Digital Reading: What You Need to Know About Screens, School, and the Changing Brain

Digital Reading: What You Need to Know About Screens, School, and the Changing Brain

It is clear that screens and software learning programs are here to stay, both in the classroom and in the private lives of students and teachers. A 2017 post on Tech Edvocate—a website devoted to all things connected to digital learning—outlines the many ways in which technology is having an impact on education, from the push for greater collaboration among students via online project sharing to the concept of the flipped classroom, wherein teachers can focus on problem-solving rather than textbook-based instruction. The post’s author, Matthew Lynch, further argued that educational technology has the potential to impart 21st-century skills such as critical thinking and digital literacy when teachers require students to analyze information in a complex way.

All of this sounds great, but how does reading instruction fit in? Before students can become adept critical thinkers, many educators would argue that they first need to acquire strong, foundational literacy skills. How, then, do teachers help students become proficient readers in the digital age?


Is online reading the same?

First, it may be a good idea to think about how just how different reading online can be in comparison to reading print materials. In a 2018 article written for the Kappan magazine, Maria Ferguson of George Washington University’s Center on Education Policy took on the topic of “preparing students’ reading brains for the digital age.” Drawing upon the work of Maryanne Wolf, a scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, Ferguson contended that online reading can lend itself to “skimming” at the expense of deeper engagement between reader and text.

Using brain science as a reference point, Wolf recently argued that the “neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing—a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.” In terms of how we read and how our brains adapt to the reading climate we are living in, Wolf stated that digital reading tends to ask less of us, and this is starting to show in how well students can grapple with more complex, print-based materials.

Why does this matter? It could amount to a new literacy problem, with students knowing how to read but not “with a level of critical analysis sufficient to comprehend the complexity of thought and argument found in more demanding texts, whether in literature and science in college, or in wills, contracts,” and so on. However, Ferguson noted that students are “constantly being reminded” that the jobs of the future will be built around technology, data, and the ability of employees to adapt and change quickly to new situations and new ways of solving problems—something that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to deep, thorough analyses of written documents or lengthy pieces of fiction.


Screens, school, and the changing brain

Ferguson is right to call attention to the tricky waters that teachers and schools may have to navigate here. After all, digital devices are everywhere, with some estimates stating that close to 100 percent of all young children now have access to either a tablet or a smartphone—a number that represents a significant jump from just a few years ago. Bottom line: Kids use screens... a lot. While Wolf and others have pointed out the dangers of this rapid shift toward technology, could the phenomenon also present an opportunity for teachers?

Derek Hess thinks so. A California-based educator who helps classroom teachers perfect their practice, Hess told San Francisco’s KQED public radio station in 2017 that teachers really can’t afford not to embrace digital reading and other forms of educational technology. In an interview for KQED’s MindShift program, Hess contended that “The world is almost forcing us to go there” and argued that “deep digital reading” is not only possible but a veritable survival skill in our information-saturated landscape. Students today “will grow up to be adult citizens interacting with digital texts as they move through their daily lives,” Hess said, so why not help them learn how to do so with aplomb?

Fragmentation and thoughtfulness

For Hess, the way to facilitate digital text navigation is to acknowledge that digital reading is indeed different than reading print materials—and to help students understand the difference. As Wolf and Hess both pointed out, online reading promotes more fragmented, less thoughtful interactions with words and ideas. With this in mind, Hess recommended asking students to slow down and engage more fully with what they are reading, as well as encouraging them to avoid “skipping around, writing short chats and getting lost down the rabbit hole of the internet.” According to Hess, the ultimate goal is to help students learn how to tackle complex texts, an undertaking for which the strategies used with traditional texts carry over well. These can include the following teacher-guided lessons:

  • Decoding, digitally. Hess advised asking students to highlight words they don’t know when reading through Google Docs as part of “basic decoding work” that can help students increase their vocabulary. From there, students can be asked to create their own headline for any portion of the online text as a way to slow down and apply analysis and critical thinking skills.

  • Employing interactive strategies. Use Google Docs to help students organize their thinking surrounding the main ideas of a text. More specifically, Hess suggested having students create outlines, share these with the teacher, and rework them as needed, which will provide both teacher and student with useful, real-time insight into the student’s reading comprehension skills.

  • Emphasizing critical reading. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) also offers specific tips for teachers who want to help their students become adept digital readers, and many of these echo Hess’s insights. According to the NCTE, helping students learn how to “locate reliable information and evaluate, synthesize, and communicate that information” is of the utmost importance.

With the proper level of guidance, students can learn to excel in and embrace the brave new world of digital reading. Although much of the advice presented above is aimed at teachers working with older students, the NCTE document also includes ways to help younger students learn good online reading and research habits.

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