Reading & Literacy

Digital Reading Poses Learning Challenges for Students

By Benjamin Herold — May 06, 2014 8 min read
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Comprehension may suffer when students read on the digital devices now flooding into classrooms, an emerging body of research suggests.

In response, some academics, educators, and technology vendors are pushing to minimize the distracting bells and whistles that abound in high-tech instructional materials. They’re also trying to figure out how best to help students transfer tried-and-true print reading strategies into new digital learning environments.

“We have to move into the 21st century, but we should do so with great care to build a ‘bi-literate’ brain that has the circuitry for ‘deep reading’ skills, and at the same time is adept with technology,” said Maryanne Wolf, the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Schools have experienced a huge influx of digital learning tools in recent years, with nearly 1 in 3 public and private school students in the United States now using a school-issued mobile computing device, such as a laptop or digital tablet, according to a recent survey from Project Tomorrow, an Irvine, Calif.-based nonprofit group.

Over the same time period, all but a handful of states have adopted common academic standards that call upon students to master increasingly complex texts.

The convergence of those trends has helped spark renewed interest in decades of study of the merits of reading on a screen versus in print.

Researchers now say that while many digital texts do a good job of motivating and engaging young people, such texts also pose a number of problems.

When reading on screens, for example, people seem to reflexively skim the surface of texts in search of specific information, rather than dive in deeply in order to draw inferences, construct complex arguments, or make connections to their own experiences. Research has also found that students, when reading digitally, tend to discard familiar print-based strategies for boosting comprehension.

And many of the multimedia elements, animations, and interactive features found in e-books appear to function primarily as amusing distractions.

Rather than resist the new technologies, though, some educators are trying to make sure students get the best of both worlds. And they’re beginning to get help from ed-tech products such as Actively Learn, Curriculet, and Subtext.

“We are very intentional about how [our] user interface operates,” said Jason Singer, the CEO of Curriculet, an 18-month-old San Francisco-based startup that has already signed up more than 100,000 students and teachers for its free digital reading platform. “Our approach helps struggling or reluctant readers revisit or reread the text, or note that important moment to stop, take a breath, and read more deeply.”

Digital Reading Tension

Christopher Hitt, 14, is the picture of a “reluctant reader.”

“I never read. Only when I have to. I think it’s really boring,” said Mr. Hitt, a 9th grader in the 3,000-student Southern Regional school system in Manahawkin, N.J.

When given an assignment, he said, he prefers reading on a digital device to reading a print book.

But Mr. Hitt is also quick to acknowledge a big problem: “I understand better when [text] is on paper, because it’s all right there, and it’s not skipping ahead and back all the time.”

Hobson Selfridge, 15, reads an assignment during an English class at Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin, N.J. The school is putting strategies in place to improve students' reading comprehension on digital devices.

That tension—between digital reading’s tendency to foster increased engagement, but discourage deeper comprehension—is presenting a massive new challenge for schools, said Andrew Dillon, the dean of the school of information at the University of Texas at Austin.

“There’s been this huge push from tech companies to get their stuff into classrooms, but that’s purely a commercial venture,” Mr. Dillon said. “There are real consequences for the types of serious reading people can do in those [digital] environments.”

Researchers have documented students’ struggles with comprehension when reading Internet-based texts on computers, although the literature on how reading e-books on computers is inconclusive.

And while similar research on mobile devices is just emerging, there are worrisome signs: A study last year by Heather R. and Jordan T. Schugar, a wife-and-husband research team at Westchester University of Pennsylvania, found that a small sample of students comprehended traditional books at “a much higher level” than they comprehended the same material when read on an iPad.

A 2012 study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, a New York City-based research organization for children’s digital media, found that 3- to 6-year-old children who “co-read” high-tech e-books with their parents “recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story.”

As a result, some observers fear that mobile devices, especially digital tablets as they are now being used in the classroom, are not supporting the kinds of extended, rich interactions with text called for in the Common Core State Standards.

“People think of technology as the solution, but it’s often the cause of the problem,” Mr. Dillon said. “It’s not the end of reading, but it is the diminution or simplification of reading.”

Necessary Adaptation

For Katherine A. Baker, who’s been teaching freshman English at Southern Regional High School in New Jersey for 15 years, the question is not whether print or digital media better support students’ comprehension, but the best ways to help students like Mr. Hitt learn to read deeply in both environments.

