Offered below is an annotated bibliography of articles, studies, surveys, and blog posts centered in various ways on the question of how people engage with digital texts (often in comparison to printed texts). This is but a small fraction of what has been written about the issue. We encourage you to peruse the list, explore further those that interest you (a good number of them are available online), and offer any suggestions for additions to the list as well.
Ackerman, R., & Goldsmith, M. “Metacognitive regulation of text learning: On screen versus on paper.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 17:1 (2011), 18-32. Web.
This study of Israeli college students yielded interesting results. Researchers conducted two experiments where they tested student learning of two short texts: one printed and one a Microsoft Word file on a computer screen.
In the first experiment, students took multiple-choice tests about the printed and on-screen texts, respectively, after being given a fixed amount of time to study. In the second experiment, students were tested after self-regulating their study time. In the experiment with a fixed study time, students performed about the same in their reading comprehension of the two types of texts. However, in the second experiment where the students decided for themselves how long to study, the students performed much better on the test connected to reading on paper than they did on the test of their on-screen reading. Interestingly, the students in the study also greatly overestimated how well they were likely to do on the screen reading tests; their predictions of performance on the paper text tests were closer to the mark.
While acknowledging that more study is needed, Ackerman and Goldsmith suggest that these results potentially point less to differences in the two media used for reading than they do to the metacognitive processes being employed by the students. In short, if readers perceive that screen reading can be employed for “effortful learning” in much the same way as they tend to perceive reading in print, then they may be able to self-regulate their reading as effectively on screen as they do on paper, at least so far as simple text (as opposed to hypertext) reading is concerned.
Ballentine, Brian. “Fighting for Attention: Making Space for Deep Learning.” The New Digital Scholar: Exploring and Enriching the Research and Writing Practices of NEXTGEN STUDENTS.” Eds. Randall McClure and James P. Purdy. Medford, New Jersey: Information Today, 2013. Print.
In this chapter, Ballentine turns his attention to the “fight on [educators’] hands” to “reclaim deep learning in digital environments,” specifically in teaching research practices to undergraduates. After providing an overview of some of the contrasting research into attention and the brain’s response to text by Carr and Hayles (among others), Ballentine offers suggestions for productively revamping instruction in digital research methods. He suggests directly discussing the effects of Internet technologies with students, actively employing digital tools beyond the web search (Ballentine gives the example of Zotero), and allowing students to “customiz[e]…[their] research-writing space” to enrich their research and increase engagement, particularly in helping students to critically examine how technologies help or impede them in making their own arguments rather than in restating the arguments of their sources.
Baron, Naomi S. “Reading in Print or Onscreen: Better, Worse, or About the Same?” in Discourse 2.0—Language and New Media. Eds. Deborah Tannen and Anna Marie Trester. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2013. 201-224. Print.
Baron addresses the central question posed in her article’s title (perhaps the most lucidly titled academic article ever) with, first, some historical context on the development of print culture and a brief review of some of the debates over technology’s effects on reading and writing, and then by providing the results of her Fall 2010 survey of 82 undergraduates, who were asked questions about their attitudes towards reading in print versus onscreen.
Among other findings, Baron notes that the students surveyed felt that when they read in print, they read more carefully and remembered more; they were better able to annotate; and they multitasked less. Although students appreciated the lower cost, easier access, and convenience of onscreen readings, including the ability to more easily find particular words and phrases, “[R]eading in hard copy was clearly perceived as having better cognitive or pedagogical outcomes than reading onscreen….78% of the subjects specifically addressed the cognitive and pedagogical benefits as what the ‘liked most’ about reading in hard copy. At the same time, 91% spontaneously mentioned the cognitive and pedagogical drawbacks as what they ‘liked least’ about reading onscreen.”
Baron, Naomi. Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. Print.
This book is an impressive effort to get after the first of the two questions that are the focus of these web pages: what do we know about digital reading? (Or, as Baron more expansively terms it, screen reading.) Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University, considers the question in an objective way, not arguing for either print or screen reading as being better (even if she loves reading in print) but simply asking how they are different. If you’re wondering that too, this book is a great place to start.
