Click Here for Closer Digital Reading

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This article originally appeared in the California Department of Education Literacy, History, & Arts Leadership Newsletter, Spring 2017, Volume 2.

During the next decade schools will become paperless places. Upon arrival, students will be handed devices preloaded with instructional materials and links to assigned readings. Books will be in evidence, but reading on screens will be the norm. What challenges does this brave new classroom pose for young readers?

Putting aside technological snafus, issues of bandwidth, and district filters, I’m interested in how reading may or may not change as we move from print on paper to pixels on a screen. Are there skills we should be teaching now to prepare students for reading tomorrow?

Research on screen reading tells us that skimming has become the norm. Ziming Liu, a professor at San Jose State University, found that screen-based reading is characterized by browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, and non-linear movement through the text. Online readers also demonstrate decreased sustained attention.

Before declaring Liu’s findings the end of deep reading (and therefore civilization) as we know it, I have to confess that I’ve always tended to read too fast — both online and on the page — skimming texts that should be savored, skipping descriptive passages, and ignoring all graphs and charts. I try to persuade myself that what I miss in detail I make up in volume but have learned to discipline myself to slow down for complex text, particularly poetry and letters from government offices.

It may be that teachers are worrying too much about the difference between paper and screen and not enough about the differences entailed in various purposes for reading. Often research studies compare student comprehension of a story read on an e-reader with comprehension from a print version. But the measure of comprehension is a series of multiple-choice questions. That’s not how I would assess students’ deep understanding of Jack London’s “The Open Boat” or Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.” Differences in performance on researchers’ quizzes may have less to do with screen versus print than they do with the background knowledge readers bring to the story or students’ engagement with the characters.

I don’t really see much difference between reading literature on an e-reader and reading a book. There’s nothing on the screen but print. Once a reader gets used to the device, it disappears.

Online reading is another story. There readers are bombarded with competing images and text features. Hyperlinks tempt you away from the continuous text. For example, here’s an excellent article from the New Yorker by Maria Konnikova called “Being a Better Online Reader.” Should you click on the link now or later? And if you click now, do you think you’ll come back to this page? Readers of online texts must make such decisions all the time. Konnikova argues that the online world “exhausts our resources more quickly than the page. We become tired from the constant need to filter out hyperlinks and possible distractions.”

It seems to me that during these transitional years it will be important to help students become more aware of and as a result more in control of their reading behaviors both online and off.

As an experiment print out the first page of an online article — a terrific source is the New York Times Learning Network. Have students read page one in print and the rest of the article online and then ask them to write about what they noticed in terms of their own comprehension, ease of reading, and retention of content. Use students’ responses as a springboard for a classroom discussion about reading online.

Bemoaning the ubiquity of screen reading is a waste of energy. Love reading in the bath? Get a waterproof device.

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