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What We "Know" About Reading Digitally

“Young people, who vote with their feet in college, are marching in…the digital direction. No doubt those who already read well will take classes based on close reading and benefit from them, but what about others whose print-reading skills are not as highly developed? To reach them, we must start close to  where they are, rather than where we imagine or hope they might be.”

--N. Katherine Hayles

Are you ready to click away yet? Unless we keep the sentences brief and the content enticing—particularly by employing more than just text—the chances are that you will likely linger here only for a few seconds, possibly scanning this page in an "F" pattern.

(Too long; didn’t read)

Perhaps you are like us, college instructors who expect your students to read extensively and carefully, and you’re wondering how the Internet and digital devices are affecting your students’ ability to do those things. (Not to mention your own abilities.)

If this is your interest as well, then we welcome you to the discussion.


What’s Changing?

In formal academic studies and anecdotal reports, much ink (electronic and otherwise) has been spilled considering the way our reading habits seem to be changing in response to the advent of the Internet and the ongoing pressures of the digital, both in and out of school. If not carefully managed—or harnessed for their benefits—some of those changes are in tension with the ways many of us expect undergraduates to read.

We’re still learning about the effects, more every day, but a few trends emerge: 

People reading online—or on digital devices with Internet access—often are more easily distracted, read less carefully and deeply, are less able to read longer texts, and understand less of what they read. And the emphasis on speed and efficiency increase with each passing day. (Think, for instance, of the way that sites like Medium have begun to indicate how many minutes it will take visitors to read an article posted there.) The number of people—especially younger people—who read extensively, and primarily, on digital devices continues to increase. A whole series of implications flow from these realities, not least the implications for student learning.


Embracing Print and Digital Reading

The careful critical reading fostered by print literacy has long held sway in school, and in the society at large. Many discussions have revolved around which way of reading—print or online/digital—is “better” and in what ways. These are discussions well worth continuing. For our purposes here, however, we are primarily concerned with the equally pressing discussion of precisely the ways in which these types of reading are different.

And given those differences, what should we be doing in our classrooms to help our students become better readers?

It’s our belief that it’s important to incorporate digital reading (or e-reading) practices into our college curricula, even as we do so with a critical eye. It may well be irresponsible to do otherwise. Even if some of us continue to require our students to read mostly in print for some years to come, the pressures of the digital on the practice of reading will continue to bear, and likely increase, in ways that everyone will have to deal with. As Hayles notes, students are immersed in the digital already. As college instructors, we need to help them to read in these environments.


Devices & Purposes for Reading

There are, of course, distinctions between devices for reading. Even if they share certain attributes, reading on e-readers, tablets, smart phones, and computers are different things.  A dense text read on a glowing computer monitor may pose a series of problems (distractions and eye fatigue among them) for the reader. Meanwhile, a work of fiction read in print may not be markedly different, in terms of reading comprehension and depth, from that same work read on an e-reader with the flashing notifications turned off.

Some recent studies have suggested that successful, careful reading of a digital text may come down to mindset:  if you know you have to work hard for a text to yield up its riches, then your reading may be more likely to be successful. (See, for instance, studies by Ackerman & Goldsmith, and by Naumann.) Yet as the work of Naomi Baron has indicated, students associate print with better learning outcomes and prefer it to screen reading if what they're looking for is comprehension. How much might our attitudes towards and expectations of digital media be shaping our engagement with them?

It’s worth thinking about those distinctions, and also to note that when we use the term “e-reading” or “digital reading” here, we’re referring to any reading that is done on an electronic device, online or off, no matter whether that reading was originally written for a digital format or whether the reading is one that first appeared in print and has been subsequently converted into a digital text.

There are also different purposes for reading. Skimming and reading for gist are useful skills; not everything can or should be read with deep contemplation. However, as educators and as citizens we can agree that reading quickly or merely with efficiency (to cite a dominant word of the era) is not the only way we should read. Our students recognize this as well.

Ultimately our goal with this site—with your help—is to try to answer the following charge put forth by one of the leading scholars of electronic literature, N. Katherine Hayles:

“The crucial questions are these:  how to convert the increased digital reading into increased reading ability and how to make effective bridges between digital reading and the literacy traditionally associated with print.”

Increasing student reading ability is indeed crucial, as is building those “bridges,” though with the latter metaphor, we wonder if that bridge is one that can effect a transfer of traditional print reading skills to digital ones, or, as some studies suggest, whether that bridge is more like a span that connects two countries with significantly distinct cultures and practices. Either way, we look to make the journey across, whatever translating may be required.

We encourage you to explore the material here, and to help us add to it by making suggestions as the scholarship and practice of digital reading proceeds apace.


Michael Larkin and Donnett Flash
UCB College Writing Programs
(Last updated April 22, 2016)



Michael Larkin
Donnett Flash