URJHS Volume 7


Traditional versus Electronic Storybooks
during Adult-Toddler Interactions

Rachael Barnett
University of Nebraska at Lincoln
Linda K. Crowe*
University of Nebraska at Kearney


The purpose of this study was to compare teacher-child utterances during three different storybook interactions using both traditional storybooks and electronic books in an early childhood learning center. Ten toddlers (mean age of 29.5 months) and 4 preschool teachers were videotaped during three different sessions of storybook interactions. Results showed that the child participants used notably more repetitions and had higher numbers of labeling and practicing during traditional storybook interactions, but the children had notably more requests for action and used more answering and protesting behaviors while interacting with the electronic books. Adult organizational devices, requests, acknowledgments, and miscellaneous utterances occurred more often during electronic book interactions compared to traditional book reading sessions.

Review of Literature

There is considerable evidence showing that children who engage in parent-child storybook interactions from a young age are more likely to have later reading success. These interactions also seem to promote language acquisition (Ezell & Justice, 2000; Kaderavek & Sulzby, 1998; Mason & Allen, 1986; Ninio, 1983; Sulzby, 1985). Recent research from Temple University suggests that the type of storybook used during parent-child reading affects both adult and child interaction behaviors (Parish-Morris & Collins, 2006). However, an investigation of trained professionals’ interactions with young children using the different book formats has not been explored. The purpose of this study was to compare teacher-child interactions during two different storybook interactions using both traditional storybooks and electronic books in an early childhood learning center.

There are many benefits of adult-child storybook reading. Research has shown that the frequency and manner of verbal interactions is an important influence on early reading ability (Teale, 1978). A number of experts in the field have discussed aspects of language and literacy acquisition that are likely to be influenced by the adults including print awareness, knowledge of narrative structure, literacy experience for enjoyment, and vocabulary and discourse patterns (Snow, Burns and Griffin, 1998). These benefits have been correlated with later reading success.

Current trends in education include technology applications to language and reading acquisition. As a result, research is being conducted to examine the benefits of technology on child development. Manufacturers of many educational DVDs or videos targeted at young age groups claim that the videos teach children about language and logic, patterns, and sequencing. However, research shows a large negative correlation between viewing baby DVDs/videos and language acquisition in children ages 8 to 16 months (Zimmerman, Chrisakis, & Meltzoff, 2007). Recent evidence suggests that there is no value to these baby DVDs/videos and that they may, in fact, be harmful. Additionally, electronic toys, such as the Leapfrog LeapPad and the V.Smile Infant Development System, have been found to provide no obvious benefits to children (Rosen, 2007). More research is required to examine the long-term effects on cognitive development (Language Development, 2007).

In a recent study conducted in the United Kingdom, 18 five and six year-old boys were recruited to examine their achievement in literacy and phonological awareness while using talking books software. The results suggested that the use of the talking books software was particularly beneficial for those boys who initially showed lower phonological proficiency (Littleton, Wood, & Chera, 2006). This study found that talking books do have the potential to support reading development in young boys.

A recent Temple University study (Parish-Morris and Collins, 2006) compared parent-child interactions during electronic and traditional storybook reading. Results showed that parents talked about the content of stories while reading traditional storybooks to their children, but while reading the electronic books the parents let the books lead the discussion. The researchers recruited 33 children, three to five years of age, and each child’s parent. Parents read traditional and electronic books with their children. The verbal and non-verbal behaviors of the parents and children were examined.

Electronic books were found to be not as effective in encouraging early literacy skills due to the condensed parent-child interaction. There were significant differences among verbal and nonverbal behaviors; these differences are present in parents and preschool-age children while interacting with electronic versus traditional storybooks. Electronics seem to suppress verbal development and limit social interactions but have been found to be the preferred mode of interaction of boys versus girls.

Given these mixed results, other researchers are focusing on the benefits, or lack thereof, of electronic toys and storybooks. While there is an agreement that children enjoy using these electronic resources, there is conflicting evidence regarding their effectiveness at promoting reading-related skills (Littleton et al., 2006). Therefore, the purpose of this study was to answer the following research questions: (a) Are there pragmatic differences in child and adult language during traditional versus electronic storybook interactions? (b) Does the number of child and adult utterances differ in traditional versus electronic storybook interactions? (c) Do young children prefer traditional or electronic storybooks?


