Why digital natives need books: The myth of the digital native
First Monday

Why digital natives need books: The myth of the digital native by Hildegunn Stole



Abstract
This article is concerned with children’s reading development in the important years from when they begin learning to read to the age when the child reaches adequate reading comprehension to read to learn from a variety of texts on diverse subjects. Like any skill, reading skill requires relevant and extensive training. We have tended to think that children growing up in the digital era get plenty reading training from digital devices and that this is as efficient as reading books was for earlier generations. Due to this optimism, we have paid too little attention to whether extensive use of digital devices actually provide children with relevant reading training during the important years that efficient reading is developed. The author holds that book reading still has its place in education.

Contents

Introduction: The myth of the digital native
Learning to read in a digital era
Reading and learning from screens and from paper
Discussion: What do large-scale reading assessments tell us about reading?
Conclusions: Book readers become better screen readers

 


 

Introduction: The myth of the digital native

How do children acquire good reading skills in our digital era? In answering this question, focus will be on the youngest “digital natives”, i.e., pre-schoolers and children in their first years of schooling from around 5 to 12 years of age. The term “student” in this article thus refers to a rather different age and skills group than the late teens or twenty-something students that so often occur as informants in research on (digital) reading competence. Quite a few studies have explored reading comprehension of older students comparing effects from paper versus screen (see Singer and Alexander, 2017, for an overview). However valuable, such studies do not tell us how college or university students have acquired the reading skills that first prepare them for reading well (or not so well) in diverse media. This article aims at clarifying some issues in this regard: Is it true that young digital natives learn better from digital technologies than they do from print? Do education systems prompting the use of digital technologies in school get value for money in terms of higher skills levels, as measured in international surveys? What does recent research tell us about successful reading development among young digital natives in media-rich environments?

The term “digital natives”, coined by Prensky (2001a; 2001b), caught on among scholars and laymen alike, making us believe that children growing up in the digital age took to new ways of learning and interacting and, as a consequence, required the same technology-rich learning environment in school as they experienced in their spare time. Prensky (2001a; 2001b) described the Digital Native thus:

... they are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to ‘,serious’, work.

These sweeping generalisations of an entire generation of students emphasise preferences without considering that what learners prefer is not necessarily what they need for successful learning. Singer and Alexander (2016) found that 90 undergraduate students preferred reading digitally and believed that they performed better on a digital reading comprehension test than on a print-based test, but their results did not support their suppositions. On the contrary, the students were overconfident with their digital reading results and more precise regarding their print performance. Further, they recalled key points better from paper reading.

The “net generation” (Tapscott, 1998), is another term applied for these students. They were characterised as “exceptionally curious, self-reliant, contrarian, smart, focused, able to adapt, high in self-esteem, and has a global orientation ... there has been a change in the way children gather, accept and retain information” (Tapscott, 1997). However, empirical research of actual digital native behaviour has since shown that the digital native is a myth (e.g., Bennett and Maton, 2010; Moran, 2016). Among digital native university students in the U.K., Jones and Shao (2011) found no evidence of a uniform requirement for education to adapt new digital tools for learning.

There is not one digital native profile, but many. Some play games extensively, while others do not. Many are avid users of mobile technologies for socialising; they are on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Messenger and they tweet. A few have blogs or vlogs (video logs rather than text-based blogs), while others “couldn’t care less” about blogging or vlogging. Most digital natives consume, rather than actively create, digital content (Fraillon, et al., 2014). Many check news and other short text on digital devices, but few read lengthy text unless they have to for school or study. Further, the typical multitasking behaviour described by Prensky comes with a cognitive cost also for digital natives (e.g., Moran, 2016): it is detrimental to effective learning. Neither is there a clear generational divide between the technologically competent, critical and autonomous digital native and the older incompetent digital immigrant who always lags behind. These profiles are oversimplifications of digital users, young as well as adult.

