I’ve had a lot of luck getting my kids to read simply by putting an e-book in their hands. At 10, my daughter quickly went from someone who enjoyed reading to a voracious consumer of the written word when I handed her a Kindle. (This is not true of the Kindle Fire, though. That proved to offer too much temptation to not read.) For her, it was the Kindle’s ability to deliver the next book in whatever series she was reading instantly that kept her momentum going and had her burning through book after book instead of stopping at just one. I’ve also heard that kids who get easily overwhelmed by long books do better with digital ones because an e-book stays the same size no matter how many pages are in it. Younger kids or struggling readers who feel intimidated when there are too many words on the page can bump up the font size so that they're flipping through pages at a satisfying pace.
I got the new, sixth-generation Kindle Paperwhite ($119, available October 10) to check out some features that sounded to me as if they would help my daughter be an even better student of the written word. She is in honors English in high school, so we have moved from just reading to having to analyze and write about books.
The new Paperwhite has a whole mess of technical upgrades: a higher-contrast screen that looks more like actual paper, a built-in light, a faster processor, better touch response and more-versatile page turning. These are all nice. But it was the less-technical features that intrigued me as helpful school tools.
I downloaded a copy of Macbeth to test out some of those student-focused features. It was great fun— and made me wish I’d had a Kindle in college. One problem kids have when they tackle classical works like Shakespeare is that it’s easy to get confused by unfamiliar language and a large cast of characters. The Paperwhite’s smart lookup offers some nice solutions to that confusion. I had only to tap on a character’s name—Banquo, say—to get a pop-up explanation of who he is, his relationship to Macbeth and a bit of historical context explaining a literary choice Shakespeare made when creating the character. Tapping on an unfamiliar word instantly brought up its definition. And I could turn on X-Ray (available in select titles) to access a map of the book—every occurrence of a character or theme. (So handy for term papers!) Every time I looked up the definition of a word, the Paperwhite added it to my vocabulary list (shown above), keeping a running tally of the words I was learning for study purposes. It could even turn them into flash cards for me.
Later this year, Amazon plans to add some more nifty features targeted at students. Goodreads Integration will let kids connect to this social network that is all about reading right from their book. They will be able to share what they’re reading, see what friends are reading, share highlights and rate books. And FreeTime parental controls are being enhanced to be less about blocking and more about directing: They’ll let you choose books for your student, keep a progress report of what she has read and give badges for accomplishments.
A lot of parents ask me if it’s a good idea to get an e-reader for kids. “Aren’t real books better?" they ask. "I like to have something I can put on a bookshelf.” I like paper books too. And so does my daughter. But as long as the device isn’t also a TV (too tempting!), why worry what kind of paper (electronic or otherwise) the book is on as long as the kids are reading it? Besides, Amazon is launching Kindle Matchbook, which lets you buy the paper copy of any book you purchased the Kindle edition of for $2.99 or less. For those books you do want on the shelf.
Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.