Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Reading in a Digital Age

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Reading in a Digital Age

Article excerpt

Even millennials acknowledge that whether you read on paper or a digital screen affects your attention on words and the ideas behind them. What are the implications for how we teach?

The digital revolution has done much to reshape how students read, write, and access information in school. Once-handwritten essays are now word-processed. Encyclopedias have yielded to online searches. One-size-fits-all teaching is tilting toward personalized learning. And a growing number of assignments ask students to read on digital screens rather than in print.

Yet how much do we actually know about the educational implications of this emphasis on using digital media? In particular, when it comes to reading, do digital screens make it easier or harder for students to pay careful attention to words and the ideas behind them, or is there no difference from print?

Over the past decade, researchers in various countries have been comparing how much readers comprehend and remember when they read in each medium. In nearly all cases, there was essentially no difference between the testing scenarios. (See Baron, Calixte, & Havewala, 2017 for a review.) However, such findings need to be taken with a grain of salt. These studies have typically focused on captive research subjects, mostly college students who commonly are paid to participate in an experiment or who participate to fill a course requirement. Ask them to read passages and then answer SAT-style comprehension questions, and they tend to do so reasonably carefully, whether they read on a screen or on paper. Under those conditions, it's not surprising that their performance would be consistent across platforms.

But the devil may be in the details. When researchers have altered the testing conditions or the types of questions they ask, discrepancies have appeared, suggesting that the medium does, in fact, matter. For example, Ackerman and Goldsmith (2011) observed that when participants could choose how much time to spend on digital versus print reading, they devoted less to reading onscreen and had lower comprehension scores. Schugar and colleagues (2011) found that participants reported using fewer study strategies (such as highlighting, note-taking, or bookmarking) when reading digitally. Kaufman and Flanagan (2016) noted that when reading in print, study participants did better answering abstract questions that required inferential reasoning; by contrast, participants scored better reading digitally when answering concrete questions. Researchers at the University of Reading (Dyson & Haselgrove, 2000) observed that reading comprehension declined when students were scrolling as they read, rather than focusing on stationary chunks of text.

What about research with younger children? Schugar and Schugar found that students in middle grades comprehended more when reading print than when using e-books on an iPad (Paul, 2014)--interactive features of the digital platform apparently distracted readers from the textual content. However, the same researchers observed that among K-6 readers, e-books generated a higher level of engagement (Schugar, Smith, & Schugar, 2013). Working with high school students in Norway, Anne Mangen and her colleagues (2013) concluded that print yielded better comprehension scores. Mangen argues that print makes it easier for students to create cognitive maps of the entire passage they are reading.

For educators, though, the real question is not how students perform in experiments. More important is what they do when reading on their own: Do they take as much time reading in both media? Do they read as carefully? In short, in their everyday lives, how much and what sort of attention do they pay to what they are reading?

Questions about reading in a digital age

History is strewn with examples of people worrying that new technologies will undermine older skills. In the late 5th century BC, when the spread of writing was challenging an earlier oral tradition, Plato expressed concern (in the Phaedrus) that "trust in writing . …

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