It is true that children and adolescents spend much time using digital devices of many sorts, but they tend to use them for entertainment, socialising and information seeking (Livingstone, et al., 2014; Fraillon, et al., 2014), not for creative or critical use. To illustrate, a smartphone user may, in just a few minutes, download an app to find information about when the next bus leaves; send a message to a friend about a possible delay, while at the same time checking out what happens among a group of Facebook friends, and watch a funny YouTube cat video shared by a complete stranger. It is fast, practical and fun, and many so-called digital immigrants master it, too. In contrast, only few exploit the possibilities offered by digital media of creating content on their own or develop technology skills beyond that of a user, skills predicted by digital learning optimists to be widespread among a generation growing up in media rich environments (Fraillon, et al., 2014).

Children have become an important market for new mobile technologies, such as tablets and smartphones — parents buy them for ever-younger offspring. None of us wants our children to lag behind their peers, do we? There are many reasons to provide youngsters with their own mobile devices: we want to be able to communicate with them when they are away from home, or even track their devices; youngsters themselves want to be able to communicate with friends. It is also very convenient if the tablet keeps the toddler busy while mum (or dad) is busy working on the home office computer (or checking Facebook).

Yet, many parents are aware that they should place their toddler on the lap and read kids’ books together. This parent-child-book interaction prepares a child for successful literacy development (Valencia and Sulzby, 1991; McCardle, et al., 2001), the initial grasping of the essentials of script: letters, signs, the direction of text (left to right in many alphabets, right to left in others etc.). These are foundations of script literacy whether the script is printed or electronic, but for a small child they are probably more easily presented in the form of tangible books than from screens. Children who come to school without such experiences risk lagging behind in reading development permanently. We can only hope that parents will continue acknowledging such emergent literacy (Sulzby, 1990) practices even when they are digital natives themselves.

 

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Learning to read in a digital era

Many studies on children’s media use around the turn of the millennium related observations of how easily and willingly children seemed to adopt new digital media. Such observations often gave the optimistic impression that “all” children mastered new technologies, they enjoyed using them and they were not afraid of clicking buttons. These studies most often did not check learning effects or individual differences. Since then, of course, computers have become more user-friendly for adults and for children, and more child-friendly and pedagogical content has entered the market. The smartphone and the tablet opened up digital resources for ever more varied use and new groups of users.

Many toddlers show an interest in phones and tablets as toys. Little wonder, when they see their parents use them constantly. Such toys can be highly engaging, and they can no doubt be used to learn. For instance, the alphabetical principle, that letters relate to sounds, can be learnt via fun games. However, this technical aspect (decoding) of reading acquisition is merely a first step to reading. From this initial foundation, it usually takes years of training and literacy experience before the child can read and comprehend a variety of unknown texts for learning purposes (Chall, 1983).

Selecting pedagogically sound games depends on parents’ awareness that they exist and their engaged support in a child playing them. Not all children have access to pedagogical games and not all children prefer them to games that might be more fun but not as useful. We may learn in the future that rather than having plentiful access to digital devices, the important differences among learners will be what they choose to use their devices for. Those who like to challenge themselves and expand their knowledge base, have many opportunities to do so from digital devices and the Internet (and books!), while those finding life more pleasant without such challenges, can choose to engage in digital media merely for relaxation. In most workplaces, the first category would be preferred.

Talking of the workplace, this is another arena for digital learning. Many digital immigrants, the old and wary among us, have had to learn new information and communication technologies (henceforth ICT), such as various search engines, electronic documentation, registering for a seminar or booking a flight. (Once we master it, though, the workplace replaces our computers, intranet system, travel agency, communication platforms and other ICT software.) How come we digital immigrants cope? And why is the slogan “Learning for the future’ so often associated with learning digital skills, when the most ephemeral phenomenon we presently have, is digital technologies including software? If there is one thing of which we can be certain, it is that the digital tools we learn to use today will not be those of the future.

There is good reason to believe that some of the digital skills children need for the future, they learn effortlessly and informally at home, while other, critical skills they should learn at school (Fraillon, et al., 2014), and the future will still provide them with opportunities to master new technological developments. What children need is the ability to read well in order to navigate the new media, to read information critically whether it be on paper or screen and to meet ever new demands put on them as adults in rapidly changing work landscapes. Children will need to be able to read well in order to, for example, correctly program the robot that will be sterilising surgical instruments in the future. In many countries, there are hardly any jobs any longer that do not require reading skills beyond those of the generations before us. Learning to read well is therefore more important than ever.

