Digital Reading in the Classroom

Increasingly, we’re reading digitally– online, on phones, on tablets.  This includes the classroom, with things like Bring Your Own Device programs or digital textbooks rather than print.  Or even just researching on the computer rather than in the dusty stacks of a library.

But digital reading is not quite the same as reading in print.  Teachers– and students– should be aware of the differences.  After all, the first step to fixing a problem is recognizing it (or even the potential for the problem.)

First off, online readers tend to skim the page, hunting for key words, rather than reading linearly.  This is liable to mean they are missing information as they read.  There are also growing concerns that this type of reading is affecting in-dept processing.  This type of reading can transfer to other digital formats, especially if that digital reading includes internet access, where a world of distractedness is just a click a way.

Second, digital reading may have an affect on how much is retained.   Book readers tend to remember more from what they read the first time, with digital readers needing to reread (and this assumes that they are reading, and not, as above, skimming.)   As teachers, the issue of retention is at the core of much of what we do– you cannot scaffold learning if the previous information is not their to build upon.

Third,  using the internet is affecting our memory, in general.  When we know we have access to looking things up later, we’re less likely to work to remember them.  (Raise your hand if you work to memorize phone numbers, for example, instead of just programming them into your own cell phone contacts.)   Luckily, we’re getting better at remembering where we find things, which can help us find them again.  However, there is still the issue, I would argue, that we’re not taking the time to remember information.  Is it possible that this issue stretches beyond internet or smartphone access to use of general digital readings?

Clair laptopAnecdotally, I can report that one of my last papers for Grad School a few years back, I was reading through my print-outs from JSTOR, making annotations and notes as I had in for all those years of schooling.   As I’m flipping through the pages looking for that one line I wanted to use in my paper, a little voice in suggested I open the original PDF files and use the search tool.  It was a life-changing realization… but would it have been as effective if I hadn’t read the pages first with the intention of needing to and trying to remember?

There is a lot of information to process in the world.  Digital reading, including eTextbooks, offer great opportunities.  They do raise some concerns, but I like to think that being aware of the issues can help us work with them.

1.  Instead of skimming, readers should slow down and purposefully read with the intention of understanding, remembering, and questioning.  This, I think, should extend beyond school reading, but (nearly) all reading.  It may mean you can’t read everything (or it might cut into your time for Angry Birds/ Candy Crush/ SnapChats/ Facebook/ etc.)

2.  Readers should expect to return to the text to find information (or quotes).  Challenge them to take notes and/ or to NOT use the search function.  They might find a better quote, for example, as they skimmed through the text again to find the original one.

3.  Prioritize.  We’re not going to remember everything.  But some things need to get memory slots and focus– there are concepts in math and science, for example, that require prior knowledge to understand.  Phone numbers and appointments may be best left to our SmartPhones to keep track of for us.  Digital videos or interactive graphics in an eTextbook for science may be great, but perhaps an old fashioned print novel is better in English class sometimes.

In the end, I think there are great possibilities with digital reading, in the classroom and beyond.  Just use the tool wisely, aware of it’s benefits and it’s drawbacks.
CDickson Profile PicClair Dickson, high school English teacher, likes free eTexts and Project Based Learning to stretch her meager budget. Visit her store High School English on a Shoestring Budget to stretch your budget.
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