Digital Text is Changing How Kids Read—Just Not in the Way That You Think
According to San Jose State University researcher Ziming Lu, this is typical “screen-based reading behavior,” with more time spent browsing, scanning and skimming than in-depth reading. As reading experiences move online, experts have been exploring how reading from a screen may be changing our brains. Reading expert Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid, has voiced concerns that digital reading will negatively affect the brain’s ability to read deeply for sophisticated understanding, something that Nicholas Carr also explored in his book, The Shallows. Teachers are trying to steer students toward digital reading strategies that practice deep reading, and nine out of ten parents say that having their children read paper books is important to them.
Cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham said that digital devices aren’t changing the way kids read in terms of actual cognitive processes—putting together letters to make words, and words to make sentences. In fact, Willingham is quick to point out that in terms of “raw words,” kids are reading more now than they were a decade ago (thanks mostly to text messaging). But he does believe, as he writes in his book, The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads, that kids’ reading habits are changing. And it’s reasonable to guess that digital technology, in all its three-second-video and Snapchat glory, is changing those habits.
For many parents and teachers worried that spending so much time with video games and Snapchats will shred kids’ attention spans—the average 8-12-year-old spends about six hours a day in front of a screen, and teenagers spend more than nine — Willingham thinks they may be concerned about the wrong thing. He isn’t convinced that spending so many hours playing Super Smash Bros will shorten kids’ attention spans, making them unable to sustain the attention to read a book. He’s more concerned that Super Smash Bros has trained kids’ brains to crave experiences that are more like fast-paced video games.
instead to help kids distinguish between the easy pleasures of some digital media, and the more complex payoff that comes when reaching the end of the Harry Potter series. He recommends telling kids that you want them to experience both, part of a larger strategy to make reading a family value.
“It’s watermelon or chocolate for dessert.
According to Julie Coiro, a reading researcher at the University of Rhode Island, moving from digital to paper and back again is only a piece of the attention puzzle: the larger and more pressing issue is how reading online is taxing kids’ attention.
Each time a student reads online content, Coiro said, they are faced with almost limitless input and decisions, including images, video and multiple hyperlinks that lead to even more information.