“We live in two worlds now,” she said. “We have to adapt.”

During a recent eight-week unit, Mr. Hitt and his classmates read print copies of The Odyssey, the epic poem from ancient Greece. Then, they read about 20 supplemental texts—including other poems, informational texts, and contemporary first-person essays exploring similar themes—using a combination of paper handouts, a classroom set of Chromebooks, and their own smartphones.

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On paper, the students were expected to take notes, highlight, and make annotations—all techniques that researchers say help drive comprehension.

On their devices, the students used Curriculet, a free browser-based digital tool that seeks to encourage similar close-reading strategies.

Ms. Baker said she learned about Curriculet while reading an article waiting in line at the grocery store.

“I was so excited I almost dropped my phone,” said the teacher, who has since done paid consulting work developing content for the company.

Now, Ms. Baker said, she can offer her students 10 times as many texts as before, without generating prohibitive costs for her school or a mountain of paperwork for herself.

More importantly, she said, Curriculet provides easy opportunities to “scaffold” students’ reading experiences by letting teachers embed annotations, multimedia, “checkpoint” questions, and formal assessments that can prompt students to consider key points, offer alternative ways of interacting with the text (an audio reading of a poem, for example), and probe for understanding.

Peer-reviewed research into the impact of such recently developed digital add-ons on reading comprehension is, for the time being, limited.

Mr. Dillon, from the University of Texas, said digital materials appear superior to printed texts at promoting understanding of complex processes and interactions that occur over time—cell division, for example—thanks to their interactive and multimedia capabilities.

But the extent to which the benefits of digital features such as hyperlinked text or embedded videos outweigh the disruptions to reading flow appears to depend greatly on the degree to which such materials genuinely complement the core text, are presented in intuitive ways that readers can easily follow, and mesh with individual readers’ preferences and styles.

“Some of the best e-books don’t have a whole lot going on in them,” said Ms. Schugar, the West Chester University researcher. “Consumers are often looking for something with a lot of pizazz, but that is not necessarily going to support deeper reading.”

Meaningful Interruptions

Mr. Singer, Curriculet’s CEO, said his company’s platform seeks to avoid many of the distractions that researchers decry.

Unlike many of the new digital curricular materials being released by major publishers, Mr. Singer said, individual “curriculets” are all adaptable by teachers, and the platform allows teachers to control what is embedded into a text, ostensibly helping to limit “whiz-bang” features and ensure that the focus is on reinforcing student understanding of the text.

“We’re not big on gamifying the reading experience,” Mr. Singer said. “Reading flow should only be interrupted if the interruption is meaningful and relevant.”

But for Mr. Hitt, the New Jersey 9th grader, that ideal is not yet reality.

During a recent English class, Ms. Baker assigned her students 20 minutes of independent reading on Curriculet. Mr. Hitt read through a nonfiction article about researchers’ efforts to use archaeology and astronomy to determine if the events described in The Odyssey had actually occurred, as well as the exact date of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca.

The teenager took a meandering path through the text and the extras his teacher had embedded: notes with explanations of difficult language, a YouTube video about solar eclipses, periodic comprehension questions, and more.

“Some of this stuff, it distracts me off the main topic,” he said.

Like Quicksand

Nevertheless, Ms. Schugar, the researcher, said she is encouraged by the potential of Curriculet and a handful of other similar ed-tech products now on the market that seek to support and extend readers’ engagement with the text.

And for his part, Mr. Singer, a former classroom teacher who helped found two Bay Area charter schools,said concerns about obstacles to “deep reading” in digital environments miss the nature of the problems encountered by many students.

“Reading for the nonbibliophile is not a bucolic intellectual romp,” he said. “For struggling and reluctant readers, it feels progressively more and more like quicksand.”

For those students, Mr. Singer argued, tools like Curriculet provide support at the moment it’s needed, offer encouragement and accountability for persisting through a text, and provide immediate feedback on whether students “get it.”

While acknowledging the promise of the new digital technologies, researchers say the limited knowledge of how digital reading affects comprehension should warrant a cautious approach.

“Some of our best thought will go into how the [digital] medium can address its own weaknesses,” said Ms. Wolf, from Tufts University.

But for now, she said, “good common sense tells us that we want to preserve the best of what we know from print as we acquire these new skills.”

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 07, 2014 edition of Education Week as Screen Reading Poses Learning Challenges

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