Ten children whose parents provided consent participated. The 6 females and 4 males ranged in age from 24 to 35 months, with a mean age of 2 years and 5.5 months. The children were enrolled in a National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) accredited childcare program in a lab school of a Midwestern University. The lab school served children of university employees, children from the community, and children of university students. All children were middle to upper socioeconomic status based on parent education. None of the child participants had a diagnosed disability. Four preschool teachers, all female, also participated. Teacher A was a graduate student in an Early Childhood Education program, holding a bachelors’ degree. Teacher B also was a masters’ student in Early Childhood Education. Teacher A and B were lead teachers in the preschool classroom. Teachers C and D were both working towards their undergraduate degrees in other fields of study.


A total of six books, three electronic and three traditional storybooks, were selected for this study. The traditional books, all board books, consisted of the following titles by Sandra Boynton (1995): The Going to Bed Book; Moo, Baa, Lalala; and Blue Hat, Green Hat. The electronic books were accompaniments to “My First Story Reader,” (Publication International, 2006), an electronic device in which specially designed cardboard books could be inserted. All electronic books were Baby Einstein ™ (Weber, 2005) titles: Discover Colors, Discover Music, and Discover the Sky. A Sony digital 8 camera was used to video record all storybook reading sessions.


Parental informed written consent was secured for all child participants. Informed consent also was obtained from the four adult participants. Subject numbers were assigned to the child participants prior to initiating the study procedures. Each child entered a quiet room separate from the classroom with a preschool teacher. When the children entered the room, they were presented with three different books from which to choose, either all electronic or all traditional. The presentation of book type was decided in a lottery style randomization. Once the child selected a book, the teacher was instructed to interact as she normally would with the child and the book. When one child commented on already knowing all of the traditional book options, two more titles, also by Sandra Boynton, were presented. Later in the same day, each child again selected a book of different format (electronic or traditional) to read. The adult was again instructed to interact as she normally would. Two days following the first and second readings, a third reading session was completed. During this final storybook session, each child was presented with the two books he or she had chosen previously, one traditional and one electronic.

Children were videotaped during each of the three different reading interactions with a teacher. Taping began when the child selected a book and ended when the teacher and child stopped reading. All adult and child utterances during the reading were transcribed and coded. Child verbalizations were coded using Dore’s Primitive Speech Acts (Dore, 1974; See Appendix A). Adult utterances were coded using Dore’s Conversational Acts (Dore, 1978; See Appendix B). Utterances were defined as: a natural unit of speech bounded by breaths or pauses, or a complete unit of talk, bounded by the speaker’s silence. The codings were quantified for frequency of occurrence. The summarized data were then analyzed using descriptive statistics and repeated measures t-tests set at an alpha level of .05 for a two-tailed test.


Child Communicative Behaviors

This study was interested in the pragmatic differences of adult and child utterances during traditional versus electronic storybook interactions. Two-tailed, repeated measures t-tests were used to compare child data in the two conditions. There were no statistical differences in the children’s utterances by book type. However, as can be seen in Figure 1, the child participants used notably more utterances serving a repeating function during traditional storybook interactions than in electronic book interactions. There also was a notable difference in children’s utterances for requesting action, with more utterances occurring during electronic storybook interactions than with traditional books. More labeling and practicing occurred during traditional storybook interactions, while answering and protesting were more evident during electronic storybook interactions. The children produced no utterances for the purpose of calling or greeting in either storybook condition.

Figure 1. Comparison of child utterances in storybook interactions

Adult Communicative Behavior

Although there were notable differences in some adult discourse functions examined, only one statistically significant difference occurred. Adult utterances coded as organizational devices occurred more frequently in electronic storybooks readings than with traditional storybooks, (t = X; p<.05). Adult requests, acknowledgments, and miscellaneous utterances occurred more often during electronic book interactions compared to traditional book reading sessions (See Figure 2). Statements occurred more frequently in traditional book interactions than during electronic book readings. By far, adult requests in both conditions outnumbered any other discourse function during adult-child storybook reading.