 

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Reading and learning from screens and from paper

It is often assumed that digital technologies are equal to or better than paper for all kinds of learning. Digital technologies no doubt make possible new activities in the classroom, and with didactically sound implementation, they can help student reach many of their learning goals (Sung, et al., 2016). Students growing up in countries investing in ICT for education, typically use these learning resources for seeking information, writing essays and producing presentations, because school requires it of them. Sadly, only few young people use their digital devices for spare time in-depth reading. One reason may be that they find other digital activities more appealing (chatting or gaming) or necessary (school tasks), than reading longer texts for enjoyment and learning. Another reason may be that such reading is more difficult on screens than on paper, especially if the screen has Internet connectivity and therefore many possible distractions.

Concentrated in-depth or immersed reading may have become harder for anyone who uses digital media and the Internet extensively, as typical fast-paced reading patterns connected with online reading seem to influence all kinds of reading, whatever the purpose. Several reading researchers suggest explanations. For instance, Liu (2005) found that reading behaviour changed during the decade of mid 1990s to around 2005, probably due to changes in skimming and scanning patterns that we often employ when reading online. Googling information, we skim results quickly to find the most relevant hit, while we scan online newspaper headlines in search of news that interests us. We read quickly and respond quickly to messages in social media. Baron (2015) suggests that such fast and shallow reading behaviour may spill over also to reading purposes that demand concentration and immersion: what Wolf and Barzillai (2009) call “deep reading”. Deep reading allows for comprehension and critical reflection, which are skills that we need in order to perform successful Web searches, for example. Children easily learn to search in Google, but this does not mean that they find the most relevant and reliable sources — they might just pick the first source they retrieve. Paradoxically, it may be that deep reading best prepares children for successful online “shallow” reading like searching, skimming and scanning.

Deep reading can be performed on screens. In fact, some digital devices, such as the Kindle, are specifically designed for reading long text, typically novels. However, as suggested by van der Weel and Kovač in the their initial paper in this special issue, ebooks seem to substitute rather than complement print book markets. Already avid book readers invest in an e-reader dedicated to book reading, and they are most likely adults with surplus income. Students prefer more flexible digital media that can also be used for Internet searches, spellchecking, downloading films and music etc. There are most likely very few who start reading ebooks if they do not already enjoy reading in print form.

Research supports that young students tend to underutilise digital devices for deep reading. Merga and Roni (2016) found among a sample of Western Australian children 8 to 11 years old, that even those students who reported reading books daily, did not often do so on their digital devices. Contrary to expectations, access to a diversity of digital devices does not lead to more reading of long text. Reading frequency of long text in fact decreased systematically with the number of personal digital devices children had. Access to mobile phones, especially, was associated with infrequent reading.

There is a tendency among educational authorities to assume that children prefer reading on screens for all kinds of texts, and thus Australian authorities decided that school and public libraries opt for ebooks at the expense of printed matter, even if the loan rates for ebooks were low (Merga and Roni, 2016). It remains to be seen whether children will start preferring ebooks to print, but thus far, there is little to support this expectation. Children who do like to immerse themselves in reading seem to prefer print, while they use their digital devices for other things.

As mentioned in the Introduction to this special issue (Kovač and van der Weel), reading long text is demanding. Reading them on screen may be even harder, especially for beginning readers. Therefore, homes, kindergartens, school libraries and classrooms should continue to stock printed books for children, to provide for emergent literacy skills in kindergarten, and to provide primary school children with plenty opportunities for extensive reading. International large-scale reading assessments tell us more about reading for enjoyment and its correlation with reading comprehension.

 

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Discussion: What do large-scale reading assessments tell us about reading?

International surveys of reading competence have started assessing how well children read on screen. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) has assessed print reading literacy among 10-year olds since 2001 using a paper booklet of text and items probing a variety of reading processes that together measure reading comprehension. The PIRLS survey is repeated every five years among new cohorts of 10-year old students. In 2016, this assessment for the first time provided an additional test of online informational reading that the students responded to using computers (Mullis, et al., 2017b).

