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Learning Library Blog Teach students how to read — and understand — digital text
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Teach students how to read — and understand — digital text

By Jerry Fingal
April 17, 2020
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Creating online educational content isn’t as simple as transferring printed materials to a virtual space. One of the barriers, researchers have found, is that students don’t comprehend online text as deeply as printed materials.

There are many reasons for this: People have a tendency to read online text very quickly, skimming and skipping from one line and paragraph to the next. There are more distractions online, with many opportunities to follow one’s thoughts wherever clicks lead. It’s also easier to multitask. And eye fatigue can interfere with concentration.

Michele Eaton, the director of virtual and blended learning for the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis, sees the research as a call for educators to tailor online learning materials and strategies to account for the difference in comprehension.

Use different strategies for digital text

Eaton says the research isn’t an argument for not using digital materials. Knowing about the research has made her aware of her own tendency to skim online text. But that doesn’t mean she is reading less digital text day in and day out. The same goes for students.

“What we have to do as teachers is really intentionally design learning experiences specific to digital text to shrink that comprehension gap. I think it's our responsibility to help students be biliterate, to be able to switch from print to digital and back without loss of comprehension.”

How does a teacher do that? Eaton says she often cites the work of Devin Hess, a former teacher and independent tech integration specialist, who suggests four steps:

  • Slow down
  • Actively engage
  • Discuss orally
  • Reflect

The goal is to disrupt the tendency to skim and instead create interaction with digital text. Here are some strategies educators can use: 

Incorporate pencil and paper. 

“Research tells us is that any sort of active reading strategy we can do with digital texts has a really positive impact,” she said. “Sometimes that involves paper and pencil and asking students to do certain exercises on paper while they're reading.”

Use digital annotation features.

Creating digital documents that can be annotated is another option. Eaton says she likes to move digital text into a collaborative environment, such as Google Docs or Microsoft Teams, with built-in highlighting tools, commenting, the ability to take notes and other features.  

Teach students how to read digitally.

Another strategy is to offer direct instruction on how to read digital text. As a second-grade teacher a decade ago, Eaton recalls creating materials that showed children how to read different kinds of text. In those lessons, she always referenced print text. Eaton suggests similar direct instruction on digital materials, whether it’s a blog post, a nonfiction story or an infographic.

“I think it's really important for teachers to intentionally introduce various types of text, to show students the features of those texts, and then, do those think-alouds. I used to do that all the time as a second-grade teacher, I would talk out loud about my thinking. They could see the reading strategy I was using. We need to do the same thing with digital text.”

Keep the learning going during COVID-19! Explore the resources.

Eaton also suggests keeping in mind the intent of digital materials. Research has also shown that digital text can be the best way to convey simple factual information. If that’s the intent, materials should be designed with digital consumption in mind. That means highlighting keywords, using bulleted lists and organizing materials in the inverted-pyramid style with the most important information at the top and the least at the bottom.

With so many teachers moving to online learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the design of digital learning materials is bound to get more attention.

“Teachers aren’t formally trained in college on the differences between how we learn and interact online versus a more traditional setting,” she said. “And so we do a lot of things with good intentions, because we don't know any better. I think part of part of the problem when online learning isn't effective is that we're trying to simply replicate that traditional experience in an online format.

“We’re getting the word out. When you know better, you do better.”

Hear Eaton lay out her ideas for incorporating the research into online learning in the recorded ISTE Expert Webinar, “But I Prefer a Book: Making Sense of Content in a Digital World.” Eaton will discuss the research about reading online vs. print, and offer tips and teaching strategies for maximizing student comprehension of online materials.


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