She draws on numerous studies, including her own, of reading behaviors and of readers’ attitudes, which gives her book academic rigor, while also writing lucid prose that is accessible to anyone. Her synthesis of studies suggests that while there are ways in which reading on screens and in print are roughly the same, particularly if one can control for digital distractions, a majority of readers still associate print with better cognition and learning outcomes, and reading on screens does seem to be reinforcing the tendency to read more quickly (skimming and power browsing) and with less tolerance for longer texts. This tendency shows no signs of abating.
For more about the book and a short Q&A with Baron, see this piece on The New Republic's website.
Camp, James. “Life Is Short, Proust Is Long.” Page-Turner: On Books and the Writing Life. Newyorker.com. 2 April 2014. Web.
In this post to The New Yorker’s blog, writer James Camp takes the introduction of Spritz—a digital speed-reading application designed to help readers scan up to a thousand words a minute—as an occasion to consider such reading versus slower, contemplative (and even laborious) reading. He discusses the way our eyes move over text while reading, and whether digital tools can harness that eye motion to help us read more speedily and efficiently while still comprehending what we read. (Spritz is counting on it; Camp is skeptical.)
(A more recent New York Times op ed by Jeffrey Zacks and Rebecca Tremain points out that apps like Spritz are--big surprise!--highly unlikely to increase reading speed without a significant loss of reading comprehension. Their article includes links to a few studies, including one conducted by Tremain and others into the efficacy of speed reading.)
Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.
Growing out of Carr’s concern that his extensive use of the Internet was altering his brain and negatively affecting his ability to read attentively, this influential and widely cited and debated book documents Carr’s investigation of “What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” (the book’s subtitle), with a particular focus on the way the use of the Internet on computers affects a user’s memory. (E-readers and smart phones were in their infancy, and tablets not yet to market, at the time Carr wrote the book.) Includes an interesting overview of the way previous “tools of the mind” (e.g. maps, clocks, books) altered the way we think and see the world, as well as the contemporary influences of players like Google.
Generally concludes that there is much to be concerned about the way the Internet will further shorten our attention spans and increase our cursory reading, though at last count Carr remains an avid user of technology.
(For a look at an excerpt of the book, see Carr’s article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” originally published in The Atlantic in July 2008. Naturally, you can find said article by searching for it on Google.)
“Children, Teens, & Reading: A Common Sense Media Brief.” Commonsensemedia.org. Common Sense Media, 12 May 2014. Web.
Common Sense Media compiled this compendium of studies tracking reading rates, reading achievement, e-book use, demographic differences in reading, and attitudes about reading among children and teens, including the finding of a “precipitous” drop over time in reading for pleasure by teens (i.e. children read less, and less for pleasure, as they grow older, and teens today read less, and less for pleasure, than did teens who were surveyed at various points during the previous three decades).
Given gaps in existing research on electronic reading, the report suggests questions about these issues that invite further study, such as how children and families use e-books (including the effects on parent-child interactions around reading), and how e-reading affects the amount that children read, the amount they comprehend and retain of what they read, and how e-reading affects early childhood literacy.
Coiro, Julie. “Predicting Reading Comprehension on the Internet: Contributions of Offline Reading Skills, Online Reading Skills, and Prior Knowledge.” Journal of Literacy Research 43.4 (2011): 352-392. Sage Publications. Web.
Coiro’s study of a group of seventh graders investigated the extent to which there may be new or more complex reading skills required to improve online reading comprehension. Her very careful consideration both of others’ studies and of the multiple possible interpretations of her own study’s results point to just how complex an issue this is.
(The article provides an excellent overview of much of the work that has been done on reading comprehension of both online and traditional print texts.)
The study’s findings, Coiro says, “support other research that suggests the processes skilled readers use to comprehend online text are both similar to and more complex than what previous research suggests is required to comprehend offline informational text” (370). At the same time, the study also found positive correlations between offline and online reading comprehension.
