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Building Bridges to Critical Reading in a Digital Context

We are, as Maryanne Wolf has said, “in a place of apprehension rather than comprehension” (qtd. in Konnikova) when it comes to what we really know about digital reading.  Bearing that in mind, we offer this list of suggestions for teaching critical reading in a digital age not as an exhaustive one but as a place to begin an investigation of and a dialogue about good critical e-reading practices.

In our suggestions below, we have focused on reviewing those strategies that seem most relevant—no matter the academic discipline—for bridging the gap between print and digital literacy. We welcome your comments.


Emphasize the importance of a digital reading mindset

Reading poorly on digital devices can be something of a self-fulfilling prophesy:  I'm used to things coming quickly, easily, and in brief when I'm clicking and reading on a screen, so I don't need to pay (or I'm not capable of paying) much mind. We can get so used to this mindset--indeed we're practically forced into it by, especially, the regular dopamine hits that come with the rapid-fire responses of most digital devices--that we're destined to fail as readers before we've even "turned" the first digital page.

Push back against this mindset:  just as reading successfully (and, it can't be said enough, rewardingly) in print takes work, reading well in digital spaces takes work too and can yield similar rewards. Help students to develop time-honored reading habits alongside some new ones that come with digital environments. Which brings us to...     


Help students to manage digital distractions while reading and e-reading

The writer Cory Doctorow has aptly described the Internet as an “ecosystem of interruption technologies,” which poses obvious challenges for anyone who is trying to read carefully.

Given this reality, a key first step in undertaking careful reading, whether in print or electronically, is to encourage students to develop the habit of turning off any digital notifications and closing down any web sites not immediately needed for the task at hand. Though various devices are increasingly affording electronic annotation, and though people have different capacities in their ability to manage multiple electronic tasks, the more distractions there are, the less focused readers will be. Reading on almost any digital device requires much greater self-regulation than reading in print does; helping students to cultivate this self-regulatory ability is perhaps the first task facing any teacher who wants her students to read well.


Don’t assume traditional reading skills transfer to digital reading

Traditional, careful, critical reading is hard; it’s a skill that doesn’t come to most of us naturally.  It has to be learned, and it has to be practiced.  John Bean’s chapter, “Helping Students to Read Difficult Texts,” remains an excellent resource for identifying the struggles students typically have with reading in college and for strategies to overcome those struggles.

That said, as N. Katherine Hayles and others have noted, the nature of electronic literature—including, most prominently, online materials and hypertext—facilitates a way of reading that is richer in some ways than traditional print reading, and some of the differences of e-reading are in tension with the kinds of careful reading we often ask students to do in college.

Students who read regularly on digital devices may need to become fluent in navigating those devices and their corresponding environments, especially online, before they can apply the critical reading skills associated with traditional print literacy, as Julie Coiro’s work has indicated. Evaluating (i.e. “reading”) web sites, navigating effectively through links, discerning meaning in multimedia texts, annotating using electronic devices and tools—these are skills that likely need to be taught and practiced concurrently with traditional reading skills for the latter to be employed to full effect while e-reading.


But many traditional reading practices are still useful in a digital space

In the bridge between traditional and digital reading, many critical reading practices and teaching methods are still effective. Students still need to be taught how to understand and summarize what an author is saying, and then how to pose good critical questions about the texts they read, and they need to be guided through specific tasks to develop those skills. Also, in articles we’ve referenced here, Marolina Salvatori and David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky are among those who remind us that there are still many virtues to assigning and working through texts that are challenging or even strange for students. In an era of short, web-simplified texts, such rigor is ever more crucial.

 (For more, we refer you to these and other sources on our bibliography of traditional critical reading sources, where the lucid pieces by Bean and Murray are excellent places to start.)

Much of this practice involves having students write about what they read, as the acts of reading and writing are intertwined. This begins with annotation—whether with pencil on paper or via keyboard on screen—to help them make meaning. And writing, even of short papers, helps readers to grapple with and better understand the content of a text. Also, it’s often helpful to encourage students to write about the ways in which they read. Speaking of which…


Help students to develop reflective reading practices

In the Internet era, a premium is placed on speed and efficiency, and this is much of what puts pressure on good reading practices. Added to that, frankly, is the pressure that we college instructors put on students by sending conflicting messages:  though we want them to approach their work carefully, we also ask that they do a lot of work, which adds to many students feeling the need for speed in their reading practices. The more challenging a text is, the greater a problem this need becomes.

This is why inviting students to slow down and reflect not just on what they read but how they read is advisable. Where do they read? What do they do while they read? How do they take notes? (Do they take notes at all?) What happens when they’re lying down versus sitting up? How do they engage with a reading when it’s on a laptop, on a tablet, in a hardback edition from the library? What benefits and problems for their thinking arise as they engage in different reading practices?

Even as many readers share the same kinds of habits, students engaging in this kind of meta-cognition often find they can mark their own reading struggles and find effective strategies for overcoming them.


