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Reading on Screens Worsens Comprehension for Younger Students. What Can Teachers Do?

Study after study has shown that reading on screens just doesn’t have the same benefit as reading print books. But where does that leave teachers, who often are required to use both formats in their classrooms?

The question has surfaced again in light of a new metanalysis, published in December, which concluded that digital reading doesn’t provide the same comprehension benefits that print reading does. The paper examined 26 studies of leisure reading in K-12 and university students, published over the past two decades.

For some students, digital reading was actually detrimental: The researchers found that reading on screens lowered reading comprehension skills among younger students, those in elementary and middle school grades.

The results surprised Joe Pizzo, a 7th grade integrated language-arts teacher at Black River Middle School in Chester, N.J., who has been in the classroom for five decades.

“Kids are so connected with electronics. Sometimes they seem to be born with a device in their hands,” Pizzo said. “It’s the connection that they have with the world.”

Still, experts have cautioned that even digital natives—this generation of children who have been exposed to devices since early childhood—may not learn best on screens. Researchers have found that brain activity in regions associated with reading was weaker in children who read less print and engaged in more screen time. (For more on these findings, see this story.)

At the same time, the number of digital devices in classrooms is growing, having expanded in the wake of the pandemic.

Ninety percent of district leaders said that every high school and middle school student in their schools had their own digital learning device in 2021, compared to about two-thirds of district leaders in 2019, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey.

“Digital is not going to go away. We need that in education,” said Cherity Pennington, the library services coordinator in the Shawnee, Okla., schools. “But we also need to give students that opportunity to grow as readers and to experience fiction and nonfiction texts the way they want to for enjoyment.”

‘When they think of their devices, they’re not thinking of reading’

The overall positive connection between digital leisure reading and comprehension in the metanalysis was statistically significant, but small—especially compared to previous analyses of print reading, which show medium effect sizes on comprehension, the authors write.

“In terms of effect sizes, this is basically null,” said Lidia Altamura García, a doctoral student in developmental and educational psychology at the University of Valencia in Spain, and the lead author on the study. Students don’t improve their comprehension skills much by reading digital text.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why reading on screens worsens comprehension skills for younger students, she said.

“It’s a possibility that the children are still learning to read, so they need to consolidate this ability first,” Altamura García said. “It seems that the digital devices are not helping them to learn these skills. But the older students might already have these skills.”

Some educators say that even their older students prefer print books when it comes to reading for pleasure. “In fact, our high school [librarian] this year decided to cut down on the number of e-books that she was ordering, because so many of her students wanted the print format,” Pennington said.

Pennington has heard from her colleagues that students don’t see their phones or computers as a medium for getting lost in a book. “When they think of their devices, they’re not thinking of reading. They’re thinking of school work, or social media if it’s their phone,” she said.

Other teachers have observed students use digital books as a way to skirt reading requirements.

Susan Hess, an English teacher and the department chair at James B. Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, Ill., teaches a class with many struggling readers. She makes time for them to do some independent reading of their choice each day, and finds that her students are about evenly split—half choose to read on a device; the other half pick print books.

The kids who choose digital are more likely to get off task, she said. “They can flip between the digital book, and then when I turn around they pull up a game or whatever,” she said.

Digital reading for pleasure vs. in class

Altamura García and her colleagues only examined leisure reading—they didn’t analyze studies of assigned reading for class or homework.

But other research has raised questions about the value of screens in class, she said. The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, a global test of 15-year-olds’ abilities in reading, math, and science, also collects information about students’ instructional technology use.

“There are several studies that have found a negative correlation between ICT use in class and values on the test,” Altamura García said, adding that it’s an area ripe for additional research.

Still, the answer isn’t to “just blame screens,” she said. “We need to adopt a multiple approach, with different stakeholders and teachers. Everybody needs to work together to foster reading comprehension. … It’s not only a measure of the medium.”

Educators agreed. Students need to be prepared when digital delivery is the only option, said Pennington, the library services coordinator in Oklahoma.

The district’s libraries can offer resources on recent events, such as news articles or research papers, only in a digital format. “We simply cannot afford to provide that in print,” she said.

As a result, teachers might have to spend time instructing students in how to read an online text, a task that requires “different skills and habits,” said Hess.

Researchers recommend that teachers work together with students to reduce distractions, perhaps by blocking the internet on devices that students use for reading, or putting their phones in another location. Teachers can also encourage students to monitor their own comprehension, setting goals for what they hope to take away from the text. (For more, see this story.)

Other lessons are more logistical, Hess said: How should students organize notes or files in a digital space?

And even digital natives need training in online safety, she added. “You can’t click on every single hyperlink,” Hess said.

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