There were indications that students needed to have proficiency in newer, online reading skills (e.g. online searching, web page evaluation, negotiation of hyperlinks, etc) before they could apply some of the skills traditionally associated with successful reading of printed text. Also, the results of the study indicated that “topic-specific prior knowledge” was important to successful reading comprehension for those students who had less skill in online reading, while this prior knowledge was less significant to the reading comprehension of students who had “average or high levels of online reading skills” (374).
Dyson, Mary C. “How Physical Text Layout Affects Reading from Screen.” Behaviour & Information Technology 23:6 (2004): 377-393.
Dyson’s article is one of many good reminders that in any discussion contrasting print reading with digital/online/screen reading, there are many variables in play—in this case, typography.
Among other typographic variables and characteristics she researched, Dyson examined studies of line length (specifically on text-only web pages or word processing documents) and determined that 100 characters per line looked to be about the length for optimizing reading speed on screen, although readers tended to prefer lines that were shorter than that, perhaps in keeping with what they had traditionally been used to in print. It is important to note that in considering speed and efficiency of reading, the studies Dyson referenced generally did not consider depth of reading comprehension.
It may be that now, a decade on, those optimal speeds and preferences have shifted a bit, though as a quick experiment, try writing a few full lines of text on your word processing program in your most commonly used font and type size—say Times New Roman in 12 point font. Then run a word count to see how many characters take up each line.
Hayles, N. Katherine. “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine.” ADE Bulletin 150 (2010): 62-79. Web.
If you look closely at only a few items on this bibliography, we recommend making this article one of them.
Hayles is an influential researcher in the field of electronic literature. This particular article responds in part to those (Nicholas Carr among them) who are concerned about the negative effects that digital and online reading are having on traditional reading practices. In the course of addressing and challenging some of those concerns, Hayles argues for the virtues of using (and teaching) multiple overlapping reading strategies: these include traditional types of close, careful reading; “hyperreading” (skimming digitally/efficiently); and machine reading (using computing power and algorithms to reveal patterns in a text that would be difficult for a human being to quickly detect).
Taken together, and employed at different times when different emphases are needed in particular contexts, these reading strategies, Hayles says, can facilitate a richer reading experience than would be possible through employing only one of them. (She offers a few examples, including one student project at UCLA that involved examining Romeo and Juliet by creating Facebook profiles for the play’s characters as a way to investigate their relationships.)
Hillesund, Terje. “Digital Reading Spaces: How Expert Readers Handle Books, the Web and Electronic Paper.” First Monday [Online], 15.4 (2010): n. pag. Web.
Grounding his investigation with a summary of research into reading practices, Hillesund studied a small group of academicians, most of them from the humanities, and asked them about the ways in which they read and worked with digital and printed texts. Hillesund conducted interviews with these expert readers in an effort to move past what they were familiar with discussing—the meaning of given texts—instead trying to unearth the perhaps mundane but essential descriptions of how they went about reading, particularly what they were doing physically.
The expert readers typically used computers and the Internet for quicker, fragmented reading such as searching and skimming, and paper for more intensive reading, including what Hillesund labels “sustained discontinuous” or “immersive reflective” reading—i.e. focused skipping back and forth between parts of an academic article or between two or more related texts—and “immersive imaginary reading,” such as the continuous reading of a novel. In keeping with other scholars, Hillesund argues “that there is a relation between text materiality and ways of reading.” He suggests that web browsers should offer dedicated reading software that would enable a “study-mode” for the kind of discontinuous reading and searching that browsers best facilitate, and a “read-mode” that would disable the built-in distractions of these spaces and allow for more sustained, continuous reading as necessary.
Jabr, Ferris. “Why the Brain Prefers Paper.” Scientific American 309.5 (2013): 48-53. Print.