Think carefully about how you’ll employ digital reading in and out of the classroom

For reasons of cost and convenience, it’s becoming increasingly common for college instructors and students to choose electronic versions of texts, both online and off, for course reading. The more careful instructors ask their students to be when evaluating and analyzing texts, the more attentive they need to be to their students’ reading practices if the texts being read are digital.

When digital texts are used in the classroom, some of their features can make them as or more useful than traditional printed texts. (Think, for instance, of the way a search within a text might be conducted on an e-reader or a smart phone, or how quickly an Internet search could offer pertinent information for discussion.) However, some of those same features pose problems for the students’ attention—to the texts and to their classmates.  For this very reason, Clay Shirky of NYU recently—and somewhat surprisingly, given his advocacy of technology—banned laptops from his classrooms not only for the sake of the laptop-toting students themselves but also for their classmates who were experiencing the “second-hand smoke” of distraction generated by their classmates’ devices.

Whether to allow or ban digital reading devices in the classroom is for each instructor to decide, of course. No matter what choice one makes, however, encouraging mindful, reflective reading practices for students (as we’ve advocated in the previous suggestion above) is important.


Remind students that reading, like writing, is a process

Students sometimes mistake reading as a single task:  pick up a text and read. (And if there’s anything I miss, hopefully the teacher will cover it in class.) It’s helpful to remind students that reading well involves a series of distinct and often intertwining moves, from initially assessing a text’s parts by pre-reading before diving in; to reading and annotating along the way to begin to assign meaning (what John Bean calls the “rough draft” of reading, rather like a rough draft in writing); to re-reading, perhaps multiple times, with more annotating and critical questioning to come to a deeper understanding. Not every text requires this level of attention, but these are the sorts of moves that every successful reader, to some degree, is making.

The process of reading even has a deep-seated and nearly instantaneous quality, as Maryanne Wolf has observed. As we encounter each word in a reading, she notes, our brains first decode the visual markers to make sense of the word, and then within milliseconds we move to the “generative process” of reading, in which we begin to analyze, infer, and draw connections to other parts of the text and to our other reading and experiences. 

In this transitional era between print and digital literacies, we teachers, in a way, stand as guides for our students in that infinitesimally small space between decoding and generative reading. As digital readings continue to gain sway and, perhaps, our decoding of texts happens even more quickly and differently than in the past, helping readers to see and practice the generative part of the process will be crucial.


Vary reading strategies according to reading purposes and environments

Teaching students how to critically read for different purposes—skimming, reading for gist, evaluating an author’s credibility, deeply analyzing, etc.—remains as relevant as ever, as does teaching students the reading conventions within given disciplines. Added to these now are new purposes that come with certain types of digital reading, such as navigating hypertext and other multimodal spaces. Also important is making students aware of how their approach to reading and annotation may need to shift according to the medium they find themselves using, and also what kinds of tasks they may be able to profitably do in each one.

 A few examples: 

N. Katherine Hayles advocates varying one’s practice according to necessity and by leveraging the affordances of digital devices and environments:  this would include traditional critical reading (“close reading”); human skimming using the tools of technology (“hyper reading”); and employing computers to detect patterns difficult or impossible for human readers to discern (“machine reading”).

In his study of the way expert readers navigated the Internet and “electronic paper,” Terje Hillesund marks the conscious distinctions such readers make between “sustained discontinuous” reading (essentially focused skimming and skipping between different electronic texts) and “immersive imaginary” reading of the traditional kind associated with the reading of literature, especially novels. Making students aware of these distinctions, and teaching effective strategies for each type of reading, is increasingly important.


Discuss, model, and reinforce digital reading skills explicitly

Whether your classroom is heavily reading-based or not, it’s a good idea for instructors to directly show their students how they read, both in print and electronically. Doing so helps clarify your expectations of students while also sharing the techniques of an effective (dare we say professional?) reader. What are your best practices for engaging with a scholarly article you’ve downloaded from an academic database? What steps do you take when searching for and assessing evidence online? How do you annotate an electronic text when you’re doing research?

And this includes sharing not only your successful methods and the joys of reading but also the struggles you have while reading. Students sometimes assume that their teachers are experts who’ve got it all figured out, but in the case of reading electronically, especially with the newest technologies, you and your students may be in much the same boat, or it is likely that they can teach you a thing or two. Share your successes and failures as a reader of digital texts with your students, and encourage them to do the same. This has the virtue of not only expanding your knowledge base, but this kind of student-teacher interchange and mutual learning is just plain good pedagogical practice.


Keep track of how you and your students read, and share your findings!

Speaking of expanding your knowledge base:  Have you found a digital reading practice that works particularly well? Published an interesting study on e-reading? Share it with your students, your colleagues, and with us! 


Michael Larkin and Donnett Flash
UCB College Writing Programs
(Last Updated:  March 20, 2017)


Michael Larkin
Donnett Flash