Digital Literacy

February 7, 2022 10:54 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Digital Literacy: Reading Digital Print Effectively

With the recent, and in some cases sudden, surge in digital learning, skillsets continue to emerge that are vital to student learning outcomes and the technologies that support them. Mastering the navigation of these shifts require digital literacy alongside traditional literacy. It is a vast and paperless landscape with the capacity to move forward and backward simultaneously, and thus no time to waste in teaching our students these important skills.


The definitions of digital literacy are consistently defined as a process of information creation and evaluation. The following three definitions are springboards from which to work in specific skills and subskills within effective literacy instruction:


Definition 1:

“The ability to create, navigate, and evaluate information on various digital platforms.” (Willingham, 2017)

Definition 2:

“The ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” American Library Association, 2020

Definition 3:

“The ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet.” Cornell University, 2020


2021 Digital Literacy Skills: What is Next? Let’s take a deep dive into exactly how literacy changes for students; where the gaps lie, and what the behaviors are that rise to the challenges, in consideration of one driving question: HH   How How is the use of deliberate reading strategy that incorporates background knowledge, decoding, phonemic awareness, phonological process and fluency, be potentially affected by an increase in the reading of electronic print?


The literature review that follows was conducted to answer this important question, and offers a number of proposed solutions by examining the reading habits of children and adolescents. Current studies have quantified general attitudes and habits that students employ when reading digitally. Findings indicate that with the use of intentional strategy, there can be an overall, positive effect on functional literacy with wide applications for teaching. An overview of evidence-based literacy strategies conclude this paper, along with a number of blended learning resources to support student learning.


First, the experiences of young and adolescent readers: As reading experiences continue to move online, and as the need continues to advance and strengthen reading skills, traditional reading skills need to change. Because the tactile nature of reading print on paper create a different reading experience, the process of scrolling, viewing pixels, hyperlinks, task-switching, etc., is one in which sequencing and memory for detail can be compromised (Mangen, 2015). Ideally, the printed and the digital should be used simultaneously, where one can enhance the other (Wolf, 2018). The strategies that worked with one medium do not necessarily translate to another, unless they are explicitly taught. The onus to teach these intentional strategies is on the teacher (Willingham, 2017; Wolf, 2018).


Screen vs. Paper


With the use of deliberate strategy, such as background knowledge, effective decoding, phonemic awareness, phonological processing, and fluency, the core process of reading from a screen undergoes change due to constant task-switching, and the continuous distraction involved in e-reading. For example, children raised without varied devices and with more human support do better on language tasks (Mangen, 2015). Missing eye-to-eye contact, focusing on one particular child, intonation, etc., can affect a student’s response to language instruction in a negative way because human interaction matters greatly in early literacy development. With information overload, background knowledge becomes more challenging to apply to reading, thus impeding the ability to predict, make inferences, deduce, etc., (Wolf, 2018). While engagement is important, the more enhanced an e-book, the more likely readers can become distracted from a story’s narrative (Mangen, 2015). There are, however, solutions to all of this, and they will come later. For now, let’s look at some statistics about digital consumption:


  • The average person in the U.S. consumes the equivalent of 10,000 to 50,000 words a day across digital devices (Wolf, 2018).
  • The average person in the U.S. reads the daily equivalent to the same number of words in a novel, but it is neither sustained nor continuous reading, and is more equivalent to “bursts of activity” (Wolf, 2018).
  • As of 2015, the average amount of time by 3 to 5-year-olds spent on digital devices was 4 hours per day, up 52 percent from 2013.
  • As of 2015, ninety-percent of teens owned or used smartphones, and spent on average 90% screen time texting (Lenhart, 2015).
  • On average, people in their twenties checked their cell phones between 150 and 190 times a day. They also switch media over 20 times an hour (Wolf, 2018).
  • Teens use digital technologies on average of 8 hours per day (Willingham, 2017). Reading among teens has not increased or decreased statistically since 1999, from 21 minutes per day to now 28.
  • There has been a noted decline of 40% in empathy among young people and college students in the last two decades, most taking place after 2000. Online navigation at the cost of real-time interaction is largely to blame (Turkle, 2015).
  • Constant activity and increased screen time – or attachment to one’s digital device – has an effect on cognition, an important aspect to the reading process with residual effects that are vital to meaning-making, perspective, and empathy (Wolf, 2018).


