readingAn article came my way this morning which shook me out of my digital-age complacency. I had spent my morning RSS checking filtering out much more of the same old, same old. Case study: this GalleyCat write-up on a study which ‘proves’ that reading comprehension is better when students read paper texts as opposed to digital ones. With no offence to our friends at GalleyCat, this article was typical of many in this genre in that it presented its conclusion as a fait accompli—the study said that the old way was better, the end.

So I was grateful to Nate at the Digital Reader who highlighted an article in his daily links post which exposed the fallacy of this way of thinking. The article, from the New Yorker presents an intriguing theory: it’s not that print is inherently better; it’s that it seems to be be better because we already know how to do it properly. If we learn the skills of reading properly off of a screen, the problem will be solved.

What a revelation this was! It might seem like such a simple insight, but I think that too often, we get so wedded to the way things have always been done that we forget just how improvable these ways might be. There are advantages to this digital age of ours. There is so much information out there. That is a benefit. But that benefit truly has caused us to develop some new reading behaviours:

“The screen, for one, seems to encourage more skimming behavior: when we scroll, we tend to read more quickly (and less deeply) than when we move sequentially from page to page. Online, the tendency is compounded as a way of coping with an overload of information. There are so many possible sources, so many pages, so many alternatives to any article or book or document that we read more quickly to compensate.”

But what many of these alarmist conclusions seem to miss is what this article goes on to explain in detail: the good news that ‘deep reading’ is actually a teachable, learnable skill. In one study the article cites, students were given a fixed amount of time to read, and they found that students in this study fared equally well in comprehension whether they had a digital text or a paper one. Students who regulated their own time did not fare as well. The study concludes “The digital deficit, they suggest, isn’t a result of the medium as such but rather of a failure of self-knowledge and self-control: we don’t realize that digital comprehension may take just as much time as reading a book.”

There are ways that students can adapt their digital reading style to one which improves comprehension. From the article again:

“Wolf is optimistic that we can learn to navigate online reading just as deeply as we once did print—if we go about it with the necessary thoughtfulness. In a new study, the introduction of an interactive annotation component helped improve comprehension and reading strategy use in a group of fifth graders. It turns out that they could read deeply. They just had to be taught how.”

So it isn’t that print is bad and digital is good. It’s that they emphasize different skill sets, and you’ll need to compensate for the ones your students are missing no matter what medium you use. In more-paper ecosystem, you would need to teach the art of skimming, since that does not come naturally to that format. When I was a kid, we actually had classes where we learned how to look things up in an encyclopedia and to research information. In a more-screen system, that skill may come more naturally (Wikipedia is a five-minute tutorial, if that) but other skills which are just as teachable may not come as naturally and will need to be taught. Once you teach it, students will be able to learn just as well from an text as from a paper one.