In the Scientific American article, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper vs. Screens,” author Ferris Jabr explains how the brain works when it reads and why reading on paper might really be best for reading comprehension.
Online books, articles, etc. make it much harder for the reader to situate themselves within the text. Apparently, our brain wants to think of words on a page as something concrete and tangible, and we tend to remember where something is in text as if it were a location in a particular piece of terrain. Digital texts make this much more difficult. We’re a little less sure where we are in the overall whole, what the section distinctions are, and where this piece of information lies in relation to another. This uncertainty subtly drains our “reading energy,” if you will, giving us a little less time and space to comprehend. And our understanding suffers as a result.
So what’s a teacher to do? Digital texts are inevitable. I’d be surprised if you told me you printed this blog post out, for example. It’s especially difficult when you think about nonfiction, which really requires a reader to be situated within a chapter, section, or particular text structure. And I’d be willing to bet that a lot of the digital reading we do is non-fiction. Of course, we can try to use paper whenever possible. But it’s not always feasible. I think we need to be transparent with kids, and tell them that they need to be prepared to spend more time when they’re reading online. While it might seem faster or easier, that’s not necessarily the case. And it’s particularly important to help them situate themselves within that text. Kids always need to ask themselves questions about structure, but it’s even more important when reading online. They should ask:
How is this structured? What are the visual cues? Is there a table of contents? Section divisions?
What’s the organizing text structure?
Where does what I’m reading now fit into the larger whole?
Digital texts are here to stay. We need to help students navigate within them, even as we wait for publishers to catch up, and figure out intuitive organizational features that work in the digital world.