‘Reading deeply’ not as easy on electronic devices

December 8, 2014 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

Students have greater access to reading materials as electronic devices are incorporated into classroom learning, but some educators question how well students comprehend when reading in a digital format. The question is, can students actually “go deep” with digital reading?

“Deep reading” is a concept frequently connected to Common Core Learning Standards. It’s slow reading, a process in which the reader critically thinks about, reflects on and understands the words they are reading. If necessary, a reader slows down, or even stops reading and rereads a page, paragraph or sentence until they absorb just what the author is trying to say.

Research by a husband-and-wife team at West Chester University, Pennsylvania, revealed that while students appeared to like the e-book experience, they “often skipped over text, where the meat of the information was.” Jordan Schugar and Heather Ruetschlin Schugar looked at 18 middle school classrooms, and also conducted a smaller study in which they found that elementary students understood text at “a much higher level” when reading from traditional books versus an iPad.

Despite the findings, the researchers don’t suggest that e-books are bad. Instead, they contend that educators will need to teach new reading strategies to help students get the most out of digital reading.

“Reading comprehension research with multi-touch devices is still in its infancy and students will need to adapt new reading strategies in order to maximize their learning in this environment,” according to the pair.

Some of those strategies will likely include helping students learn to use what’s available to them through technology. For example, one innovative way devices allow students to interact with text is by giving them the ability to annotate within the text of an interactive e-book. In essence, they can “write all over” their books in ways they are not allowed to do with traditional print books, which are typically used beyond a single year.

Additional research is needed to determine how and if students can effectively use the annotation features of e-books. But as technology improves, annotation may become second nature for students.

Interviewed as part of a recent New Yorker article, Being a Better Online Reader, Maryann Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid, a history of reading, says she is optimistic students can learn to navigate online reading as deeply as they do print text. Wolf is currently creating digital apps to train students in the tools of deep reading.

Says Wolf in the New Yorker article: “The same plasticity that allows us to form a reading circuit to begin with, and short-circuit the development of deep reading if we allow it, allows us to learn how to duplicate deep reading in a new environment. We cannot go backwards. As children move more toward an immersion in digital media, we have to figure out ways to read deeply there.”


  • In a MindShift story, Can Students ‘Go Deep’ With Digital Reading? a California reading specialist, Mark Pennington, says the trick to being a good reader is being an engaged reader – no matter the medium. “It’s pretty clear that good readers are active readers engaged with the text.”
  • The New Yorker article, Being a Better Online Reader, by Maria Konnikova, provides interesting perspective on digital reading.

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