In addition to the skills test, PIRLS includes a range of questionnaires, probing, for instance, students’ reading habits and ICT use. What emerged in Norway from ePIRLS 2016, was that the amount of spare time book reading showed a linear, positive correlation with student results from an online assessment of informational reading; the amount of computer use at school did not (Støle and Schwippert, 2017).

It may seem unexpected that reading books for fun should be related to reading achievement in a test of informational reading only, and in an online environment at that. Both the reading purpose (information rather than fiction) and the medium (computer rather than paper) differ from the factor demonstrating the strongest correlation with good e-reading performance, namely spare time book reading. This result, however, is in line with recent research (Pfost, et al. 2013; Duncan, et al., 2016) which has found that book reading is indeed the best predictor of reading skill among children who have grown up with digital devices, the so-called digital natives.

Another large-scale survey, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for 15-year olds, has implemented additional digital tests every three years since 2006 (from 2018, PISA will be digital only). The PISA study measures not only reading, but also mathematics and natural science. PISA measured screen reading for the first time in 2009. It appeared that computer use at home was related to digital reading performance, whereas computer use at school was not, even after accounting for students’ academic abilities, i.e., subtracting students who use computers as special needs compensation [1]. The PISA report — Students, computers and learning: Making the connection (based on the 2012 survey) — concludes:

“while PISA results suggest that limited use of computers at school may be better than not using computers at all, using them more intensively than the current OECD average tends to be associated with significantly poorer student performance.” [2]

Further, PISA trend measurements show no evidence that increased access to digital technologies over time improved student results in reading, mathematics and science. Contrary to the expectations of many, the OECD could not report any clear relation between a country’s investment in digital technologies in education and its results in reading, mathematics and natural science.

The patterns in Norway for ePIRLS 2016 resemble those of PISA 2012 (OECD, 2015): frequent, i.e., daily, computer/tablet use for school tasks at school or at home, is related to relatively poor results on the digital reading test. The best results occur among those students who report less frequent computer use, once or twice a month at school (Støle and Schwippert, 2017). As of yet, these are correlations only, not explanations, and must be studied further in the future. We shall know more after 2021, when the second round of ePIRLS has been conducted.

In the meantime, Norwegian educational authorities have decided that each child acquire their own tablet at school from the first grade in 2018. From PIRLS we know that more than 99 percent of Norwegian students have at least one computer or tablet at home they can use for study, and more than 98 percent report that they have Internet access. International test results show that extensive computer use at school does not enhance key skills, such as reading. Whatever learning computerised school tasks may lead to, there is good reason to believe that reading comprehension is not one of them. For this, students had better spend their time reading a book.

Book reading

Unfortunately, book reading is in decline among both 10-year-old children and their parents according to their respective responses to the PIRLS questionnaires since 2001 (Mullis, et al., 2017a). For close to two decades, the PISA survey has also measured spare-time reading, documenting a reduction in spare-time book reading among 15-year olds. One possible explanation for declining reading rates is that of displacement, meaning that children spend increasing amounts of time on digital media, leaving less time for pleasure reading. Even if they can use their devices for book reading, few of them do so (Merga and Roni, 2016).

When fewer parents read books (Mullis, et al., 2017a), fewer children will see book-reading role models. In many cultures, it is also likely that fewer parents read print magazines or newspapers, as so much of the former print-based material has moved online. What many children see is parents reading on computers and laptops, tablets like iPads and smartphones, or dedicated e-readers, such as Kindles. The latter two offer very different opportunities for immersed reading (see the introduction to this special issue, “Reading in a post-textual era”), but they both look like a tablet or mini-computer. To a child, there is no telling whether mum or dad is engaged in immersed book reading or scanning through Facebook posts.