A short, eminently readable article laying out some of what studies have revealed are the advantages of reading on paper over using digital devices to do so, with a particular focus on the brain’s response. As in other of the resources listed here, findings of earlier studies have suggested that people tend to maintain better attention and remember more of what they read when they read on paper. This may be because screens are “more cognitively and physically taxing than paper,” and because our brains physically map text differently on paper than they do on screens, making it easier to locate ourselves (both literally and cognitively) in the text of a physical book. As the article notes, attitudes towards digital and online reading are shifting, and screen-reading technologies are still quite new—both of which may affect the ease or difficulty with which people read in each medium.
Konnikova, Maria. “Being a Better Online reader.” The New Yorker. Newyorker.com 16 July 2014. Web.
This article is a good place to start if you’re new to thinking about how online reading is different from traditional reading. Konnikova, a staff writer at The New Yorker, cogently summarizes some of the recent research into online reading, highlighting ways in which there may be benefits to online reading as well as problems that teachers and readers will need to learn how to negotiate. The article also highlights how much we have yet to discover about the way reading is changing.
Besides referencing the recent research of Julie Coiro and Maryanne Wolf—some of whose work we’ve included on this bibliography—Konnikova also discusses the research of Anne Mangen, who has done extensive investigations of the ways people read print and digital texts, including how the physicality of the reading experience affects readers’ process and comprehension. For two of Mangen’s prominent studies, see "Reading Linear Texts on Paper versus Computer Screen" and "Hypertext Fiction Reading".
La Farge, Paul. “The Deep Space of Digital Reading.” Nautilus. nautil.us. 7 Jan 2016. Web.
Novelist Paul La Farge engagingly (and, appropriate for the web, briefly) traces the history of the development of reading covered by others on this bibliography (Maryanne Wolf, Naomi Baron, Nicholas Carr) in the service of explaining “why we shouldn’t worry about leaving print behind.”
Besides arguing for the virtues of digital texts as inviting different and potentially richer ways of storytelling and reading, he notes that when people talk about reading deeply, they tend to be referring to one kind of reading—the careful reading of print novels—and he argues that while “[t]he Internet may cause our minds of wander off…a quick look at the history of books suggest that we have been wandering off all along.”
Perhaps most significantly, La Farge cites several recent studies suggesting that whether people read poorly or well on screens may have more to do with the mindset readers bring to the task than it does with the “intrinsic nature of digital devices.” (See studies by Ackerman & Goldsmith and by Naumann on this bibliography.)
Mills, Kathryn. “Everything You Know about Teenaged Brains Is Bullshit.” Boingboing.net. Boing Boing, 22 May 2014. Web.
Spurred by adult anxieties (and media reporting) about whether heavy Internet use was adversely affecting teenagers’ brain development, neuroscience researcher Mills scoured the available studies and found a lack of evidence to support the worry. (Thus the provocative title of her post.) She acknowledges that “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”—she notes simply that the studies of this population and this question aren’t extensive enough to contend that Internet use is rewiring the teenage brain for good or ill. Her post has a series of interesting links (including a link to the studies she has compiled in her research), and with the brain as an ongoing locus for study and debate over changing reading practices, this is one worth returning to.
Naumann, Johannes. "A Model of Online Reading Engagement: Linking engagement, navigation, and performance in digital reading." Computers in Human Behavior. 53 (2015): 263-277
This is one of the studies we’re thinking of when we advocate on our list of suggestions that teachers help students to generate a reader’s mindset when they’re reading digitally.
Naumann studied the data from a 2009 OECD PISA Digital Reading Assessment of over 29,000 high school students from 17 different countries. He examined how students navigated through hyperlinked pages to complete various information-seeking tasks, some of which required that students visit only one or a few pages in order to be successful and some of which required the negotiation of multiple pages.
Those students who were more accustomed to seeking information online (reading news, doing research, etc.) had more success at navigating, and therefore at completing the tasks successfully and efficiently (i.e. not spending a lot of time clicking irrelevant links) than did those who were accustomed to using online spaces mostly as places for social engagement (email and chats and social media, etc.). These differences in success were more pronounced the more difficult the task became. Further, and unsurprisingly, the students with greater print reading skill tended to perform better on these assessments.
