Today, not only what we read, but how we read have been revolutionized by the web. As bandwidth has increased, photos, graphics, and now video are very much a part of any written work on the internet. Researchers refer to this type of writing as ‘multimodal’ as they include multiple modes of communication.

But in adding all these other elements to the written word, many researchers and educators fear that students’ ability to concentrate solely on text—deriving deeper meaning and drawing extra-textual conclusions—is being eroded.

The amount of reading young children do in digital formats has been trending upwards for two decades, and in particular over the course of the pandemic. 

So what does the huge amount of online text mean for the quality of comprehension and the skill of ‘deep reading’, which is contemplative and thoughtful reading, versus a quick skim approach?

According to an analysis of 39 experimental studies published in the Review of Educational Research, children 8 years old and younger comprehend storybooks better when they are in print rather than digital form. Put another way, paper-based reading yields better comprehension outcomes than digital-based reading, researchers also found that most of the commercially published e-books explored in the studies didn’t enhance the text in ways that focused children’s attention as adults naturally would when reading a story to a child, such as pointing out main story elements, asking questions, and focusing children’s attention on the chain of events in a story. 

Recent studies suggest parent and teacher behavior can mean the difference in whether e-books help or hinder reading skills in the long run. The researchers analyzed the results of studies of more than 1,800 children from birth to age 8, comparing their comprehension and vocabulary learning when reading on paper versus on screens. The researchers also looked at the effects of common e-book enhancements, including spoken narration accompanying the text, design enhancements, and in-book dictionaries.

Two of the study’s authors were quoted in last week’s story, Reading on Screen vs. Print: New Analysis Thickens the Plot on Promoting Comprehension in Education Week.

Natalia Kucirkova, a professor of reading and early-childhood development at the University of Stavanger in Norwayand the Open University in the United Kingdom, noted that “we need to have a more nuanced language about when reading digitally or print is beneficial and when not.”  

Co-author Adriana Bus, professor of language and literacy at Leiden University in Amsterdam, agreed by noting that “books with digital enhancements can benefit and result in better comprehension than paper books if the enhancements support comprehension.”

However, for children who need the most reading practice, the audio narration of e-books did little to benefit their comprehension. “They were the children who closed their eyes and just listened,” she said. In one eye-tracking experiment, researchers found that proficient readers focused on the text while listening, while struggling readers did not look at the text, just at the illustrations.

It’s that kind of deep, contemplative reading that Maryanne Wolf – an advocate for children and literacy around the world and the Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies – fears might be lost in the advent of digital texts. The desire to quickly skim through what can feel like an unending onslaught of information rather than thoughtfully examine it.

Reading scientists must, she says, examine whether an over-reliance on quick reading will undermine our ability to develop and maintain deep reading skills.

Wolf has spent more than two decades studying how the human brain reads and processes what is read. In her book, Reader, Come Home, she explains that process as two steps: the first involves the brain recognizing the visual information that makes up a word, so for instance, take the word “toast.” In a flash of milliseconds, a reading brain ‘decodes’ or connects the shape of the letters to what is known about letter sounds, syntax and spelling.

But it’s the next step of the process, though, that Wolf and other researchers worry may be lost: the next milliseconds where we connect that decoded information to the rest of our knowledge, how we think and feel about the world around us. 

For example, back to the word “toast”. A reader will begin by decoding the /t/, navigating the /oa/ vowel team and the rest of the word. The second part of the reading process—much of which happens automatically— involves thinking about which “toast” we’re talking about based on the context. Is it the browned bread that just popped up from a toaster or is this the kind of “toast” that involves a few words from a party guest followed by the clinking of crystal flutes filled with champagne?

And if it’s the latter “toast,” one could take a moment to ponder the evolution of cultural norms, for starters. Do all nationalities “propose a toast” to happy couples at weddings? When did the custom of clinking glasses and drinking to health and happiness begin? Just by reading a simple word like “toast,” you can instantly be transported across history to learn about the ancient roots of this practice.

Today, we process so much information digitally and in quick bursts, that it’s easy to see why there is concern about our capacity to form insight and empathy. Now imagine the daunting task that parents and caregivers, and teachers and tutors face to make the digital reading experience one that is beneficial. Learning how to read is critical for success in life, however, it’s that next layer of understanding that requires more consideration than ever in our digital world so that we raise children to be competent, curious, and contemplative.


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