In fact, parents’ book ownership has been a stable indicator of childrens’ school success for decades. The most recent PIRLS survey employed a combined variable to cross-nationally express children’s “home resources for learning” [3] to detect the relationship between home background and reading achievement. Nonetheless, the simple measure of how many books parents own, still shows a linear, positive relationship with their children’s reading comprehension, both in the paper-based and in the digital reading test, even in a technology-rich country such as Norway (Støle and Schwippert, 2017).

Evans, et al. (2010), exploring relevant data from old and recent surveys from diverse cultures and political systems, found that “scholarly culture”, simply expressed by number of books, better accounted for children’s future academic success, than did factors such as father’s level of education, occupation or class [4]. Children from poor and under-educated families gained especially much from growing up in a home with books compared to in a bookless home. This finding held across cultures and across time (1940s to 1980s), and it has yet to be disproved. It still appears that those families who keep their bookshelves and provide their children with printed reading material, pave the way for children’s reading literacy better than families who prefer digital devices to books.

Recent reading research across media

One drawback of such surveys as PIRLS and PISA is that they give us facts and figures, but not explanations. We find evidence that paper book reading frequency correlates strongly and positively with reading achievement in both studies, which suggests that there is a true connection, but there may be other contributing factors that are not surveyed. The positive effect of book reading on reading fluency, comprehension and vocabulary is well documented in pre-digital reading research (e.g., Cunningham and Stanovich, 1997; Guthrie, et al., 1999). Cunningham and Stanovich (1997), for instance, found that print exposure predicted reading ability in a student sample 10 years later: first graders were tested on diverse reading tasks, and plentiful print exposure (i.e., reading) together with initial reading skill, accounted for growth in reading comprehension, vocabulary and general knowledge. First, we need to find out whether the fundamental relationship between print reading and reading ability is still true in a time when we have so many other devices at hand that can be used for reading. This is what Duncan, et al. (2016) did. Their study of two groups of school children, aged 11–13 and 14–15, revealed that traditional extended reading was the only factor that predicted “inference-making in comprehension and [...] distinguish[ed] skilled from less skilled comprehenders.” These students spent more time on reading on screens than on print, but the digitised reading behaviour did not lead to better reading skills, only traditional print reading did so.

Secondly, in order to figure out what causes good reading comprehension, we must look at development from young to older students in so-called longitudinal studies (like that of Cunningham and Stanovich, 1997). Pfost, et al. (2013) used longitudinal data from the same students from the fifth to the seventh grade in southern Germany. They included many kinds of print and online reading and different kinds of text: comics, magazines or newspapers, novels/stories/tales, non-fiction books, online encyclopaedias, e-mail and online forums/chats. The students were asked how much time they spent on each of these types of traditional print and online content reading. All the variables were included in a regression analysis to calculate how much each of these kinds of reading contributed to measures of reading comprehension and vocabulary.

Pfost, et al. (2013) confirmed pre-digital research that traditional book reading still accounts for positive development of reading comprehension and vocabulary, even when early reading achievement was accounted for. This means that even if reading comprehension and vocabulary were already good in the fifth grade, continued growth in seventh grade was explained by book reading, and further, the same pattern is true for poorer fifth grade readers; if they read books their reading ability improved. Comparing book reading to the other reading activities in the study, Pfost, et al. (2013) found that “online activities such as e-mail or chatting related negatively to reading achievement”. In other words, these online reading activities had a detrimental effect on reading competence.

There is a logical explanation to why chatting and e-mail does not enhance reading ability. Chats and e-mail messages are often short text closer to oral than to written language. The much richer language of long text help to develop fluency in decoding, internalise knowledge of syntax, enlarge vocabulary and build background knowledge of the world and of text types. These are necessary skills in order for children to become competent and critical readers. Further, research comparing children’s handwriting and typewriting has shown that the movements involved in writing by hand facilitate aspects of beginning reading, such as letter recognition. (For more on handwriting, see Mangen’s contribution in this issue, “Modes of writing in a digital age: The good, the bad and the unknown”.)

Should education adapt to children’s digital media usage?

Around the turn of the century, induced by theories of the new digital natives by Prensky and others, there was a heated debate in many countries on how education must change to meet the needs of these very different children. Some even claimed that schools should adapt to the learner and provide students with learning opportunities that were as close to their spare time technology use as possible. Gee (2012) suggested that instruction should take utilise examples from gaming.

