10 March 2012

Read All About It, Part I: Is Digital Text Different?

I've always loved to read...and I have to admit that even if a lot of my writing occurs online, I am still an offline print aficionado. I still enjoy reading and collecting "analog" books. I look forward to the arrival of magazines I subscribe to. But, I also have a small digital book collection for reading on my phone, netbook, or tablet when I travel. I have lots of RSS subscriptions and do almost all of my news reading online. As an adult...and as a reader with good skills...I make choices about format based on my purpose for reading.

But what if you're a student learning to read? Does it make a difference if the material is in print or digital format?

I've long suspected that the push to digital texts was going to coming with some baggage about how we teach reading. Reading print is not the same as reading online...or so most adults will tell you, even if they can't tell you how it's different. After all, the basic mechanics of reading are the same. But there is something about the experience of being online that is not like the other. With the advent of Common Core State Standards (and their inclusion of digital texts and multimedia) and the increase of mobile devices (tablets, kindles, phones...), I've finally been poking around in the ed research to answer my questions and concerns: Is reading online really different...or am I just projecting my own experience? If digital text is not like print, how is it different...and what does that mean for teaching and learning?

First of all, I'm finding that this is not (currently) a robust branch of reading research. I do wonder if some of that is just the length of time it takes for peer-reviewed research to happen. With IRB approvals (we're talking young human subjects here), the journal submission and review process, and so forth, we're not talking quick turnaround times for research with devices that change every year. This makes me want to sneak into an International Reading Assn conference and see what people are talking about, but not printing. But beyond that, there isn't much in the trade journals. Even ASCD has an entire issue devoted to reading this month---and not a single article examines what is needed in an online environment or how to support kids learning to read and use digital text. However, we shouldn't interpret this lack of attention as meaning that there is no difference between analog and print; because the ed research that is available supplies a big fat "Yes, it is." to the question of whether reading a digital text is different for students.

For example, when you read a print item, your path is pretty linear. If you're reading a narrative piece, you read until you run out of words, then turn the page. With informational text, you might have more options. Authors will use text features (bold, italics, headings) to cue you about the organization of the text, important points, or graphics you should review. I used to always tell my students to remember that they were in control of their reading. Just because the author had "See Figure 2.1" in the middle of the sentence didn't mean that they had to stop and look at the figure at that time. Tell the text, "You're not the boss of me." and choose what makes sense for you.

For digital texts, this concept of the reader being in control is even more important. Digital texts---even narratives---are not linear. The reader can click on hyperlinks to take them to a dictionary or a related page/text/graphic. Visuals have a much bigger role in all digital texts. The research describes this collection of pieces as an "external text" that the reader builds while s/he reads. The path every person takes through a text---what they click on, which order they look at information---is different. In essence, each person will have their own experience with the text...their own version to work from and create as they read.

What does this mean for students? It depends. In the absence of specific instruction about digital texts, all of the possible outcomes have been seen. Some good readers of analog texts have a smooth transition to digital sources, but some do worse. Some struggling readers have better comprehension using digital text (even better than good analog readers), but some do poorly with both formats. In general, ELL students do not do well with digital texts, because the close-reading strategies we teach them don't work well in an online environment to create an external text.

Are there other differences between analog and digital text that challenge students? And can we adapt our teaching strategies to help students make the most of digital texts? Stay tuned for the next post on the skills required for digital texts. In the final post, we'll put together the "So what?" of using and teaching with digital texts.


Hugh O'Donnell said...

Outstanding post, SG. Our reading habits are similar and your observations and questions about analog and digital reading have given form to some of my vague "feelings."

You've taken us to the trail-head. I'm eager to see where we're going.

Tim Erickson said...

Great observations! Here's something I wonder about electronic text: because you're so in control, and can click on hyperlinks, how big is the danger of losing the thread of the original narrative? How many times have we clicked on a link in some post or story and never gotten back to it? How often does that happen for kids?

Is this the fault of the text? A problem with technology? An indicator for a 21st-century reading skill?

The Science Goddess said...

I haven't seen any research (yet) about how often something like this happens. Most of the research has centered on trying to track why readers make the choices they do and the bigger impact on comprehension.

My hunch is that we will develop a new suite of reading strategies to use with online texts---ways to help kids track where they've been and the overall sense they're making from the various clicks and pathways. Looking for a dissertation topic? :)