Reading Comprehension, Electronic Texts, and the Digital Divide

What is the nature of literacy in the digital age? For those of us interested in new literacy studies and new literacies, that question is all you need to spark an action-packed evening conversation (or a semester graduate course for that matter). For this reason, I was delighted to see John Jones’s recent article on the DML Central web site (See “How Does Electronic Reading Affect Comprehension?”) and his announcement of a forthcoming article that will further explore this subject. The DML Hub is a high-traffic site that garners visits from plenty of practitioners, so placing the conversation on this site engages people who want to think about the practical implications for teaching and learning.  Jones summarizes and critiques a paper by Ferris Jabr in Scientific American, where Jabr compares reading comprehension on paper and on screen.  As reported by Jones, Jabr argues that paper text continues to have more affordances when it comes to reading comprehension.

It is a worthwhile conversation as we think about the use of text in learning environments, and Jones does a fine job drawing our attention to the limitations of Jabr’s claim. While comparing comprehension of text in paper versus a screen may be a helpful starting point, it seems too simple to talk about two mediums when there are dozens, even hundreds.  A medium is simply a “channel of communication,” and while some speak of the Internet, electronic text or “the screen” as a single medium, that is doing so in the broadest sense.  When it comes to thinking about reading comprehension, it strikes me as important to consider the different ways in which a reader might encounter and experience an electronic text (on a laptop; cell phone; a dual monitor setup; backlit tablet; a non-backlit tablet; as well as different ebook formats that bring with them distinct features like note-taking tools, different forms of pagination, definitions of words by hovering over them, search term features; as well as the ability to change things like background color, lighting, font type and size, and column width).

As I read the Jones article, my mind wandered to a separate but related topic (Aha! Proof of the distractibility of text on a screen!).  What if reading comprehension is slightly worse when reading on a screen versus paper?  What are the implications for learning environments?  Does that mean that I should print everything before reading it?  Does it mean that we should be sure to use more traditional paper texts in class and slow down on the heavy use of 1:1 classrooms?  Or, maybe it means that we should discourage teachers, administrators, students and people in the workplace from reading so much text on the screen.  If they care about comprehension, shouldn’t they get a paper version?

Of course, this is a bit of a straw man.  Few are arguing against the importance of exposing learners to text in different mediums. And yet, I suspect that my meandering thoughts are more informed by my interest in self-directed and project-based learning environments where it is not the teacher who selects most of the texts and text mediums for learners.  In a project, one does not choose the text medium simply because one medium is more likely to result in better reading comprehension.  The student/researcher chooses the texts that are most relevant to the inquiry, regardless of the medium. With the growing collection of digital resources, students have greater access to high-quality texts related to personal projects and inquiries than they do to equal paper texts.  While research on reading comprehension across mediums makes a good and important contribution to the field of education, my caution is about how we seek to apply knowledge about that research to the design of learning environments and experiences.

From an implications standpoint, the results of studies about comprehension of digital texts, while important, do not change the need to prepare people to negotiate meaning, navigate narratives, and experience connected learning in an increasingly blended and multi-modal world. This is especially true in more student-centered learning environments. In other words, even if we find studies that show a slightly higher comprehension in paper texts, that does not change the need to engage in new types of literacies. This is not a simple analysis that we use to decide whether to use a book or a laptop.  Context matters, and people who are unable to engage in literacy across modalities are at a significant disadvantage today, even to the point of having limited participation in a democratic society.  Much of the public discourse of our age takes place on a screen.  What happens when one struggles to negotiate meaning in that context?  That person is left out of the discourse and potentially placed on the sidelines, distanced from the action.

This is a growing understanding of what some of us mean when we talk about the digital divide.  In the 1990s and early 2000s, that term was mostly used to describe people who lacked access to the hardware and the Internet, but today the digital divide conversation is far more focused upon those who have access to the devices, but lack the experience or confidence to use them to read, write and learn in the mediums of our day. As a result, our challenge is not only to understand how reading comprehension differs from paper to screen, but it is also about how to increase reading comprehension across mediums.


Posted in blog, ebook, education, new literacies

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.