Reading Routine: Print or Digital? Go Newspaper!

Bookstores are closed. From now on will digital reading be the norm for kids?

A sketch of a young boy and a young girl sitting back to back reading. Is their reading routine print or digital?
Should kid’s reading routine be print or digital? credit:

Dear Ms Smartphone: We had a reading routine before the pandemic and took our kids to the bookstore every other Saturday for story time drop-in. During the pandemic that ceased and I had to get my three girls their own personal laptop computers and iPads so that they could get their school books online and keep up. This was not a hardship for us. But I’ve noticed that they never pick up a book any more. Is this a permanent change? Luis, Los Angeles

Dear Luis: The pandemic changed a lot of habits, and none more than reading since libraries and bookstores were not deemed to be essential businesses. The necessity to download texts and literature means we finally arrived at the ‘Age of New Media.’

As a parent caught between old and new media, it’s hard to say what is the better reading routine.  At the risk of being nostalgic, you probably want to be in the same space as your girls when they curl up with a story book and are drawn in by the words. While you trust them, you can never be sure when they read from a computer or iPad, that they are actually on the text and not engaged with something else.  

Reading or Browsing?

It’s noteworthy that there are digital fixes for this.  Kids know, faster than they can enjoin you to “stay in your lane” to speed toggle between open screens. Meanwhile, parents have their own digital weapons with screen time apps and reading countdowns.  That said, measures of spent time can be easily gamed.

Of course, digital conundrums bring digital opportunities. For example, if you have a loving grandma or family friend across town, they can now replicate story-time with your children. Kids and grandma download the same book, and then spend quality time reading aloud to each other from their tablets.

Browsing the literature too!

There is a fair amount of literature circa 2010-2015 about the differences  when children learn to read online versus in print. You can check some of these, and also note an author and educator, Maryanne Wolf, who specifically views print as the choice medium. Here in 2021, I am not sure that we are going to be able to make these side by side comparisons of print versus digital learning anymore.  Texts are changing and getting shorter.  Cyber media is integrated into everything we do – from cradle to grave. There are no more before and after experiments.

But, as a fellow parent, that is not a good enough answer. Kids are not in a laboratory. We can’t wait 20 years to find out whether print or digital media is better for developing strong reading skills. So, do a straddle. First, make sure that there is a ‘working’ book case in your home, and restock it regularly!  If you instill a reading habit, your children will mirror that. Soon, as businesses  re-open, you can resume your trips to the bookstore, or the library.

It’s At Your Doorstep!

Finally,  I would also encourage you to subscribe to a daily newspaper- one  delivered to your doorstep. It’s not just because DearSmartphone loves newspapers!  These are the vehicle for you to have a regular, ongoing discussion over the kitchen table, and, like our food,  the print menu changes daily. It’s a tool to mull over local pictures, news stories, and sports with your kids and even submit your own.  Most Sunday papers have special sections for young readers that you can keep around all week. Or, just follow the horoscope and comics together. It’s a way to bring print reading into their everyday lives and assure that as a family you also share meaning and local community.

Should Kids Use Phone on Break?

Learning pods are supposed to replace socialization and school….is the phone adding distance?

Young children studying in a pod  like classroom during Covid virus. At each desk there is  computer and desks are 6' apart.
Daily Herald, photo by John Starks 8/25/2020

Dear Ms Smartphone: Should kids use their phones during a break? This fall my daughter is in a learning pod with seven other middle-school students. It seems to be going well, and I think that she will be prepared for high school next year. The issue I have is that the instructors allow the pod kids to take out their phones during the breaks between classes. There are multiple breaks during the shortened school day. In our normal school, the kids cannot use their phone until the end of the day. Do you think I should say anything?  Sharin, Berkeley

Dear Sharin: These are interesting times and I am glad that you were able to locate an instructional pod for your student. For pods, the equity issues have been substantial, along with access to technology and the Internet. You raise yet another important issue about these makeshift classrooms.

If the students use computers for most of their lessons, I would argue that they need a break from the screen. It is important that they refresh their eyes, refresh their minds, and seek out personal interactions, at a six foot distance, of course.  Taking a short stroll or engaging in some physical exercise would be a great alternative to spending more time with online games or search. 

WhAt is the Attraction?

Second, you need to question what students do online, the online sites they visit, between classes. Since they are in seventh or eighth grade, question whether they are spending time on social media like Tik-Tok or SnapChat. You might look at your daughter’s posts, if you have access. Looking over her “digital shoulder” and getting access is vital at this age. But, it begins with a collaborative discussion and her perspective on her podmates, free-time, and how the pod functions during breaks. 

According to Pew Research 33% of teens note that it is simply easier to connect with a friend online than to attempt connecting with them physically. There are two instructional things that parents must do: one is to show kids how to disconnect in order to connect, and second, we need to teach the tools of digital literacy. Is this pod facilitating either?

Speak Up!

So, you might take this up directly with the lead instructor- ask for some time “after class” to discuss media use. You mentioned that there was more than one instructor, so they might have inconsistent enforcement or rules. Most likely you and the other parents that hired these teachers first agreed on the curriculum.  So, also reach out to the other parents in your pod. And, hopefully you will all be back in your regular classroom soon.

Is Handwriting Dead?

A page from a kid's primer of cursive writing- with the letters a to z and the numbers 1 to 10.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is Handwriting Dead? My fifth grader is doing OK with remote school and keeps up to date with classwork. He spends most of the day on the computer and then plays video games in the evening. My worry is that there is no opportunity to turn in assignments written by hand. So, his handwriting (penmanship) is suffering. When I went to elementary school the nuns made me stay after class and corrected my hand-writing until it looked satisfactory (to them). My son thinks this is funny, but I do not think his bad hand writing is funny at all. Jemma, Los Angeles

Dear Jemma, There are some skills that are enhanced by computer learning but penmanship is not one of them. Sitting at a computer all day make us faster on the keyboard, but hand writing skills atrophy. An older story in The Washington Post, reports that until the 1970s penmanship was taught as a separate subject and up till sixth grade children spent at least two hours a week on it. Today, when schools teach hand writing it is frequently for 10 minutes or less a day, and formal instruction ends after third grade. It’s a conundrum: many kids never learn cursive writing and printing can be too slow for them to get their thoughts on paper.

There may be ways that you can intervene as a parent but it will take two of you to carry this off. What I mean is that you, as a parent, will need to pickup a pencil and paper, sometimes in lieu of your phone, and show how enjoyable and useful it is to write by hand. You son is going to model the media behavior he sees at home, from reading books and newspapers, to spending free time on the phone or computer. 

Get Fun!

First, I would read up on the pros and cons of different handwriting techniques: print,  cursive or a speed-combo called the Barchowsky method. Go with what your son feels comfortable with. Then, visit a stationery store together and pick out the pen and pencils that feel special to your son. The right pen, with a comfortable grip, makes a difference in how handwriting looks on the page.  And, kids seem to enjoy the newest pens that have erasable ink. 

The second step is to set a daily routine with a fun time to write. Mom can be  the “tooth fairy” and leave a small gift (a candy bar, a poem, a new pen).   Then, your son has to keep a hand-written journal for the “tooth fairy.” He can write about the gifting, how he feels about that day’s cache. If this seems contrived, then create an “appreciation journal”- talk through what you are both grateful for each day, and have him write a few sentences about it in a lined notebook. 

Get Literate Too!

There is a parallel activity if you want to add a lesson on media literacy. Configure his phone so that there is always paper and pencil nearby- perhaps put the smartphone, the notebook and a pen in a see-through carry case. After using the phone and putting it back in the case, he writes a few sentences in the notebook about the browsing habit: what he saw or looked at, and how it made him feel (e.g. happy, sad, indifferent).  You can customize the page to be a timesheet with entries. 

The idea is that he works on his hand-writing as he also develops a mindful, attentive awareness towards browsing the Internet. I would not stress over the particular words or sentences he writes, since your focus is on just getting him to use the pen more and the keyboard less.