Too tired, too crabby, or just so caught up in Game of Thrones that you can’t read your child a bedtime story? Never fear! You can outsource the duty to your eager Google Assistant.
You heard right. If you have Google Assistant on your Android or iOS phone, every time you order the digital assistant using the magic words, “Hey Google, tell me a story,” Google will do just that, picking from a plethora of stories on Google Play Books. And, yes, that means you’ll have to subscribe to Google Play Books.
But is this a good idea for your child?
There’s no question that reading aloud to your child has massive benefits. Virtually every child development authority agrees that reading books aloud helps children learn to listen, understand how stories work, increase sound and letter recognition, and expand vocabulary. Creating a positive association with books and reading, according to the organization Reach Out and Read, builds essential skills as children begin school; even handling books develops school readiness in infants.
What about the intangible benefits to story time with a human? Like cuddling, answering questions, and reading the Grand High Witch character from Roald Dahl’s classic book The Witches in an unhinged, shrill Germanic voice? Nope, Google can’t deliver those things to your child.
Licensed marriage and family therapist Sherry Nafeh has strong feelings about the benefits of the parent, not a Google Assistant, reading to children. “I think that parents reading to a child helps them with cognitive development, improves language skills and imagination, and will improve academic performance,” Nafeh told Parentology. “Most importantly, it creates emotional attachment and a time to practice mindful parenting and being present. Reading a book creates an intimate routine that carries with it profound benefits for both children and parents. “
Reading Aloud and the Million Word Gap
A recent study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics found that kids whose parents read them five books a day enter kindergarten having heard about 1.4 million more words than kids who were never read to, which is a pretty big difference. Even one book per day garners 290,000 more words. But, the key element might be in seeing those words, in connection with the pictures, rather than just hearing them read aloud.
So, how would an audible-only Google Assistant measure up?
The study’s author, Jessica Logan (assistant professor of educational studies at Ohio State University), weighs in. “We don’t know much about features like Google Assistant because they’re so new,” she told Parentology. “We do know that children don’t learn language as well from watching TV shows as they do from interactions with humans, and that having screen media on TV, games, tablets, and phones can disrupt the social learning, including language, that might otherwise take place within families. We also know that background noise is detrimental to children’s language learning; they can’t learn what they can’t clearly hear. “
Google Assistant Can’t Deliver the Visuals
There’s also plenty of evidence that young children learn through reading aloud by looking at the pictures and words on the page.
“One of the advantages of book reading is the connection of the pictures with the story,” Logan says. “When the child is left to page through a book, they may or may not keep the pages turned to the right place when the story is being read to them. That creates a disconnect between the concepts they are hearing and the concepts they are seeing.
Logan offers the example of reading your child a book about animals. “If one page is about penguins and the next is about peacocks and the child doesn’t have the parent there to guide them to which page they should be looking at, they may learn the wrong name with the wrong animal. My hypothesis is that if parents are still interacting with kids during the digital reading by holding a book and walking through it with them, and no other media is playing at that time, that they then would be likely to get similar benefits to a more traditional book reading.”
Another early childhood literacy expert who spoke with Parentology was Dr. Dominic Massaro (Department of Psychology, U.C. Santa Cruz), and he agrees with Logan’s assessment. “I don’t think these audiobooks are actually showing the words, so in that sense they’re not addressing the mechanics of reading,” he says. “It does give the child a chance to have a book read to them, but it’s not as rich a source of language than a picture book.”
Massaro goes further, saying that the “Tell Me A Story” feature is just fancy marketing for audiobooks. “I think it’s kind of a sham. You have to have their Google Playbooks, so you’re downloading and playing an audiobook.”
In other words, every time you use “Tell Me A Story,” the feature downloads a kid’s book. That can add up fast for ten minutes of assisted story time. And while your Google Assistant may be better than nothing in terms of offering literacy benefits, it’s still not ideal.
“Of course there can never be a replacement for a parent reading aloud,” explained Dr. Susan B. Neuman, Professor of Early Childhood and Literacy Education at NYU. “Much of the power of a book, and its stickiness in children’s learning is based on the talk that surrounds the book reading. Parents are known to engage in conversations about the book that extend, enhance and support children’s understanding and learning.”
So does she think Google Assistant is a good option? “Sure, when parents are busy and when children want to hear a good story, but nothing can replace the emotional and linguistic support of a loving parent or adult with their child.”
In the end, why miss out on the connection of reading to your child? Even tired, grumpy, and distracted, it turns out that an actual human sitting with the child, handling the book, turning the pages, and animating the story with expressions and inflections is way better than any computerized audiobook. It’s truly quality time.
“Being open to learn from these beautiful little people means paying attention and learning to take a step back, and just doing what they need,” Nafeh said.