This post was specially written for MarkWeaklandLiteracy.com
By: Reina Janice
In recent years, digital technologies have occupied a huge space in education. For example, our post on using ‘The Slide Show to Build Language Comprehension’ talks about how a modern slideshow can convey so much information in an engaging way. Compared to previous decades, where available images could be limited or outdated, slideshows are a tool to add new words and their corresponding meanings to a child’s mental lexicon.
Based on Maryville University’s description of American education, digital innovations are also rapidly transforming the way we approach learning. Around 21.1% of public schools offer at least one purely online course, while 90% of teachers believe that classroom technology is important to student success. However, 60% of teachers also report that they are “inadequately prepared to use technology in classrooms.” Many instructors need to keep up with shifts like swapping textbooks for tablets to effectively prepare students for a high-tech future.
One area of concern, in particular, is whether or not reading in a digital format affects comprehension. Reading is not a natural skill, and it takes real work for us to master it. Unlike learning to talk, which we absorb by listening to others, the brain doesn’t have a special network of cells exclusive for reading. Instead, it borrows networks that evolved to do other tasks. For example, brain circuitry that evolved to recognize faces is used in reading to recognize letters. This flexibility is beneficial, but it can be a problem when reading different types of texts. When we read online, we use a different set of cellular connections from the ones we use to read in print.
In this article, we’ll look at how reading in digital formats can affect comprehension and how to help students read across mediums.
Reading a screen makes us faster readers – but not in a good way
Reading on a screen often involves skimming, scrolling, browsing, and scanning. There is a sheer volume of content available online, which invites us to read quickly without going in-depth. As the University of Washington’s study on social media points out, we often enter a dissociative state when we scroll online and stop paying attention to what we’re doing, so sometimes we don’t even remember what we read on our phones. We’ve also gotten used to short reads like text messages or Tweets that don’t require much effort to understand. Living in a fast-paced digital world can change younger students’ brain plasticity and influence their ability to improve in comprehension, since the environment rewards shorter attention spans — even if we’re not absorbing ideas well.
Digital reading can lead to shallow processing
A research on smartphone reading published in Scientific Reports discovered that reading on a smartphone can promote brain overactivity in the prefrontal cortex, leading to poor narrative content comprehension and lower cognitive performance. It’s possible that the amount of digital stimuli — ads, updates, emails, texts — places a heavier visual load on our brains. In comparison, reading in print is less visually demanding. There are spatial and tactile cues that help us process the words on the page. For example, while reading in a digital format, readers can only navigate through text left to right and up and down. But a physical book gives spatial cues in three dimensions: left-right, up-down and forward and backward, across pages and entire chapters. Digital reading is also less likely to foster habits like reflection and note-taking, and a gap in these habits can limit overall comprehension.
Some training is needed to read digital text effectively
Researchers at the Complutense University of Madrid note that when eBook materials are properly selected and used, young children can develop literacy skills equally well and sometimes better than with print books. eBooks are more accessible, after all. Those with reading disabilities can adjust the font size, background color, and typeface for ease. And you can highlight the text, take notes, or visit links to additional resources. It just takes some training to better engage with digital text. For younger readers, they can try to summarize what they’ve read orally, while older children can reflect through writing. The key is to be mindful and strategic when interacting with whatever we read.
Specially written for MarkWeaklandLiteracy.com
By: Reina Janice
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I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.