“Technology is rotting our brains!”
“The screen is destroying our ability to understand what we read!”
“Students are so distracted by technology that they can’t focus on anything let alone researching or reading !”
We’ve all heard these alarmist declarations about technology, and to some extent, they are not overly exaggerated. Multiple studies have revealed that students’ reading abilities have declined over time, and technology likely has something to do with it. Cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, reading scholar and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of Reading and most recently, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, argues that screen reading has transformed our brains, negatively impacting our ability to read in a way that invites strong comprehension. Distractions, stimuli, and digital reading practices such as skimming have all contributed to what Wolf calls a loss of “cognitive patience,” a mental state needed for deep, engaged reading. Based on this research, writing instructors must take note of the real possibility that students may not be comprehending digital texts that they read for homework assignments or for research-based writing assignments.
Yet, there are other reasons why students may have difficulty reading and engaging with texts in meaningful ways. Contrary to popular belief, 21st-century students are not all “digital natives” or in other words, adept or fluent with technology. Thus instructors can’t assume students know how to effectively navigate digital texts. In fact, many current students have likely not been taught digital reading practices in elementary or secondary school. A recent qualitative research study I conducted on digital reading practices affirms such a hypothesis. In my study, I discovered that students utilized comprehension strategies, yet almost never engaged with reading strategies specific to digital texts like acknowledging or clicking hyperlinks, acknowledging or engaging with images and videos, and drawing connections between and among modes. The students in my study read digital texts like print texts.
All of this means students need formal instruction in digital reading. Below I offer three pedagogical suggestions for how to teach effective digital reading practices.
#1. Teach Students that Digital Texts are Multimodal
Digital texts are comprised of multiple modes—alphabetic, aural, and visual. These modes are vehicles of communication and work to convey meaning and messages individually and collaboratively. Within these modes, there are specific features such as color, hyperlinks, charts, images, and maps. Teaching students how to interact and engage with modes and their features will make them stronger digital readers.
#2. Teach Students that Digital Genres Call for Different Kinds of Engagement
PDFs look different from company websites which look and sound different from multimedia scholarly articles. Bring attention to these differences and point out that different genres call for different kinds of reading engagement.
Since writing conventions carry over from print to the web, so do reading practices. Thus one way to teach students how to engage with different digital genres is to ask them to draw on reading habits of print texts that are similar in nature to digital texts. For example, a student may draw on their antecedent reading practices of a print newspaper to engage with a digital newspaper. An instructor could then support them in adapting these strategies to engage with the unique features and rhetorical situation of that digital text.
#3. Teach Students How to Preview a Text and Construct a Reading Plan
Much like with a print text, previewing a digital text orients the reader and provides them with knowledge on how to approach reading that text. Ask students to activate their knowledge of digital text features, digital genres, and previous reading practices to preview the text and create a reading plan.
Julie Coiro, in "Making Sense of Text," offers one way students might preview a digital text:
(1) read the title of the page and site;
(2) scan menu choices without clicking on anything in effort to get a holistic sense of the text;
(3) make predictions about where each hyperlink may lead;
(4) explore interactive features, including pop-up menus and scroll bars;
(5) identify the creator and what this information might reveal about the digital text;
(6) acknowledge and practice using any electronic supports, such as an internal search engine;
(7) and make a decision about whether to explore the site further.
After previewing the text, students can compose a reading plan that clearly indicates how they will approach engaging with the text according to their purpose for reading it.