Children learning to read in a digital world
First Monday

Children learning to read in a digital world by Mirit Barzillai and Jenny M. Thomson



Abstract
Children’s earliest experiences of written language increasingly involve digital text — on phones, tablets and computers. This shift has triggered worry about the potential harm to children’s ability to read in a deep, focused manner on the one hand, and optimism for the potential of technology to support reading among different groups on the other. In this article, we explore research evidence concerning the impact of digital text on children’s developing literacy skills. Our review advocates the need for a more nuanced understanding regarding the challenges and potential of digital environments and highlights the uniqueness of each child’s digital reading experience.

Contents

Introduction
Digital texts and early reading
Digital reading features that influence comprehension
Digital reading and individual differences
Digital reading and the impact of mediating adults and industries
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

The impressive pace of technological growth and innovation over the past decades has provided unparalleled opportunities for information access, communication, and creativity. Many parents, teachers, and entire school systems have jumped at the chance to incorporate the latest array of technological tools and apps into children’s schooling and play, despite a lack of research on their efficacy or guidance on how best to support children’s use of them (e.g., Littleton and Kucirkova, 2016). The growing number of computer screens and tablets at school and in the home means that the literacy experiences of children and adolescents, from storybooks to more complex narrative and informational text reading, are increasingly digital. This move has been met with concern by parents and researchers alike. Primary among these concerns is whether and how digital reading differs from print reading and whether such differences have implications for the way children learn to read deeply and evaluate information. Research is a long way from any definitive answers, and studies supporting both equivalence between reading media (e.g., Norman and Furnes, 2016) as well as advantages for print over screens (Ito and Sykes, 2004; Mangen, et al., 2013) can be found. In the present paper, we argue that only by recognizing the complexity of child and text-related factors that influence reading across any medium, will we be able to best understand and support children’s reading development in digital environments.

 

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Digital texts and early reading

According to a recent U.S. report by Common Sense Media (Rideout, 2017) children eight years old and younger spend, on average, just under two and a half hours a day with screen media, 35 percent of which is spent on mobile screens. They spend more time on mobile screens than they do with print books, either reading or being read to. Researchers have begun to examine the influence of this exposure to digital text on children’s reading development. Several lines of research suggest that experiences such as shared reading using digital storybooks, may not offer the same rich language and bonding experience that occurs when children are nestled in their parents’ arms reading a print storybook (see Reich, et al., 2016; Barzillai, et al., 2018). Indeed, the comfort of a loved one’s lap provides the perfect backdrop for children’s exploration of storybook language and content (e.g., Wolf, 2007). Through the dialogic reading that often unfolds as they interact around the text, parents support children’s comprehension by asking questions, encouraging inferences, and helping children focus and relate the texts to their own lives (e.g., Lonigan and Whitehurst, 1998; Bus, 2001; Bus, et al., 1995; Mol and Bus, 2011; Scarborough and Dobrich, 1994; Mol, et al., 2008). Such interactions enrich children’s developing language and literacy skills (e.g., Hood, et al., 2008; Fletcher and Reese, 2005; Mol, et al., 2008), shape their view of reading as a time of attention and connection, and increase their enjoyment and interest in reading (Baker, et al., 2001).

Interacting with text on digital devices, including ebooks and story apps rife with dynamic visuals, attention-grabbing hotspots, and games, may create a different environment for children’s early literacy experiences. For example, the technological features plentiful in digital stories designed for kids, although highly engaging, run the risk of overshadowing the narrative and overwhelming the attentional capacities of young children. Findings from a recent meta-analysis reveal that many of these interactive features are distracting to children and detrimental to their understanding (Takacs, et al., 2015). Further, the abundance of “read to me” options and activities present in ebooks and apps may signal to parents that their support is not needed when children read digital texts. Indeed, research indicates that parents allow their children independent use of tablets and ipads while busying themselves with other tasks (Chiong and Schuler, 2010; Kucirkova and Littleton, 2016), leaving children without the adult interactions so valuable for language and literacy growth. Thus left at the mercy of digital bells and whistles (Radesky and Christakis, 2016), children are easily pulled from one appealing feature to another, and their story comprehension may suffer (de Jong and Bus, 2002; Trushell and Maitland, 2005; Labbo and Kuhn, 2000). For example, de Jong and Bus (2002) found that kindergarteners allowed to independently use electronic storybooks barely listened to the audio narrative, and navigated the story in a suboptimal manner, spending nearly half their time playing games.

Even when present, however, the format of digital books can influence parental behavior around shared reading. For example, Parish-Morris, et al. (2013) observed parents and children as they read stories in print or on electronic consoles. They found that parents talked more about content and encouraged children to connect the stories to their own lives in the print condition, whereas in the electronic condition, parents made more behavior-related comments. Measures of comprehension indicated that although children in both conditions identified events and characters from the story, children in the print condition had superior recall of sequences of story events and story content. Results from a number of studies reveal a similar pattern; parents who read to their young children in print engage in more discussions around word meanings, support children’s efforts to relate the story to their own experiences, and ask more questions than parents reading from interactive storybooks (e.g., Segal-Drori, et al., 2010; Robb, 2010, Kremar and Cingel, 2014; Lauricella, et al., 2014). Further, although higher engagement is often observed in the ebook conditions (Lauricella, et al., 2014; Chiong, et al., 2012), more distracted talk as well as less content related discussion is also observed in these conditions (Chiong, et al., 2012;Kremar and Cingel, 2014; Lauricella, et al., 2014). Such differences in interactions around ebooks are sometimes (Kremar and Cingle, 2014, Chiong, et al., 2012), but not always associated with decreased comprehension (Lauricella, et al., 2014).

