Sunday, March 26, 2017

Strategies for digital reading

CC0 Public domain by Tranmautritam on Pexels
Many people are concerned about the effect digital devices are having on our reading ability, in particular our ability to read deeply and focus on longer and more complex texts. The most common issue is that when we read digital texts we are usually online and thus vulnerable to the sirens' call of social media. Digital reading has certainly helped to improve certain reading skills such as skimming, browsing and checking links and references but when you need to concentrate and read deeply then print has a clear advantage. Reading a text on an online device could be compared to reading a book in the living room where the rest of the family are watching TV, playing, chatting and generally trying to attract your attention. However if we eliminate the distractions is there any difference in reading a longer text in print or on a tablet or laptop?

We read both print and digital texts every day and I don't see that changing any time soon. Instead of arguing about which one is better we need to focus on developing students' reading skills in both environments, recognising that the digital environment is different and demands special attention. This issue is discussed in an excellent blog post by Michael Larkin, To Read Well on Screens, Change Your Mindset. There are a number of factors that affect how we read digital texts: type of device, online or offline, screen resolution and back-lighting as well as the type of text being read. This means it's hard to make direct comparisons between digital and print reading because it all depends on the digital context. However, the key to effective reading in any medium is your ability to minimise the number of distractions.

Teaching our students (and, again, ourselves) how to be better self-regulators is crucial to our success as screen readers—especially when we’re online.

Maybe we find it hard to concentrate on a digital text because we normally use the device for entertainment and social contacts. You associate your tablet with social media and expect to be pleasantly distracted almost constantly. Reading a scientific article on the same device, even if you close the wifi connection, is therefore a challenge because we've been programmed to expect distractions. We need to learn to become more conscious of our digital reading and develop strategies for tackling longer texts. This demands concentration and self-discipline.

Help students to cultivate a screen reading mindset that they’ve got to bring effort, and effort of particular types, to be able to read successfully on digital devices. Perhaps most prominent among these practices is that they need to reduce distractions as much as possible and resist the medium’s associations with speed, efficiency, TL;DR [Too Long Didn't Read], and entertainment.

Larkin recommends teachers to create digital reading activities that help students become more aware of their powers of concentration, or lack of them. They need to learn how to read from beginning to end and resist the temptation to skim and jump around in the text; in short, learn how to slow down. These self-awareness activities can of course also be applied to print reading since many people lack strategies for reading any type of longer and more complex text.

However, we also need to bear in mind all the advantages the digital text has over its print counterpart, in particular the support available to people with reading difficulties and sight impairment. Digital texts can be magnified, vocabulary can be checked and translated and there are many text to voice applications. Digital texts are accessible in a way that print can never be but this massive advantage is seldom raised in the media stories of the dangers of digital reading.

An article on Mind/ShiftStrategies to Help Students ‘Go Deep’ When Reading Digitally, offers practical teaching strategies for helping students read digital texts more deeply. The article highlights the use of Google Drive to teach students how to take notes, highlight and summarize. A longer text can easily be copied to a Google document and then the students work in pairs of groups to highlight important points in the text, summarize sections, identify new vocabulary and comment on colleagues' notes. In this way they collaborate in making sense of a complex text and develop strategies for their own deeper reading.

Reading digital texts is a skill we all need to learn but the most important strategy for effective reading in any environment is eliminating the potential distractions. Just as we try to find a quiet room to read a printed novel we also need to find a quiet digital space to read. Once the distractions are minimised it's just you and the text and I'm not sure there is such a great difference then between print and digital, even if we have our own personal preferences.


  1. Thank you! This will be very helpful when we make the students work in groups when reading scientific articles!

  2. I find it easier to keep my attention while hearing a text rather than reading it digitally.
    As with podcasts it is easy to get back 15 or 30 secs when you temporary loose your concentration.
    Maybe we will see good text narraators as well as translators for our mobile devices in times to come.