I am particularly interested in how we counter and mitigate some of the more negative aspects of the digital environment, in order to benefit from the more positive ones. In this post I wanted to focus on the act of reading itself in the digital environment.
Reading in print and online are clearly different, and Barbara’s chapter prompted me to explore this further. This blog article led me to this excellent meta-analysis (Delgado, Vargas, Ackerman and Salmerón, 2018), which found that there is significant evidence to suggest that reading comprehension is better for print texts than digital ones, especially when:
Under time constraints
Reading informational rather than narrative texts
(both likely conditions during inquiry).
Moreover, readers of digital texts (under time constraint) were more likely to be overconfident and predict that their understanding was better than it actually was. The ‘screen inferiority’ effect increased over the 18 years prior to the study, suggesting that children who have grown up in a digital environment are actually less likely to understand as well from digital texts as from print versions. Delgado, Vargas, Ackerman and Salmerón (2018, p.34) state that “If simply being exposed to digital technologies were enough to gain these skills, then we would expect an increasing advantage of digital reading, or at least decreasing screen inferiority over the years”, implying that digital reading skills need to be taught.
There are suggestions that the digital environment promotes a shallower engagement with texts (known as the Shallowing Hypothesis), which can spill over into engagement with print texts – and one article I read while thinking about this (which I now can’t find – can anyone help me with the evidence here?) suggested that the effects that reading digitally have on comprehension and concentration can spill over into our interactions with print texts. So someone who spends a lot of time reading on screens may then find it harder to concentrate for the length of a print book. Anecdotally this resonates because we see in our reading lessons how hard many children find it to concentrate on just sitting and reading a book for 40 minutes. Was this always the case? Has the digitally connected world they inhabit made it worse? (Or did I just not notice it when I was growing up because I and my friendship circle were readers?)
The study states that “[a]n encouraging finding from Lauterman and Ackerman (2014) and Sidi et al. (2017) is that simple methodologies (e.g., writing keywords summarizing the text, framing the task as central) that engage people in in-depth processing make it possible to eliminate screen inferiority, in terms of both performance and overconfidence, even under a limited time frame” (Delgado, Vargas, Ackerman and Salmerón, 2018, p.35), but cautions that “Lauterman and Ackerman (2014) found that methods to overcome screen inferiority are effective only for people who prefer digital reading, but not for those who prefer paper reading” (p.24). It also suggests that by reading in a digital environment students drop an average of 2/3 of a year of the average reading comprehension progress they would make at elementary school, which is fairly significant.
So what can we do?
The digital environment promotes broad shallow reading, and there are stages of inquiry that suit that. In some ways it is ideal for Connect (except that finding what you need online when you aren’t yet quite sure what you are looking for can be a challenge!). Perhaps an argument for a set of curated, linked online resources at the start of an inquiry that students can explore during the Connect stage. Particularly if it is a more open inquiry. Curiously we have tended to go in the other direction out of necessity. When resourcing mixed (print and digital) inquiries we have tended to use more general books as a starting point, and then allow students to explore online once they have a clearer idea of their topic. Largely because it can be difficult to find print resources that allow them to fully explore the questions that they generate.
Lauterman and Ackerman’s finding (above) that simple active note-taking methodologies make a real difference to comprehension is very encouraging, and makes it even more important to teach effective note-taking in a digital environment. It would be interesting to pursue whether it makes a difference whether these notes are handwritten or not. I would imagine that the Construct graphic organisers we use also help to promote comprehension and narrow the gap between print and digital reading in a similar way. The other interesting finding here is that this only works for those who prefer digital reading, making it important that students who prefer to read in print have access to a printer when working with digital resources. I certainly know some students in this category at IB DP level, who prefer to print articles they have found and keep them in a folder, rather than save them as PDFs or links. This can present its own citing and referencing issues if they do not make an appropriate note of the source and they need to be aware of this. I have suggested using the Annotated Bibliography on screen to keep track of their sources, and the Investigative Journal in print in this case. [Note that the flip side of the coin, beyond the scope of the study, is the impact of digital tools like Immersive Reader to support struggling readers and enable them to access information that might otherwise be beyond their reach.]
For some inquiries where we have curated a set of resources (print and/or online) in advance, it might be worth providing these as a print pack where possible and appropriate. We have done this in the past where computer rooms were not available or where we preferred to keep students in the classroom for some reason, but maybe there is an argument for this as a more deliberate strategy in some cases.
Perhaps encourage deeper reading by clearly distinguishing between ‘exploration’ time and ‘deep reading’ time, requiring students to nominate a small group of resources that they will stick to and read more deeply at a certain point, whether in print or on screen.
Making students aware of the research, so that it can inform their metacognitive reflections – especially given the ‘overconfidence’ finding. There could actually be a great inquiry topic on exploring the effects of reading online…
Make time and space for students to read print resources. Focusing on reading a book (fiction or non-fiction) for any length of time is a skill that needs to be practiced. Reading lessons do still matter at secondary level and we need to fight for them in our schools.
I would also suggest that the ability to search within texts on a digital environment gives students the ability to access information in texts that might otherwise prove too challenging for them (due to their length). This is a double-edged sword – particularly in the light of the decontextualization that Barbara discusses.
[I have been meaning to read Maryanne Woolf’s “Reader, come home: The reading brain in a digital world” for a while now, and this discussion has finally prompted me to take it out the library. Now I just need to tear myself away from screens for long enough to read it! 😊]
What do other people think? What do you do to mitigate the negative effects of the digital environment and promote the positive ones? Have you noticed any effects of the digital environment on your students?