Reading in a digital world: Do kids read anymore?

Updated: Feb 22

By Dr. Randy Kulman, Ph.D.

While there is a popular belief that 21st-century children do not read, 60% of kids ages 6-17 report that they read for fun. Although an older report from the publisher Scholastic suggests that there has been a slight decline in the number of frequent readers since 2010, there is also a steady increase in the percentage of children who read e-books. In a survey conducted in 2012, 46% of children had read an e-book, compared to only 25% in 2010.

As a child psychologist, I have observed that reading has become increasingly important in the 21st century but that our definition of reading needs to change. Reading is no longer restricted to hardcover/softcover books, newspapers, or magazines. 21st-century reading is an activity that occurs when people look at a text message, listen to a book on an iPod, check out a favorite website, watch a YouTube video with text, or read on a tablet. Most of this type of reading is a solitary endeavor. In my work, I give away hundreds of comic books- I figure if that inspires reading, then kids will look for other books to read. I also devote 2 shelves to books I purchase from library sales, such as the Harry Potter series or my favorites, ‘The Ranger’s Apprentice Series, to give away to willing and reluctant readers.

Even with all of the power of electronic media, however, reading is often still best experienced as a family activity. Reading to your child is one of the most meaningful things you can do as a parent. Powerful research indicates that parental reading to preschoolers leads directly to language growth, emergent literacy, and future reading achievements. Reading to your children helps them to learn the skill of reading and provides them with knowledge, skills, and questions about their world and an opportunity for nurturance and closeness.

I fondly recall cuddling with my sons and reading to each of them when they were toddlers and pre-readers. As they began to develop their reading skills, they would proudly want to read a book with me. As they got older we sometimes read together before they went to sleep at night. They would take a seat beside me on the couch, and (if I didn’t fall asleep too soon) we would each read silently and independently, a shared opportunity for closeness in a favorite activity.

When my children were learning to read in the 1990s there were not many other options for reading beyond the traditional bound book. There were books on cassettes, and I recall that at the age of 2, my son Seth was able to “read” the book Patrick’s Dinosaurs after he had listened to it 10 times or more while on a car trip.

Today, however, there are a variety of electronic means for reading that may be particularly useful for children with learning and attention difficulties. Here are some strategies for reading together in today’s digital world:

1. Listen to audiobooks in the car.

Find a book series that is age-appropriate and of interest to your child. Listening to an audiobook on longer drives to provide exposure to highly fluent and expressive readers can be more instructive than listening to the radio or to an individual device. Check for comprehension and inferences by talking about what you have heard. Mention new vocabulary words and see if your child understands the meaning of these words.

2. Play mobile word games with your children.

Try Wordy, Word Magic, or Wordsworth to help them improve their vocabulary and spelling.

3. Read an interactive book together.

An increasing number of interactive books for cell phones and tablets allow people to read together. Look into educational interactive books such as Seashores to Seashells for real fun. Interactive books are great for children with a short attention span for sitting or reading.

4. Watch TV with no sound.

Read together using the (SAP) tool on your television and turn off the sound. Do this with shows your child already likes and is familiar with the characters.

Below are some additional resources you can download to learn more tips! 

They are ZIP files with PDFs: