Basic literacy and numeracy skills acquisition (2/2): mapping out the role of print knowledge in the digital age

In a previous article, we saw the importance of print knowledge for the acquisition of both literacy and numeracy skills, as well as the concern that a factor aiding future academic performance should rely on a pre-educational acquisition, usually most complete among pre-academically inclined children mostly. This begs the question of how, then, we can enhance print knowledge at an early stage in children’s development in order to facilitate their later acquisition of other basic skills.

In particular, we are concerned with the fact that it is mostly precocious children who might have disproportionately the curiosity to riffle through the pages of books mysterious to them, and thus develop such familiarity. In the past few years, and most importantly in the aftermath of the 2019 COVID pandemic, we have seen a significant shift towards digital books. This prompts us to wonder: what is the role of ebooks in the acquisition of early print knowledge and of basic literacy and numeracy skills? Can they challenge the potentially unequal distribution of basic skills among preschoolers when they enroll in early childhood education?

One could tempted to think that ebooks do not contribute to the acquisition of print skills due to the very basic observation that paper books and ebooks are different, and that as a consequence the acquisition of skills that have to do with the correct handling of one type of books might not be ideal for the handling of the other type of books – in this case, ebooks. Indeed, ebooks are read on a screen, the pages are scrolled or swiped instead of flicked through, the text is sometimes read aloud, and the illustrations are sometimes animated, while the text in a print book is silent and the illustrations are still. All of these differences challenge the idea that the handling of ebooks can contribute to print knowledge the same way that the handling of print books does.

On the other hand, significant research seems to suggest that ebooks might nonetheless still be useful for the acquisition of early literacy skills. Indeed, a group of researchers conducted a study in 2020 in which they measured – through an eye-tracking experiment – children’s attention to the text of a story by comparing the results between a story in print format versus digital format. The results showed that the highlight synchronisation design – a feature whereby segments of the text are highlighted as they are read out loud by a voiceover (see picture) – enticed the children to look at the text more than with paper format where such feature was not possible. In fact, this feature can be compensated by a parent or professor reading along the text with the child, but this would mean that again, the resulting development of literacy skills would be faster among children with more resources.

Example of a page of an ebook with highlight syncronisation design (Liao 2020 p6)

In general, we could argue that the many digital features made possible in ebooks can be harnessed to create a smoother learning experience for children. Manipulating letters, words and sounds in paper format can indeed be an awkward process as illustrated below:

L'arabe du futur
Extract from L’Arabe du futur: Tome 2 (Sattouf) which illustrates the limitations of physical books for the acquisition of certain print knowledge skills (148)

In the afternoons when I was free, my mother would teach me to read and write in French. I hated it. The words were written on tiny pieces of paper and we had to manipulate them to make up sentences.

Another reason why ebooks might be prone to developing early literacy skills among children is the fact that oftentimes, these ebooks are multilingual. This is the case because the translation and distribution process is more seamless when dealt with in digital format rather than print format. On the other hand, there is evidence that print knowledge skills developed in one language by a child can cross-polinate to another language to a certain extent.

Indeed, in a study by Bengochea et al., the researchers measured the print knowledge of a group of children aged around 5 years old and bilingual in Spanish and Maya Yucatec. They found that these children displayed modest skills in both languages, especially in the latter. However, this has to be placed in the context of the communities where they are raised which severely lack print material in Maya Yucatec:

The most prevalent print resource in the community was graffiti, which was abundant. Mostly, graffiti was in Spanish. Finally, within the children’s homes, and as based on parental report obtained via questionnaire, the mean number of books available was 0 (range 0–3). Religious texts, albeit rare, were generally the only Maya print resources available at children’s homes. (Bengochea 2017 p6)

In other words, despite the fact that children had almost no access to print resources in Maya Yucatec language, they were able to transfer some of their skills acquired in Spanish to their other native language. As a result, the multilingualism of ebooks make it more likely that readers who speak several languages find works to read in at least one of these languages, all the while ensuring that the print knowledge skills derived from it will transfer to skills in the other languages.

Finally, let us not omit the fact that acquiring literacy skills through ebooks presents the added advantage of allowing readers to develop their digital literacy skills at the same time. It is easy to believe that younger generations are “digital natives”, in other words, that they are inherently familiar with digital technologies by virtue of having been born in an era where such technologies already existed. However, – and as teachers increasingly report – it is unfortunately not the case that all children are “tech savvy” – or tend to become so without a hitch. Digital literacy skill levels, just like other skills, are affected by factors of class, race, gender and nationality. (Hague 2011 p9)

In conclusion, ebooks might be a useful tool to remedy inequalities among children in early childhood education, and this is true for both inequalities regarding their print knowledge and the resulting literacy skills, as well as inequalities in digital literacy skills.


  • Bengochea, Alain, Laura M. Justice, and Maria J. Hijlkema. “Print knowledge in Yucatec Maya–Spanish bilingual children: an initial inquiry.” International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 20.7 (2017): 807-822.
  • Hague, Cassie, and Sarah Payton. “Digital literacy across the curriculum.” Curriculum Leadership 9.10 (2011).
  • Liao, Chia-Ning, et al. “Electronic storybook design, kindergartners’ visual attention, and print awareness: An eye-tracking investigation.” Computers & Education 144 (2020): 103703.
  • Sattouf, Riad. L’Arabe du futur (Tome 2): Une jeunesse au Moyen-Orient (1984-1985). Allary éditions, 2015.

For more information, please contact us!