Dive, Surf, or Skim? Reading Comprehension in the Digital Age

Parents and researchers alike have a long history of hand wringing about literacy, reading comprehension, and children, especially as they get older. The migration of reading to digital media has only compounded these fears. Parents frequently comment, “I feel like I haven’t seen my child pick up a real book for fun in years!” while researchers busily scramble to try to understand the impact that digital readers and reading online has had on teen literacy.

There is certainly reason for concern. Data show that reading for fun drops precipitously from childhood to the teenage years. A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics confirmed that one out of three teens had not read a book for pleasure in the previous twelve months.

Despite the overall downward trend, getting an accurate picture of children’s and teens’ reading habits is no easy task. For starters, there is no consistent measure of what constitutes “reading.” Some studies ask only about paper books while others include magazines, e-books or online reading. In addition, only a few studies count “short form” reading such as tweets, text messages, or blog comments.

If we do take into account time reading on Snapchat or Instagram, it is likely that teens today read more words than generations before them. Yet it is undeniable that on these platforms reading is usually more fast and fragmented. As young people scroll, tap, and click through more and more words, how is it affecting their reading habits? What about their comprehension of all the ideas they might encounter there?

Teen reading on digital tablet lying on bed

Reading comprehension: What happens when reading goes digital?

Like many questions in this field, the relationship between reading comprehension and platform (paper vs. tablet) is complicated, and we don’t have robust longitudinal data yet. According to a new review of the studies published over the past decade, reading on paper appears to have a small but statistically significant benefit when compared to reading online.

Current research suggests that the following is true when reading goes digital:

  • We are more likely to skim and browse. We don’t read the same way online as we do on paper. Online readers tend to browse, scan, and skim for big ideas and headlines.
  • We get better at quickly pulling relevant information from texts. Frequent online readers are adept at finding keywords and are likely to read in a less linear, more selective way. They can also quickly include different sources of information.
  • We tend to think we are better at reading online than we actually are. We tend to be confident in our reading online despite the slight costs to comprehension. In other words, we think we understand digital text just fine, so we are less likely to slow down or go back to ensure that we understood it correctly or build connections based on the text.
  • We are more likely to get tired and distracted online. Reading online is a high demand cognitive activity. Readers have to use impulse control as they resist distracting hyperlinks and must constantly adjust to shifting layouts, colors, and sizes. It appears that this kind of stimulation not only taxes our focused attention but also our working memory.

This last point can’t be understated. Reading articles online actually requires more brain power because the brain has more tasks that it needs to attend to and manage. Think about the hyperlinks, notifications, and headlines we encounter online. All this “noise” might mean that online comprehension doesn’t dip because of the medium itself but because of the embedded distractions.

So what?

Does this mean that we should encourage a mass return to paper? Discourage all e-reading? This doesn’t seem likely or necessary. Remember, the latest research only shows that reading online has a small negative impact. Let’s not lose sight of some of the benefits including increased access to texts, the availability of books and texts in many languages, access to assistive technologies that can be game changers for students with learning disabilities, and the ability to engage reluctant readers.

Some researchers believe that it’s not that we can’t read deeply online, but that we need to learn and practice a new set of skills to do so. In other words, children may need to learn that there are different reading strategies for different purposes, and in different contexts.

For example, one study found that when readers take notes on paper while reading online they are far better at writing about the text later.Veteran literacy researcher and neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf argues that we need to raise “bi-literate” readers that are capable of both deep reading and effective skimming – both online and offline. She argues, “We cannot go backwards. As children move more toward an immersion in digital media, we have to figure out ways to read deeply there.”

Encouraging “cognitive patience” in your young reader

Maryanne Wolf encourages parents to think about ways to nurture “cognitive patience” in young readers by carving out time for deep reading.

  • Prioritize print in the early years. Consider focusing on print materials in early childhood as children build reading experience.
  • Choose e-readers carefully. When using e-readers with young children, choose platforms that don’t have a lot of bells and whistles. In other words, make it as similar as possible to the experience of reading a book.
  • Look for interactivity “on the storyline” instead of distractions. For extra reading support, look for interactivity that supports comprehension like tools that highlight words as children read them (as opposed to interactions that are irrelevant to the storyline).
  • Set limits on screen time to ensure that children and teens have ample opportunity to choose paper books.
  • Use reading mode. Teach kids to turn off all notifications when they are moving from light reading or skimming to something they demands focus and comprehension. In addition, have them switch to “reading mode” where the text fills the entire screen.
  • Teach kids about their brains and that we read differently in different spaces. Explain the strengths of being able to quickly skim, pull relevant headlines, and move quickly. Make sure they understand the potential cost to deep reading and comprehension as well. Knowing when to dive deep and when to surf will be key to their success as readers.
  • Use the digital tools that help kids engage with the text like digital highlighters, pens, and other abilities to mark up a digital page as kids process a text.
  • Use online adaptive technologies if your child needs extra support with reading and work with your child’s teacher to access the latest tools.
  • Encourage paper note taking. Going old school can help the brain slow down and disrupt the pattern of skimming, skipping around, and “butterfly reading” across pages when they need to really understand the content.
  • Most importantly, encourage a love of reading in all forms. Try not to talk about any form of reading as “bad reading.” Instead, build bridges between online and offline interests and give your child as much choice as possible in what they read. Read our tips on raising readers and encouraging a love of reading in teens.