Classroom Technology

Researchers Voice Concern Over E-Books’ Effect on Reading Comprehension

By Benjamin Herold — April 04, 2014 2 min read
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Digital devices and online reading materials are flooding U.S. schools, but there are some early reasons to worry whether they are helping children better learn to read.

That was the message from a husband-and-wife research team from West Chester University who presented two studies here as part of the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association.

The first study 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, said Heather Schugar, an assistant education professor at the university, located in southeastern Pennsylvania.

And the second study found that while students in 18 classrooms were “highly motivated by their interactions” with interactive e-books created using Apple’s iBooks Author software, they “often skipped over text, where the meat of the information was.”

The findings, presented as part of a panel on “Understanding Digital Literacy Practices,” are part of a just-emerging body of new research on how students interact with and learn from the digital tablets and computers that are now prevalent in U.S. classrooms.

The early data raise some concerns and should prompt educators, policymakers, and publishers to reconsider assumptions that the skills students use to read print materials automatically transfer to the reading of digital materials, the researchers said. But they should not be taken as a definitive indictment of iPad- or tablet-based literacy instruction in general, they stressed.

“It’s not necessarily that e-books are bad for reading,” Ms. Schugar said in an interview. “But teachers need more strategies for teaching kids to use what they know about reading in an e-book environment.”

In the iPad study, the researchers worked with 13 “struggling” middle-grades students—a very small sample from which it is impossible to draw wide conclusions.

Some of the students read print versions of four commonly used books, and the others read digital versions.

While accuracy and fluency levels were about the same, comprehension dipped noticeably for those students reading on iPads.

“Distracting” interactions that diverted focus from the text without communicating any additional meaning or offering learning scaffolds were likely a big factor, said Jordan Schugar, an instructor at West Chester University.

“A lot of people doing publishing don’t really understand the reading process,” he said, and improving student reading is partly about “what publishers can do to make their materials less game-y and more functional, with more cognitive elements and less gimmicky stuff.”

On the positive side of the ledger, the researchers said, student engagement with, and motivation for, the digital materials sharply outpaced that for traditional print books.

Other researchers on the panel found similar tensions between engagement and outcomes.

University of Minnesota doctoral candidate Madeleine Israelson, for example, found that early-grades teachers were highly motivated to use ed-tech and classroom apps to teach literacy, but were primarily “using technology to support students’ traditional print-based literacies, not to foster students’ development of new literacy skills and strategies.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.