While Naumann takes care not to overstate the potential implications of his study, his findings do point to the importance of both experience with navigating online text for more than social purposes and to the importance of having a mindset of “information engagement” for a student to have greater likelihood of success as a strong online reader.
Naumann, Johannes, & Ladislao Salmerón. “Does Navigation Always Predict Performance? Effects of Navigation on Digital Reading are Moderated by Comprehension Skills.” The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning [Online], 17.1 (2016): n. pag. Web.
In this study of 7th through 10th graders in Spain, the researchers found that stronger offline reading comprehension skills correlated with more successful digital reading, defined in the study as student success in navigating towards the most relevant pages to find material with which to answer questions posed to them.
This finding backs up the work of other researchers (such as Julie Coiro; see above) suggesting that successful online reading, particularly where hypertext is involved, is likely predicated not just on being an adept online navigator but also on being able to employ traditional print literacies as well (which, in turn, help make one a more adept online navigator).
(For a little more about Naumann's research into the way students navigate online, see the previous source entry as well as LaFarge's article above.)
Pew Research Center. “Younger Americans and Public Libraries: How Those under 30 Engage with Libraries and Think about Libraries’ Role in Their Lives and Communities.” PewInternet.org. 10 Sept. 2014. Web.
This study of Millennials’ attitudes toward and use of libraries offers a number of interesting insights. Among them is the finding that despite their heavy use of technology, young adults (aged 16-29) are in the aggregate more likely than older adults to say that there is important information that is notavailable on the Internet. Also, young adults are more likely than their elders to have read a book, and more of them, in the last 12 months. Though there are nuances to these findings, and some of them may be attributable to a large portion of this demographic still being in school, this study serves as a useful complication of assumptions some may have about how much “kids these days” are reading and how they think about the information that is available to them online.
Robinson, James G. “Watching the Audience Move: A New York Times Tool Is Helping Direct Traffic from Story to Story.” Niemanlab.org. Nieman Journalism Lab, 28 May 2014. Web.
This article indicates one of the things that makes distraction while reading online a real challenge: the designers of web sites are actively trying to direct our attention in particular ways.
Robinson, the head of news analytics at the New York Times, describes a tool called “Package Mapper” that the Times developed to track how its readers were navigating through materials on the newspaper’s web site. By studying which URLs on the site attracted views, which ones drove readers to other parts of the Times site, and which ones readers either left or never visited at all, the newspaper’s analytics team hoped to help editors to make better real-time decisions about how to create compelling, interrelated content and links that would encourage readers to stay on the site. (They were trying to get their content to be “sticky,” in the parlance.)
So, as with many other sites—news-focused and otherwise—the very design of the web invites some degree of distraction, even if in this case, the particular web designers are trying to keep us only semi-distracted within one particular site. (And, on the plus side, offering interrelated multimodal materials for analysis.)
Scholastic. Kids & Family Reading Report. 4th Ed. Jan. 2013. Web.
It’s helpful to know the reading habits of students who will later be coming to college, and how those habits may be changing. This biennial report from Scholastic surveys the reading practices of and beliefs held by children aged 6-17 and their parents.
Among the findings from the 4th edition of the survey, from 2012, were the following (A few updates from the more recent 5th edition of the study from Fall 2014 are included in parentheses below.):
The number of children who’d used an e-reader had nearly doubled in the two years since the previous edition of the report was issued in 2010. And the percentage of children who’d read an e-book had increased significantly on all electronic devices except for desktop computers. (As of 2014, 61% of children of all ages surveyed had read an e-book, up from 46% in 2012 and 25% in 2010.)
The frequency of reading books, and of reading books for fun, generally declined with the age of the respondents. Though reading for fun was more commonly associated with reading in print among those who had used e-readers, half of children aged 9-17 surveyed said they’d be more likely to read for fun if they had access to e-books; this was particularly true of “moderately frequent” readers. Having a parent who modeled reading, or having a large collection of books at home, positively influenced children’s reading frequency more than household income did.
