May 6, 2014
Reading Poses Learning Challenges for Students
may suffer when students read on the digital devices now flooding
into classrooms, an emerging body of research suggests.
response, some academics, educators, and technology vendors
are pushing to minimize the distracting bells and whistles that
abound in high-tech instructional materials. They're also trying
to figure out how best to help students transfer tried-and-true
print reading strategies into new digital learning environments.
have to move into the 21st century, but we should do so with
great care to build a 'bi-literate' brain that has the circuitry
for 'deep reading' skills, and at the same time is adept with
technology," said Maryanne Wolf, the director of the Center
for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Medford,
have experienced a huge influx of digital learning tools in
recent years, with nearly 1 in 3 public and private school students
in the United States now using a school-issued mobile computing
device, such as a laptop or digital tablet, according to a recent
survey from Project Tomorrow, an Irvine, Calif.-based nonprofit
the same time period, all but a handful of states have adopted
common academic standards that call upon students to master
increasingly complex texts.
convergence of those trends has helped spark renewed interest
in decades of study of the merits of reading on a screen versus
now say that while many digital texts do a good job of motivating
and engaging young people, such texts also pose a number of
reading on screens, for example, people seem to reflexively
skim the surface of texts in search of specific information,
rather than dive in deeply in order to draw inferences, construct
complex arguments, or make connections to their own experiences.
Research has also found that students, when reading digitally,
tend to discard familiar print-based strategies for boosting
many of the multimedia elements, animations, and interactive
features found in e-books appear to function primarily as amusing
than resist the new technologies, though, some educators are
trying to make sure students get the best of both worlds. And
they're beginning to get help from ed-tech products such as
Actively Learn, Curriculet, and Subtext.
are very intentional about how [our] user interface operates,"
said Jason Singer, the CEO of Curriculet, an 18-month-old San
Francisco-based startup that has already signed up more than
100,000 students and teachers for its free digital reading platform.
"Our approach helps struggling or reluctant readers revisit
or reread the text, or note that important moment to stop, take
a breath, and read more deeply."
Hitt, 14, is the picture of a "reluctant reader."
never read. Only when I have to. I think it's really boring,"
said Mr. Hitt, a 9th grader in the 3,000-student Southern Regional
school system in Manahawkin, N.J.
given an assignment, he said, he prefers reading on a digital
device to reading a print book.
Mr. Hitt is also quick to acknowledge a big problem: "I
understand better when [text] is on paper, because it's all
right there, and it's not skipping ahead and back all the time.
tensionbetween digital reading's tendency to foster increased
engagement, but discourage deeper comprehensionis presenting
a massive new challenge for schools, said Andrew Dillon, the
dean of the school of information at the University of Texas
been this huge push from tech companies to get their stuff into
classrooms, but that's purely a commercial venture," Mr.
Dillon said. "There are real consequences for the types
of serious reading people can do in those [digital] environments."
have documented students' struggles with comprehension when
reading Internet-based texts on computers, although the literature
on how reading e-books on computers is inconclusive.
while similar research on mobile devices is just emerging, there
are worrisome signs: A study last year by Heather R. and Jordan
T. Schugar, a wife-and-husband research team at Westchester
University of Pennsylvania, found that a small sample of students
comprehended traditional books at "a much higher level"
than they comprehended the same material when read on an iPad.
2012 study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop,
a New York City-based research organization for children's digital
media, found that 3- to 6-year-old children who "co-read"
high-tech e-books with their parents "recalled significantly
fewer narrative details than children who read the print version
of the same story."
a result, some observers fear that mobile devices, especially
digital tablets as they are now being used in the classroom,
are not supporting the kinds of extended, rich interactions
with text called for in the Common Core State Standards.
think of technology as the solution, but it's often the cause
of the problem," Mr. Dillon said. "It's not the end
of reading, but it is the diminution or simplification of reading."
