Reading has changed dramatically over the past decade or so, with the inclusion of mobile devices like tablets and smartphones, eBooks, multimedia websites, and social media. The big questions are, though, has the way we teach reading changed with their introduction, and what should teachers be doing to help prepare students for the complexity of modern reading?
There’s no current consensus in education about the best way digital skills should be incorporated into literacy instruction, and many teachers, lacking guidelines, simply adapt their lessons as they deem best. Still, many literacy experts agree on at least one thing: all students should be learning with a mix of print and digital texts — even the very youngest — since this is a way of reflecting what authentic reading looks like.
“Just like we teach nonfiction and fiction at a very young age, I think we can talk to preschoolers and kindergartners about different kinds of texts — this is one where we turn the pages, and this is one where we click on the different pages,” said Kristen Hawley Turner, an associate professor of English education and contemporary literacies at Fordham University. Others argue that you can’t wait until students are proficient in one method to introduce the other; you need to have a simultaneous development of skills.
However, the transition to that approach has been slow going, with “reading” in most elementary school classrooms still referring basically to print materials. In fact, survey data from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress indicated that just 1 in 10 4th graders used computers to access reading-related websites on a more-or-less daily basis, and 30 percent of students in 4th grade classrooms never, or hardly ever, used computers to access digital reading material in school.
Yet some teachers feel the transition from looking at text in print to viewing it on a screen isn’t a hardship for young students, merely an extension of how they already see the world in their daily lives. And teachers already model reading from print material for their students, talking about things like turning a page, indentation, the nature of a chapter. But teachers can also model on-screen material, such as multimedia presentations and the reason for hyperlinks.
Perhaps the biggest difference between print and online reading is that the former is linear, and the latter introduces decision-making — you can click on something, head somewhere else, and continue from there. And while you don’t want students to wander aimlessly through page after page of text, they need to know that sometimes it’s okay to click on a link or head to another portion of the article if it helps their comprehension of the material. The trick is for them to understand where the links take them and why they are choosing to follow them.
At the same time, though, it’s important to reinforce that, while the format is different in print and online material, the purpose of reading remains the same. Comprehension strategies work no matter if you’re reading a print book, a blog post, or watching a video. Karen Pelekis, a 1st grade teacher in Scarsdale, N.Y. sums it up well: “There are isolated skills you can learn nicely on the computer, but overall for me, reading is all about thinking, and the more I can get them to think, explore, be curious and interested, and have a desire to read and learn, the technology helps you be able to capture that and extend what they can do in the classroom.”
There are, of course, difficulties with accessing digital text, everything from the lack of devices in the classroom to sites on the internet inappropriate for young children. According to Loewus, though, there’s a bigger issue at play here. Many teachers feel hamstrung by policies that don’t necessarily promote digital reading, such as standardized tests. While they do take place on computers in most states, they don’t measure authentic digital skills like navigating websites and using search engines, important for digital literacy. And for many teachers, because authentic online reading tasks aren’t being assessed, those in tested grades may not prioritize teaching those skills [see our previous blog, Teaching to the Test].
So, how are we to appropriately teach reading skills in our increasingly diverse print/digital world? What are the best strategies to introduce to a new generation of readers who have access to both venues in their daily lives? We’d love to hear from our readers, especially educators, about your thoughts and experiences. Maybe together we can arrive at some effective strategies that we can implement in real-world classrooms, helping both teachers and students move forward in our growing digital world.
 Loewus, Liana. (November 9, 2016). “How Should Reading Be Taught in a Digital Era?” Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/how-should-reading-be-taught-in-a-digital-era/2016/11.