Figure 2. Comparison of adult utterances in storybook interactions


Child Preferences

The majority of the children in this study selected electronic storybooks over traditional storybooks. When given the choice between the two previously read books, 7 out of 9 children chose to re-read the electronic storybook with their teacher. One child refused to participate in the final reading session. It is important to note that two children chose traditional books first, but changed their selection after the teacher asked, “Is that what you want to read?”

Length of Interactions

Video segments ranged in length from 1 minute, 26 seconds to 9 minutes, 48 seconds with an average of 4 minutes, 3 seconds for the 20 readings in the two conditions. Electronic storybook interactions averaged 4 minutes, 56 seconds while traditional storybook interactions averaged 3 minutes, 9 seconds. There was a moderately statistically significant difference (t = + 2.19, p = .056) between lengths of interactions in electronic versus traditional storybook readings, with the electronic book condition producing longer overall reading times. The total length of storybook interactions also varied by teacher (See Table). Teacher B demonstrated consistent overall reading time regardless of book type, with an average of 3 minutes, 2 seconds for combined storybook interactions (range = 1 minute, 32 seconds to 3 minutes, 59 seconds). Teacher A’s interaction times varied based on the child and type of book, ranging from 1 minute, 27 seconds during the traditional book condition to 9 minutes, 48 seconds in the electronic book condition. Teacher A had an overall average of 5 minutes, 3 seconds for the combined storybook interactions, which was significantly longer than for Teacher B (t = +2.16; p = .029 one-tail).

Table: Length of Interactions for Traditional and Electronic Books

Teacher Electronic Book Traditional Book
A 9 min. 48 sec. 2 min. 6 sec.
A 2 min. 49 sec. 2 min. 45 sec.
A 8 min. 7 sec. 4 min. 24 sec.
A 7 min. 4 sec. 6 min. 45 sec.
A 5 min. 10 sec. 1 min. 27 sec.
B 3 min. 12 sec. 3 min. 22 sec.
B 3 min. 15 sec. 3 min. 59 sec.
B 3 min. 28 sec. 2 min. 40 sec.
B 3 min. 31 sec. 1 min. 32 sec.
B 2 min. 59 sec. 2 min. 27 sec.

The relationship between types and frequency of adult and child utterances for traditional and electronic books was investigated. Data were gathered on two- to three-year old children and the children’s preschool teachers. Pragmatic functions of child and adult utterances during reading of electronic and traditional storybooks were coded to compare and contrast the effects of book type on adult-child interactions. The specific questions addressed by this study were: (a) Are there pragmatic differences in child and adult language during traditional versus electronic storybook interactions? (b) Does the number of child and adult utterances differ in traditional versus electronic storybook interactions? (c) Do young children prefer traditional or electronic storybooks?

First, there were observed differences in adult and child interactions during traditional and electronic books. Children used more labeling, practicing, and repeating with traditional books, but showed a notable increase in requests for action with electronic books. Adults had significantly more requests with electronic books than with traditional books. These adult requests primarily focused on requests to push the button or find the shape named by the verbal output of the electronic book.

Second, there were no significant differences in the overall number of utterances produced in the two book conditions. However, the electronic books resulted in a greater number of adult acknowledgments, organizational devices, and miscellaneous utterances. The children requested more actions and answered adult queries more often with electronic books than in the traditional book condition.

Third, 7 of the children selected the electronic book over the traditional book when given a choice of the two types. However, two children had originally selected the traditional book, but changed the selection when the adult asked the child about the choice.

Findings from this study are consistent with those reported at Temple University (Parish Morris & Collins, 2006). Both the previous and current study found that children engaged in more book manipulation and less book discussion when interacting with the electronic book. Adults used more reading behaviors with the traditional books, with more directive and organizing utterances produced when reading the electronic books. One possible explanation for this finding is that the children viewed the electronic book as a toy. Additionally, the teachers were uncertain how to use the electronic book, with both asking, “What do I do with it?”

Limitations of the study included the small sample size and the inclusion of only one preschool center. In addition, the teachers showed notable variability in their time engaged in reading, with one teacher having variability across reading sessions, not attributed to type of book. Because the content of adult and child utterances was not examined, other areas of adult-child language and literacy cannot be compared to previous research. Results should be viewed with caution, and closer examination of the semantic content of both the child and adult utterances is warranted.