The Academic Cost


Young readers often struggle with reconstructing a narrative and remembering details. They are more likely to remember sequence and details of plot when reading on screen (Mangen, 2015). While it is widely known that reading improves comprehension through broader background knowledge, vocabulary, and with pictorial representation of words, the gain for students on the World Wide Web are typically not content-rich enough to factor in or make a great difference (Willingham, 2017). In addition to scrolling, interruptions from advertisements and third party feeds, along with greater multi-tasking, the quality of reading will ultimately depend upon the choices one makes while reading, especially in the process of deep reading, regardless of the medium (Wolf, 2018). “It takes years for deep-reading processes to be formed, and as a society we need to be sure that we are vigilant about their development in our young from a very early age” (Wolf, p. 38, 2018).


Features That Help or Hinder Comprehension


The success of a reading application hinges upon many factors that must work and sync together with precision: complimenting ancillary materials, digital content, pacing, reviews, and assessment all matter. It is less about the content, and more about the workings and features of the application itself.


In many studies, e-readers are shown to be superior for reading comprehension, phonological awareness, and in knowledge of letters (Wolf, 2018). There are wide variances when parent-child interaction is involved in reading an e-book together, both good and bad. Results revealed that parent–child dialogic reading and children’s story comprehension were both negatively affected by the presence of electronic features (Parish-Morris, et al., 2011; Wolf, 2018). Attention is influenced by switching among multiple digital devices with rapid web-surfing and task-switching among applications that result in over-stimulation. Changes in design can result in differences in comprehension, some more positive than others. For instance, comprehension is better when navigating a book by flipping virtual pages versus scrolling (Kretzschmar, et al., 2013 In: Willingham, 2017). Multiple digital distractors were found to interfere with comprehension. Users report having to exert more effort when reading from a screen due to hypelinks, third-party links, pop-up ads, multiple applications running in the background, and the lack of organization in which content is often laid out (Connell, et al., 2012; Daniel & Woody, 2013; Ackerman & Lauterman, 2012).  Without these types of distractors, e-reading can result in experiences that allow readers a seamless experience with access to important spatial cues. This works into deep comprehension, and is perhaps why survey data show consistent numbers of students prefer paper textbooks to electronic, with Kindles used for “lighter” reading. Design is of utmost importance consideration of its impact on student reading outcomes (Willingham, 2017; Wolf, 2018).


The Impact on Writing:


Textese is a term used to describe how words are pared down to bare communication essentials in order to effectuate short sound bites of information, distributed via instant messaging channels. Unnecessary words are omitted, as are capitalization, and punctuation.  Accurate spelling is also replaced with acronyms. This is fully acceptable speech when using it to communicate via text, but it doesn’t translate to the real world of writing, nor does it transfer to the expectations in K-12 learning. When students use this type of communication, it is often found to transfer into academic writing tasks. In addition, textese is associated with poor word reading and spelling in older students (Drouin & Driver, 2012). With advances in technology, and with wider availability of built-in spell and grammar checks, there are now allowances for less textese resulting from auto-correction and the insertion.  However, the transfer, or lack of proper transfer, can continue to be problematic without explicit teaching to the contrary (Common Sense Media, 2017).


The Cognitive Cost

There are mixed reviews when it comes to what human brain undergoes as a result of online learning and reading print in digital format versus ink. Carr (2011) proposes that changes occur due to the rapid attention shifts that take place, and that media works a type of “magic and mischief” on the nervous system that results in changes to the plasticity of the human brain. This presumes however, that the reader is passive. I, along with many of my colleagues, propose that as long as readers can read with intention and strategy, students are far from passive, even when reading online. More current research by Willingham (2017) proposes that the cognitive system is too complex to undergo a fundamental change as the result of shifts in attention, because it is an interdependent system and would therefore affect every other facet: vision, memory, problem solving, etc. He proposes that instead, readers have developed less tolerance for boredom, changed expectations, or are less able (or perhaps willing) to be in a state of presence when reading. Less serious reading involved in web surfing, navigating multiple topics, and skimming can result in a lack of organization and the ability to read deeply (Rosenwald, 2014). With intentional strategy however, this too can be overcome. The human brain is pliable, adaptable, always changing, and resilient (Gupta, 2021). It is possible to rise to the challenges of e-readers as long as the right strategies are deployed (Jensen, 2007, 2013; Wolf, 2018).