Many schools have adapted, but rarely to the extent that formal curriculum- and text-book-based learning is “out”, while informal free online learning is “in”. There is no reason that book reading should not still be encouraged in school along with didactically effective employment of digital media. Neither should we seek to replace formal learning with self-paced self-selected learning from computers and the Internet, based on the idea that digital natives learn important things for the future on their own. Formal education aims at ensuring a shared knowledge base for all in a structured and pedagogically relevant manner (Bennett and Maton, 2010).

Children at different ages are at different stages of learning and development, and they require instruction to develop further, be it digital skills or reading comprehension. Even Gee (2008) contends that students in the digital era need teachers. No one is born a digital expert, nor is anyone born with the ability to read (Wolf, 2007).

All humans are however, born with an ability to learn. To foster learning in young children, a competent adult, a parent or a teacher, is more efficient than a laptop and Google. To foster sufficient reading competence to enable efficient learning from text, be it print or digital, is one of the main goals of school. Typically, the first school years are dedicated to “learning to read”, while children in the middle school years should be able to “read to learn” (Chall, 1983). It is becoming increasingly clear that extensive print reading is the best didactics for this, even in the digital age.

 

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Conclusions: Book readers become better screen readers

Healthy reading development must remain a goal in education in order that students learn to comprehend digital texts successfully in their future studies and work life. For children to become skilled readers, it appears that book reading still is preferable to screen reading during those crucial early years of reading development (e.g., Pfost, et al., 2013).

Returning to the results on digital e-PIRLS assessment among Norwegian 10-year olds, it is likely that these stem from book reading programmes in Norway in the past 10 to 12 years. Since the discovery from PIRLS 2001 that young Norwegian students lagged behind their peers in many countries, primary education was encouraged to focus on reading development by employing book reading programmes. Teachers and school librarians rose to the challenge, many such book reading programmes were implemented, some of them especially focused on engaging boys in reading.

Norwegian children have improved their results significantly both in 2011 and in 2016, when also e-PIRLS evidenced reading achievement above the international average. When tablets now (in 2018) are introduced as learning devices to each child starting in the first grade in Norway, it is important that book reading still continues as part of the children’s reading acquisition in a balanced approach to reading instruction. There is a risk that the focus on new technologies has to some extent taken focus away from older technologies (yes, paper), even when we know that the old technology works well. As children’s access to personal digital devices in the home increases, it is even more important that school encourages book reading and actually provides for it at school.

Even though digital devices offer many opportunities for reading, they may not be ideal tools for training and improving reading skill. In those years when children move from learning to read to becoming fluent and experienced readers they should read extensively. Like any skill, reading benefits from the right type of training. With appropriate and sufficient reading experiences, the child will be able to apply solid reading skill when reading unfamiliar texts for comprehension, be they print or digital, for learning or for pleasure. The use of digital technologies versus print during this important period of reading development has received too little scholarly attention, and even less attention from educational agencies and the media. Perhaps we have been so preoccupied with the new technologies to see that there are some advantages to the old ones: the printed, stable text format? End of article

 

About the author

Hildegunn Støle is associate professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Reading Research at the University of Stavanger in Norway. She used to be a teacher of English and Norwegian in upper secondary school. As a reading researcher, she is specialising in large-scale reading surveys among children and the effects of digitisation on reading comprehension.
E-mail: hildegunn [dot] stole [at] uis [dot] no

 

Notes

1. OECD, 2011, pp. 20–21.

2. OECD, 2015, p. 16, my emphasis.

3. This combined variable ‘home resources for learning’ consists of number of books, number of children’s books, parents’ education level and occupation, and digital resources.

4. Evans, et al., 2010, p. 171.

 

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Editorial history

Received 3 September 2018; accepted 7 September 2018.


Copyright © 2018, Hildegunn Støle. All RIghts Reserved.

Why digital natives need books: The myth of the digital native
by Hildegunn Støle.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 10 - 1 October 2018
https://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/9422/7594
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v23i10.9422





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