To boost learning, be careful about reading and writing on the screens
Digital devices are here to stay, but studies show that if we rely heavily on them for reading and writing, learning can suffer.
Traditional methods of reading and writing, using paper and pencil, have long been in decline at all grade levels. Common state standards called for teaching children to use a keyboard, but said nothing about handwriting. School districts touted policies that provided every student with a digital device. Textbook publishers have pushed students towards virtual material.
At the same time, the research was raising red flags. Studies have shown that students who took notes by hand understood the material better than those who typed them on digital devices. Other research suggests that teaching children to write by hand strengthens fine motor skills that are crucial for future academic success. Evidence indicated that reading print leads to better comprehension, especially if the text was non-fictional, long and not presented in narrative form.
Distance and hybrid learning over the past 18 months has put the shift to digital reading and writing on steroids. And now there is even more data indicating the risks of relying heavily on screens – or at least doing so without certain guarantees.
A recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins found that people who learned a new alphabet by writing by hand did so faster and better than those who studied it using videos or typing. Another experiment found that those who wrote notes on paper remembered information better than those who used digital devices.
Both studies were performed with adults, but the Hopkins researchers said in a press release that they expected their results to apply to children as well. One, Robert Wiley, said he gave his young nieces and nephews pens and pencils as gifts. The other researcher, Brenda Rapp, said the study provides “pretty strong evidence that handwriting supports literacy in a way that goes beyond actual calligraphy.”
Many children in lower grades have missed teaching handwriting in the past year and a half because it is difficult to teach from a distance. When this is the case, the evidence indicates that teachers shouldn’t go ahead and assume that kids will figure it out or that they can just learn to type instead. Typing is an important skill, but if used as a substitute for teaching handwriting, students could well suffer academically.
The evidence on the downsides of digital reading is larger than that of writing, but some are contradictory. Some researchers have found that students express a strong preference for print over digital text, with higher proportions saying reading from a screen is boring or tiring. Others have found that students strongly prefer digital reading. Studies agree, however, that those who read on a screen are too confident that they have understood what they have read.
A research duo at the University of Maryland, Patricia Alexander and Lauren Trakhman, completed a total of seven studies on the different effects of print and digital reading on comprehension. During a recent appearance on The Science of Reading podcast, they said they were surprised at the constant gap between how much their subjects – students –thought they understood and what they really understood. Despite their confident claims to the contrary, students’ understanding was actually better when reading printed materials.
“They accepted the message that they were digital natives,” Alexander said.
One problem, according to Alexander and Trakhman, is that people read digital text much faster than print. And if you do something fast, you assume it’s easier. But it might seem easier because you don’t pay as much attention to it as you need to.
At least one other researcher has seen speed as an issue in digital readout. But another, who analyzed 33 studies on the subject, saw no differences in reading time between the two types of media.
Whatever the reasons for the differences between print and digital reading, the combination of poor understanding and overconfidence is dangerous. If we’re not careful, we could end up with a generation of readers who hover over the text on screens, are convinced they understand it – and possibly act on what they think it’s saying – but are seriously wrong. informed.
As with some of the handwriting studies, the reading studies described above have focused on adults or older adolescents. It is not unusual. The people who conduct research are usually university professors, and the students who are in their neighborhood are practical subjects. But the results probably apply to younger students as well.
There is also research in this area on children eight and under. Again, the data generally gives paper an advantage, although the benefits appear to be stronger for adults. One difference is that for young children, digital seems to be a better option for non-fiction – the opposite of results for older readers.
Certain types of digital text enhancements for kids (features that repeat key vocabulary words, for example, or provide context) can improve comprehension. But too many bells and whistles unrelated to the content of the text can be distracting and overly stimulating. And the advantages of one medium over another may vary depending on the context: an analysis of 39 studies found, for example, that children from low-income families generally did better with paper books, but they didn’t. there was no difference between print and digital for children from middle and upper income families.
As Alexander and Trakhman admit, digital devices are not going anywhere. So we need to figure out how to help students read text on screens more effectively. And Trakhman’s thesis research indicates that it may not be difficult. After students have had a 30-minute interactive presentation alerting them to the differences between print and digital reading – for example, that digital readers are overconfident in their comprehension and are less likely to reread a passage or watch a diagram the text refers to – their digital reading comprehension has improved significantly.
Other tips include using a mix of print and digital text, and understanding why you are using one over the other; make the text on a screen look as much as possible like a paper book; and printing particularly important digital passages.
Alexander and Trakhman also suggest showing children how to use apps to annotate digital text, with a stylus that mimics the experience of taking notes by hand, if possible, to take advantage of this method of note-taking.