(In the Fall 2014 report, 65% of children surveyed said they’d always want to read print books even if there were e-books available; this was up from 61% in 2012. And among students who hadn’t read an e-book, interest in reading an e-book had dropped significantly: from 51% in 2012 to 37% in 2014.)
And in a finding that will surprise exactly zero teachers (but is a good reminder anyway), 9 out of 10 children surveyed indicated they were more likely to finish reading a book if they had chosen it themselves. This percentage was exactly the same in the 2014 edition of the report.
Strauss, Valarie. “Why a Leading Professor of New Media Just Banned Technology Use in Class.” Washington Post. 25 Sept. 2014. Web.
This article offers two things of interest:
The first item is an essay by Clay Shirky (the “leading professor” of the title) reprinted in full here from its initial posting on Medium. Shirky, long an ardent and articulate defender of the use of new technologies, is, as he says, “a pretty unlikely candidate for Internet censor.” Yet he details his decision to disallow use of laptops, tablets, and smart phones in his classrooms at NYU because students were getting far too distracted by them and because each time his students turned them off it was “as if someone [had] let fresh air into the room.”
As others (most notably Nicholas Carr) have done, he describes the ways in which multitasking causes problems for memory and thinking, and that it “is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students.” He also notes the ways in which the problem of distraction is getting “progressively worse,” particularly with social media updates that offer flashing alerts in one’s peripheral vision that are “really, actually, biologically—impossible to resist” because the emotional impulse to respond to these alerts is so powerful that the intellect can’t override them. The final piece of research that moved Shirky to ban screens from his classroom was a paper that indicated that even students who didn’t have them in class were getting distracted by those who did in “a manner akin to second-hand smoke.”
The second piece worth looking at (besides links to some of the research Shirky cites) is a short video from 2009, just beneath the article headline, in which Stanford researcher Cliff Nass describes his research into undergraduates’ attempts at multitasking. The study subjects proved to be drawn in by a constant stream of information and resisted careful contemplation of individual items. Nass and his team also found, as he says, that contrary to what some might think, it turns out that “multitaskers are lousy at multitasking.”
“Why Aren’t Teens Reading Like They Used To?” All Things Considered. National Public Radio. 12 May 2014. Radio.
A brief report by NPR on the Common Sense Media study (referenced above) that touches on the ways in which digital media, and the rapidly developing tools for accessing that media, may well be part of why there has been a decline in reading for pleasure among teens, including on electronic reading devices.
Wolf, Maryanne. “Our ‘Deep Reading’ Brain: Its Digital Evolution Poses Questions.” Nieman Reports. Niemanreports.org. 29 June 2010. Web.
This short article by Wolf highlights some key questions about digital reading and its effects on the brain that will likely be addressed in her forthcoming book that will pick up where Proust and the Squidleft off: with the dawn of the digital era. Wolf touches on the high-distraction environment often generated by digital spaces and how it poses some challenges, or even threats, to the practice of deep reading and thinking. Though acknowledging that there is much yet to be learned about the “digital reading brain,” Wolf describes how an expert reader’s brain works with information in stages: she notes that when such readers come to a word, they spend the first few milliseconds decoding the word’s meaning, and then move from there into “the generative core of the reading process,” where we connect that word’s meaning not only to the other words around it, but “to all that we know and feel” and from there begin to develop our own thoughts. It is the constant interruption in this cycle and its effects on the brain and thinking that worries Wolf—one imagines, in its most dystopian variation, readers spending all their time in digital spaces decoding words and none of their time generating meaning and new ideas.
Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid. New York: Harper Collins, 2007. Print.
Wolf’s name pops up in many news stories and studies about reading, and with good reason: her 2007 book compellingly examines the development of the brain as it responds over thousands of years to the “unnatural” act of reading and writing. The book touches very little on the influence of the digital, but after the book was published and people expressed concerns about how they were reading (or not) with electronics, she’s currently at work on a book that treats changes in reading wrought by the digital. (For a little more about Wolf’s book-in-progress, see the article by Konnikova in The New Yorker above.)
Michael Larkin and Donnett Flash
UCB College Writing Programs
(Last Updated: April 27, 2016)