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Roberta Golinkoff stands in the Child’s Play, Learning and Development Lab at the University of Delaware, where a study recently confirmed that young children can learn from story time over video chat.
Roberta Golinkoff stands in the Child’s Play, Learning and Development Lab at the University of Delaware, where a study recently confirmed that young children can learn from story time over video chat.

Story time during the pandemic

Photos by Evan Krape and iStock

New study shows benefits of reading to children over video chat

So please, oh please, we beg, we pray

Go throw your TV set away

And in its place you can install

 a lovely bookshelf on the wall.

— Roald Dahl in his classic children’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Though published in 1964, Dahl’s words continue to reflect the attitudes and concerns of parents when it comes to balancing how much time children spend looking at books compared to a screen. Parents have grown accustomed to reports on the news of yet another academic study that heralds the benefits of books while warning against excessive screen time.

However, as the world has come to learn these past few months, pandemics make for strange bedfellows. More than ever, families are embracing some combination of books and screens during virtual story times, often with teachers, grandparents, or other caring adults reading to young children whom they can no longer see in person.

For parents worried about the long-term effects this additional screen time may have on their children, according to a new study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, remote story time using video chat software may be just as beneficial to the intellectual and academic development of young children as reading with an adult in person. The study was co-authored by Caroline Gaudreau, doctoral student in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Delaware, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Chair and professor in the School of Education, and their academic colleagues at universities across the country.

“We know that lots of family members and friends are video chatting with kids right now,” said Gaudreau. “Our research suggests that reading storybooks to kids over video chat is one activity that can promote learning, especially during a pandemic.”

Screen time or Story time?

When Golinkoff, Gaudreau and their partners started collaborating on this research project back in 2018, they had no idea that a global pandemic would shut down the economy and compel families to shelter in place for weeks or months on end. For Golinkoff, this was yet another multi-year research project that promised to broaden our understanding of how well children learn using digital technology. With a staff of postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduate research assistants in the Child’s Play, Learning and Development Lab, Golinkoff usually has multiple studies underway at any given time.

Father reads to a child
An adult reading to a child in person remains very important in helping a child learn and develop. But with social distancing a health necessity during the coronavirus pandemic, reading to a child over video can still help the child learn.

For Gaudreau, who is now in the fourth year of the doctoral program in Education and Learning Sciences, this research project was an opportunity to learn from renowned scholars at UD and other academic institutions, and to research the types of research questions that made her want to attend graduate school in the first place.

“We were really interested in how kids are interacting with video chat,” said Gaudreau. “But we also weren't sure whether they were actually getting anything out of it. So we wanted to see whether they're learning through video chat compared to the learning they do through other types of reading as well.”

All participants were children four years of age. To determine how well children learn over video chat, the research team designed a study using three reading conditions with the same adult serving as reader: reading with a child in person; reading remotely over video chat, and a pre-recorded video of the adult reading a book. Each child participated in only one reading condition.

In all three reading conditions, the adult engaged with the children, both asking and responding to questions. To account for verbal engagement in the pre-recorded reading conditions, adults asked questions about the book and then paused to give children time to respond, similar to popular children’s shows like Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues.

After story time, each child participant was given an assessment on what they had learned. For example, a vocabulary assessment tested knowledge of 10 words from the book, and reading comprehension was assessed through a list of pre-determined questions about the story.

To some surprise, the study’s findings revealed no noticeable difference in learning outcomes between those children who were read to in person and those who were read to over video chat.

Then, as the research team was preparing the study for publication, the coronavirus pandemic changed the world, and they considered how to reframe the findings to reflect current events.

“With so many kids on video chat, we felt it was important to publish this research and give people some evidence that video chat actually can be effective for preschoolers,” said Gaudreau.

One of the most surprising results of the study, Gaudreau said, was that children learned vocabulary and understood the story under all three reading conditions. However, when viewing a pre-recorded video, children were less likely to respond to the reader’s questions.

“What we found is that kids in live or video chat conditions responded more to questions during book reading than children viewing pre-recorded videos,” said Gaudreau. “And we know that responding to questions like this can promote learning. So even though vocabulary and comprehension look similar across the three reading conditions, child responsiveness suggests that personal interaction with an adult likely facilitates learning.”

The study also has its limitations, one of which is age. Children younger than two and sometimes three years tend to experience more difficulty learning over video chat and so these activities may not be developmentally appropriate. Also, further research is needed to better understand the social-emotional impact of each reading condition.

What does this study mean for families? The researchers want adults to know that reading activities over video chat promote learning in preschoolers.

“There’s no reason why families should feel hesitant to have grandparents, aunts, uncles, and so forth, read to kids online because kids can benefit from it,” said Golinkoff. “Like anything, it needs to be books that are appropriate for the child’s age. If you pick a subject that they are interested in, and when you talk about what they point to and answer their questions about the book, children are going to learn from that. That’s when kids learn the most.”

If you want to participate in Golinkoff’s research – remotely, of course – please write to Elana Herbst at Herbste@udel.edu or visit the lab’s website http://www.childsplay.udel.edu/. Herbst is Golinkoff’s lab manager and they still have many ongoing studies.

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