delight and desire in K. Goouch, and A. Lambirth, (eds.) Understanding Phonics and the Teaching of Reading. Berkshire: McGraw Hill.

    [3] Craft, A. (2012) Childhood in a digital age: creative challenges for educational futures. London Review of Education, 10(2), 173-190.

    [4] Hadani, H., G. Jaeger, K. Kennedy, E. Rood, S. Russ (2017). Creativity Trend Report. Vol 2. Center for Childhood Creativity. Sausalito, CA.

    [5] Wolf, M. (2018) Reader, Come Home.The Reading Brain in a Digital World. New York: HarperCollins.

    [6] Hutton, J., Horowitz-Kraus, T., Mendelsohn, A., DeWitt, T., Holland, T., the C-MIND Authorship Consortium, (2015). Home reading environment and brain activation in preschool children listening to stories. Pediatrics, 136(3).

    [7] Hutton, J., Phelan, K.,  Horowitz-Kraus, T., Dudley, J., Altaye, M., DeWitt, T., and Holland, S. (2017). Story time turbocharger? Child engagement during shared reading and cerebellar activation and connectivity in preschool-age children listening to stories. Plos one, 12(5).