Katherine A. Baker, who's been teaching freshman English at
Southern Regional High School in New Jersey for 15 years, the
question is not whether print or digital media better support
students' comprehension, but the best ways to help students
like Mr. Hitt learn to read deeply in both environments.
live in two worlds now," she said. "We have to adapt."
a recent eight-week unit, Mr. Hitt and his classmates read print
copies of The Odyssey, the epic poem from ancient Greece. Then,
they read about 20 supplemental textsincluding other poems,
informational texts, and contemporary first-person essays exploring
similar themesusing a combination of paper handouts, a
classroom set of Chromebooks, and their own smartphones.
paper, the students were expected to take notes, highlight,
and make annotationsall techniques that researchers say
help drive comprehension.
their devices, the students used Curriculet, a free browser-based
digital tool that seeks to encourage similar close-reading strategies.
Baker said she learned about Curriculet while reading an article
waiting in line at the grocery store.
was so excited I almost dropped my phone," said the teacher,
who has since done paid consulting work developing content for
Ms. Baker said, she can offer her students 10 times as many
texts as before, without generating prohibitive costs for her
school or a mountain of paperwork for herself.
importantly, she said, Curriculet provides easy opportunities
to "scaffold" students' reading experiences by letting
teachers embed annotations, multimedia, "checkpoint"
questions, and formal assessments that can prompt students to
consider key points, offer alternative ways of interacting with
the text (an audio reading of a poem, for example), and probe
research into the impact of such recently developed digital
add-ons on reading comprehension is, for the time being, limited.
Dillon, from the University of Texas, said digital materials
appear superior to printed texts at promoting understanding
of complex processes and interactions that occur over timecell
division, for examplethanks to their interactive and multimedia
the extent to which the benefits of digital features such as
hyperlinked text or embedded videos outweigh the disruptions
to reading flow appears to depend greatly on the degree to which
such materials genuinely complement the core text, are presented
in intuitive ways that readers can easily follow, and mesh with
individual readers' preferences and styles.
of the best e-books don't have a whole lot going on in them,"
said Ms. Schugar, the West Chester University researcher. "Consumers
are often looking for something with a lot of pizazz, but that
is not necessarily going to support deeper reading."
Singer, Curriculet's CEO, said his company's platform seeks
to avoid many of the distractions that researchers decry.
many of the new digital curricular materials being released
by major publishers, Mr. Singer said, individual "curriculets"
are all adaptable by teachers, and the platform allows teachers
to control what is embedded into a text, ostensibly helping
to limit "whiz-bang" features and ensure that the
focus is on reinforcing student understanding of the text.
not big on gamifying the reading experience," Mr. Singer
said. "Reading flow should only be interrupted if the interruption
is meaningful and relevant."
for Mr. Hitt, the New Jersey 9th grader, that ideal is not yet
a recent English class, Ms. Baker assigned her students 20 minutes
of independent reading on Curriculet. Mr. Hitt read through
a nonfiction article about researchers' efforts to use archaeology
and astronomy to determine if the events described in The Odyssey
had actually occurred, as well as the exact date of Odysseus'
return to Ithaca.
teenager took a meandering path through the text and the extras
his teacher had embedded: notes with explanations of difficult
language, a YouTube video about solar eclipses, periodic comprehension
questions, and more.
of this stuff, it distracts me off the main topic," he
Ms. Schugar, the researcher, said she is encouraged by the potential
of Curriculet and a handful of other similar ed-tech products
now on the market that seek to support and extend readers' engagement
with the text.
for his part, Mr. Singer, a former classroom teacher who helped
found two Bay Area charter schools,said concerns about obstacles
to "deep reading" in digital environments miss the
nature of the problems encountered by many students.
for the nonbibliophile is not a bucolic intellectual romp,"
he said. "For struggling and reluctant readers, it feels
progressively more and more like quicksand."
those students, Mr. Singer argued, tools like Curriculet provide
support at the moment it's needed, offer encouragement and accountability
for persisting through a text, and provide immediate feedback
on whether students "get it."
acknowledging the promise of the new digital technologies, researchers
say the limited knowledge of how digital reading affects comprehension
should warrant a cautious approach.
of our best thought will go into how the [digital] medium can
address its own weaknesses," said Ms. Wolf, from Tufts
for now, she said, "good common sense tells us that we
want to preserve the best of what we know from print as we acquire
these new skills."