Implications for Early Literacy

Effective literacy instruction and curriculum design can accommodate effective digital reading. For example, balancing digital devices with real-time, human interaction was found to build reading strength and learner capacity because each builds upon the crucial processes of foundational reading (Wolf, 2018). e-readers for example, when designed effectively, are shown to be superior for reading comprehension, phonological awareness, and in knowledge of letters (Wolf, 2018). Children must be exposed equally to digital devices and print. It is recommended that early exposure to digital media be strategic, gradual, and intentional, and that the two (print and digital) be taught simultaneously. Teaching students the concepts of media and how to navigate multi-media is akin to teaching them the concepts of print. Decisions about what constitutes developmentally appropriate digital content and lessons that include moderate use with limitations on their access between the ages of 2 and 5 is pivotal to appropriate decision-making and strategy use in their choice of reading behaviors later on. It is important that their habits not become constantly flooded with screen time (Wolf, 2018).  In addition:

  • Use physical books and print as the driving medium in Pre-K through grade 1. For emerging readers, gradually increase exposure to digital print in early childhood from the ages of 2 to 3-years-old. Work from a few minutes a day to a half hour, with little more than 2 hours a day (Wolf, 2018).
  • Introduce simple, novel design in the first 5 to 10 year period of child’s introduction to digital media (Wolf, 2018).
  • Use dual-language strategies and the code switching process used by second language learners for linguistic flexibility. Have students use these skillsets when working across digital devices and applications. Teach them first separately and then together to help them develop a parallel fluency in digital print (Wolf, 2018).
  • Develop a “biliterate brain” that allows children the capacity to make decisions about time and attention, with the overarching goal of deep reading regardless of medium (Wolf, p. 177, 2018).
  • Seek out websites specifically created to help parents and teachers evaluate technical applications to make responsible decisions about adoption (Wolf, 2018).
  • Use the 3 C’s when seeking out new apps: Child, Content, Context (Wolf, 2018).
  • Work with children in the first few minutes of using a new application and learn alongside them to find out what engages them. Allow these experiences to drive instructional decisions in lesson planning (Wolf, 2018).
  • Teach all students age and grade-appropriate concepts about print, just as one would teach concepts of traditional print to include: page-to-page navigation, location of chapter titles, subtitles, drawing inferences, reading images, dealing with distractors and link-outs, and how to utilize vocabulary support tools among others.

Of great emphasis from all of the research is the importance of teaching emergent readers how to read and navigate digital print as early on in their reading development as possible, or as soon as they are exposed to digital devices. Teach them how to allocate time to both print and to the devices they read from. All will hinge upon the circumstances of their reading, and their reading goals: reading for entertainment, for fluency, skimming for information, pre-reading and prediction, review, or deeper reading for higher cognition. Teach them to slow down, stop and think at designated intervals; to reflect, predict, and draw conclusions about their reading. Skimming and darting around from one place to the next can be an alternative mode of thought, and reading at a slower pace will allow them to apply thoughtful, deeper reading skills. This is vital for online reading because the tendency and temptation is to move quickly, especially with the more engaging applications. Once students feel competent and confident about their reading, they will self-actualize these processes to become proficient, independent readers.


Conclusions (download references here)

There is no evidence that there are physical, irreversible changes to the brain as the result of technology use. There is evidence however, that different processes are invoked when reading digital versus printed material.

Changes in the strategies used to read effectively and re-negotiate information when reading electronically must change.

It is important that students be taught digital reading strategies in the emergent reading stages. Strategies for reading print should be taught first, with reading from digital devices next, and finally, taught simultaneously, similar to the second language learner track. Strategies should include approaches for deeper reading, self-monitoring, recall, and strategy switching as determined by the learner. Media literacy is also important in teaching older students how to skim and scan effectively, screen for credible versus less credible information, and self-pace their own reading effort to make digital reading most effective.

Students can learn to adapt with proper adjustment to reading digital print effectively. While it is found that students read more now than ever before, there is concrete evidence that this volume of reading does not translate to better or deeper reading (Willingham, 2017; Wolf, 2018). There are a number of actions that can be taken to mitigate the negative effects of reading online while strengthening literacy skills simultaneously. These include:

  • Encourage students to avoid succumbing to distractors and reading in zig-zag fashion. This is crucial to the deep reading process, and are the same traditional processes used when reading print, only must now be organized differently when reading on digital applications.
  • Teach navigation of the World Wide Web as early on as possible, ideally when students begin to execute web quests. Teach them how to conduct online research for legitimate sources, with purpose, and how to deploy analytical skills to discern credible information from false information. In addition:
  • Teach site navigation and conventions, menu systems and their hierarchal structures. While many of navigational structures are similar, they can vary slightly across platforms.
  • Teach how to evaluate author’s credentials and tracing a domain to evaluate whether it is commercial, educational, or government.
  • Check for page updates and teach students how to use updated information as a baseline for credibility.
  • Teach students how to check for backlinks and discern negative from positive as they too help determine a site’s credibility.

Finally, among the many foundational reading courses we have at Blended by Design, we have a number of student-facing courses that teach digital literacy and web navigation for all learners. All courses come with a comprehensive teaching guide for immediate classroom application with blended learning, and for turnkey professional development.

Click into our course catalog to learn about what we have to offer in teaching digital literacy.