Boynton, S. (1995). Blue hat, green hat. New York: Simon and Shuster.

Boynton, S. (1995). Moo, baa, lalala. New York: Simon and Shuster.

Boynton, S. (1995). The going to bed book. New York: Simon and Shuster.

Dore, J. (1974). A pragmatic description of early language development. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 4, 343-350.

Dore, J. (1978). Variation in preschool children’s conversational performances. In K. Nelson (Ed.), Children’s language: Vol. 1 (pp. 397-444). New York: Gardner Press.

Ezell, H.K., & Justice, L.M. (2000). Increasing the print focus of adult-child shared book reading through observational learning. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 9, 36-47.

Kaderavek, J.N., & Sulzby, E. (1998). Parent-child joint book reading: An observational protocol for young children. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 7, 33-47.

Language development may be hindered by baby DVDs and videos. (2007). Advance for Speech-Language Pathologists & Audiologists, 17 (33), 12.

Littleton, K., Wood, C., & Chera, P. (2006). Interactions with talking books: Phonological awareness affects boys’ use of talking books. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 22: 382-390.

Mason, J.A., & Allen, J. (1986). A review of emergent literacy with implications for research and practice in reading. In E. Z. Rothkopf (Ed.), Review of research in education. 13 (3-47). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Nino, A. (1983). Joint book reading as a multiple vocabulary acquisition device. Developmental Psychology. 19, 445-451.

Parish-Morris, J., & Collins, M.F. (2006). Traditional books provide more positive parent-child interaction. Available online http://www.temple.edu/news_media/tradbooks.html

Publication International, Ltd. (2006). My first story reader [electronic toy]. Wisconsin Rapids, WI.

Rosen, C. (2007, Winter). Sucker me Elmo: What children learn from their robo-toys. The New Atlantis, 15: 119-122.

Snow, C.E., Burns, M.S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Sulzby, E. (1985). Children’s emergent reading of favorite storybooks: A developmental study. Reading Research Quarterly. 20, 458-481.

Teale, W.H. (1978). Positive environments for learning to read: What studies of early readers tell us. Language Arts 55(8): 922-932.

Weber, L. (2005). Baby Einstein, discover colors. Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International.

Weber, L. (2005). Baby Einstein, discover music. Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International.

Weber, L. (2005). Baby Einstein, discover the sky. Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International.

Zimmerman, F.J., Chrisakis, D.A., & Meltzoff, A.N. (2007). Television and DVD/Video viewing in children younger than 2 years. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 161: 473-479.


Appendix A

Dore’s Primitive Speech Acts (Dore, 1978)

  • Labeling- one or more words that function as a label produced while attending to an object
  • Repeating- one or more words or a prosodic pattern that repeats part of the adult utterance and is produced while attending to the adult utterance
  • Answering- one or more words that respond to an adult question or statement and are produced while attending to the adult utterance
  • Requesting Action- one or more words or a prosodic pattern that functions as a request for an action and is produced while attending to an object or event
  • Requesting Answer- one or more words that function as a request for an answer
  • Calling- one or more words that are used to obtain another’s attention
  • Greeting- one or more words that are used to mark arrival or leave-taking and are produced while attending to the adult or an object
  • Protesting- one or more words or a prosodic pattern that expresses disapproval of or dislike for an object or an action and is produced while attending to the adult
  • Practicing- one or more words or prosodic pattern that is not contingent upon preceding utterances

Appendix B

Dore’s Conversational Acts (Dore, 1978)

  • Request- an utterance used to request information, action, or acknowledgement
  • Response to request- an utterance following a request that responds directly to the request
  • Description- an utterance used to describe verifiable past and present facts
  • Statement- defined as an utterance used to state facts, rules, attitudes, feelings or beliefs
  • Acknowledgement- an utterance used to indicate recognition of a response or nonrequest
  • Organizational Device- an utterance used to regulate interaction and conversation
  • Miscellaneous- an utterance that is uninterpretable because it is unintelligible, incomplete or anomalous or because it contains no prepositional context, such as an exclamation


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