Is Digital Text a Good Idea for Reading Instruction?

Is Digital Text a Good Idea for Reading Instruction?

Tim Shanahan

Teacher question: I’ve heard that having students read digital texts is a bad idea, but our school has purchased tablets for everybody and wants us to use these for much of our instruction. What say you? Good idea or bad idea?

Shanahan responds:

Generally, research has found that digital books are read with lower comprehension and more mind wandering (Clinton, 2019; Vargas, Ackerman, & Samerón, 2018). Admittedly, most evidence on this comes from studies of college students. However, even when the studies have focused on elementary age students, the results are the same. Kids don’t read as well digitally as they do more traditional text.  

Even more discouraging than studies showing lower comprehension with digital text, there is a small amount of data suggesting that the more time kids spend reading digitally in school, the lower their reading comprehension tends to be (Samerón, Vargas, Delgado, & Baron, 2023).

Why is this?

Adults and older students seem to have difficulty adjusting to demands when reading screens as opposed to book pages. For example, in one recent study (Delgado & Salmerón, 2021), students were asked to read either in a time pressured situation or in one with no time demands. They found that with traditional paper books, the students reduced their mind wandering under timed conditions. That didn’t happen when reading screens. Their mind wandering continued much as it had done when there was no time pressure, and comprehension fell accordingly.

Media often characterize kids as “digital natives,” distinct from we antediluvian grown-ups, as if being young conferred a predisposition to all things computer. Think of all those television shows and movies where the kids fix mom or dad’s phone in a nanosecond!

This research says adults don’t read screens as well as they do old-fashioned paper. And, neither do kids.

But to be fair, that isn’t really what you asked me.

Your question wasn’t whether kids do a good job reading digital text. No, you asked about whether digital text was useful for teaching students to read – quite a different matter in my opinion.


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