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Teacher question:

 A colleague asked me about using e-books in high school science classes instead of textbooks. I like the idea that e-books might be more current and kids would likely read outside of class if they didn’t have to lug a huge book home. However, I remember reading something about the brain processing the reading of e-books differently than traditional texts. Do you know of any sound research on that?

Shanahan’s response:

I knew this question was coming.

Back about 25 years ago or so, I just knew someone would ask me about such reading. So I conducted a small study.

No, I didn’t do a real study. Not the kind of empirical investigation that I would publish in a journal or anything. I conducted a kind of personal investigation to gain some insights based on experience until real research existed on this topic.

I knew someone would eventually want to know about digital reading so I “read” four books:

  • I read an adult novel silently (usually in bed just before sleep).
  • I read a children’s novel aloud to one of my daughters in the evening before her bedtime.
  • I listened to a recorded book in the car while driving to and from work.
  • I read a book online (Dracula from Project Guttenberg) on a computer (pads didn’t yet exist) usually over lunch.

The point of engaging in these different kinds of reading simultaneously was to see if there were any differences in my experiences as a reader. One thing stood out to me about the digital reading:

My digital reading was more like skimming than reading. I was coming away with a general idea of the plot, but I wasn’t developing a highly detailed memory of it. I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t find myself reading it particularly critically.

Remember, I didn’t have to do any of this reading. I chose to do it. I picked the books myself, too. There was nothing unpleasant about any of it, and yet I found myself hurrying along, skimming over sections in a blur in a way that I did not with the other readings. Of course, reading aloud or listening to a tape limits the amount of skimming one can do (you can be inattentive with listening to a text, but you can’t skim per se, and reading aloud forces a thorough or complete processing of the words at the very least).

Since my personal exploration of the problem, there have been many systematic studies into the issues that you raise. I didn’t find any evidence concerning different neural processing for digital and traditional reading, but I did find lots of data that should give you pause in using such texts to help teach science.

  1. You assume that kids will like using e-books because they won’t have to tote a heavy textbook. That may be true, but generally, studies seem to report that kids don’t like reading digitally as much as with traditional text (Chou, 2016; Ketron & Naletelich, 2016; Walton, 2013; Woody, 2010). Whatever you gain in happiness about a lighter backpack may be lost in terms of how kids negative feelings about this reading itself. I know in popular culture the idea is that kids love everything electronic and that they prefer to live on their screens. However, true any of that may be, it appears not to be the case when it comes to reading an extended text. We simply are not there yet (and Scholastic’s annual surveys with younger kids suggest that it might be a while before we get there).
  2. There is some research suggesting that it is a bad idea to project light into one’s eyes too close to bedtime (Chang, Aeschbach Duffy, & Czeisler, 2015). It disrupts one’s sleep and reduces next morning alertness (unlike reading the reflected light of a traditional page). Perhaps the e-book reading will be done late in the afternoon or with reversed text, but just as likely it may reduce your students’ science success — at least for those who have your class early in the day.
  3. But here is the kicker. Most studies find that your students are likely to be like me. They don’t read as well when reading digitally (Ackerman & Goldsmith, 2011; Baron, 2015; Huang, et al., 2013; Jabr, 2013; Wolf, 2008) and traditional reading is related to growth in inference making in comprehension, but digital reading experience is not (Duncan, McGeown, Griffiths, Stothard, & Dobai, 2016). Your students might be able to gain purchase on main ideas that are high in an information hierarchy in the e-books, but they can be expected to lag in learning the details that support those main ideas (Singer & Alexander, 2017). Studies also suggest that even when students comprehend digital texts almost as well as traditional texts, their memory for this information deteriorates more quickly (Garland, 2003). In other words, e-books are not likely to help your kids learn science, as well as traditional science texts, will.

Given all of that, you’d think that I would conclude that digital texts are a bad idea.

That is not the case.

The fact is e-books are coming. Whether you assign them now or hold off for a few years, you will eventually do so (e-book reading has a lot of benefits — ecologically, economically, factually in terms of providing up-to-date scientific information, etc.).

If you are going to assign e-reading, then I suggest the following:

Teach your students about the problems of e-texts and brainstorm with them how they can overcome these limitations.

Help your students to slow down and intensify their digital reading. Provide greater amounts of scaffolding for electronic reading than you would for traditional reading.

For example, have the students take formal notes — by hand. Perhaps provide them with a structural organizer for a chapter, an organizer that graphically shows them the relations among the various ideas or concepts. Then have them record their notes within this structure and review these with the students to see if they have managed to grasp the key ideas.

Or, provide them with questions or tasks that require them to connect the main ideas with the supporting details.

Or, give them greater opportunity to reread and review the texts.  

Indeed, assign e-books, but make sure that your kids can read them as well as they can read traditional science text.

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
November 15, 2017