Early reading in a digital format may thus influence children’s language exposure and experiences around reading. Such experiences may further shape children’s developing attitudes towards reading itself. If their primary interaction with texts involve visually exciting electronic experiences filled with interactive activities, they may develop an attitude toward digital reading as an entertaining, game-like, experience that requires of them only shallow processing and passive attention. Indeed, such passivity in children’s interactions with digital books was observed by several researchers (Labbo and Kuhn, 2000; Lefever-Davis and Pearman, 2005). For example, when comparing children’s reading comprehension on an iPad to their performance in print, Krcmar and Cingel (2014) identified a revealing interaction. They found that although all children comprehended similarly in the print condition, those who were more experienced with technology performed more poorly than less experienced children in the iPad condition. The authors suggested that these children had learned to approach digital reading much like they did a source of entertainment and consequently invested less mental effort when reading in this medium. Relatedly Lerman, et al. (2017) found that among German children performing a reading comprehension assessment in digital and print formats, elementary age children made significantly more errors on the digital version of the test than on the print version, suggesting that they were less likely to monitor themselves in this condition. Thus, the way in which children interact with digital media may be a powerful predictor of their approach to digital reading and underscores the importance of understanding which features and experiences can encourage concentrated, focused, reading across both media.

 

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Digital reading features that influence comprehension

The concern that increased exposure to digital texts that encourage skimming, multi-tasking and fragmented attention, fosters a shallower approach to digital reading has been expressed by several social commentators and researchers (Annisette and Lafreniere, 2017; Carr, 2010; Wolf, 2007). Evidence of inferior comprehension when reading digital texts can be found across several studies comparing reading in print and on screens (e.g., Kim and Kim, 2012; Mangen, et al., 2013; Rasmusson, 2014; Singer and Alexander, 2017b). For example, Mangen, et al. (2013) found that students reading articles in print outperformed those reading on screen on measures of comprehension. Others, however, fail to find differences between media (e.g., Ball and Hourcade, 2011; Margolin, et al., 2013; Porion, et al., 2016). Such discrepancies may result from differences in methodology, such as variations in text presentation or comprehension assessments, or differences in which reading related factors are chosen as the focus of study (see Singer and Alexander, 2017a).

In their review, Singer and Alexander (2017a) identified the influence of text length on reading comprehension processes across mediums. They pointed to an interaction in the majority of studies wherein studies that compared print and screen reading when texts were long found an advantage for print whereas investigations with shorter texts did not consistently do so. In one of their research studies, Singer and Alexander (2017b) asked a group of college undergraduates to read longer texts on both digital screens and in print and answer a series of questions that probed different levels of comprehension (e.g., gist, supporting details). Findings indicated equivalence between media on questions of gist. When it came to recalling important supporting details, however, there was a clear advantage for texts read in print, suggesting that print reading encouraged deeper processing than did screen reading. Despite their superior performance in print, subjects indicated both a preference for digital texts as well as a sense that they thought they performed best in this medium.

In a recent meta-analysis Delgado and colleagues (in press) found that comprehension differences between reading on screen and on paper were not only present over the past seventeen years, but were actually increasing within this time frame across age groups. They suggested that the growing gap between comprehension on screen and in print reflected earlier and increased exposure to the digital medium and the shallow processing of information it encourages. They further identified that the screen inferiority effect was strongest when subjects were asked to read under timed conditions.

The influence of time pressure on performance in the digital domain has been documented by Ackerman and colleagues (e.g., Ackerman and Lauterman, 2012; Ackerman and Goldsmith, 2011; Sidi, et al., 2017). In several studies they demonstrated that university students perform more poorly on timed reading tasks presented digitally, but, ironically, perceive themselves as performing better. That is, they are poorly calibrated when reading digital texts under time pressure. In addition, Sidi, et al. (2017) observed that cues to the perceived importance of tasks also moderated media effects. They found poorer performance on tasks presented on screens when university students believed they were preliminary; when students believed tasks were important, performance differences between media were eliminated. Ackerman and colleagues suggest that the screen inferiority effects found across studies reflect students’ ineffective allocation of mental effort and time due to misplaced confidence in their performance on screen and sensitivity to cues that legitimize shallow processing (e.g., Ackerman and Lauterman, 2012; Ackerman and Goldsmith, 2011; Sidi, et al., 2017). Results from this group further suggest that screen inferiority effects can be overcome when students are encouraged to process digital texts more deeply (e.g., through text summaries, identification of keywords) or when they perceive the reading task as important (e.g., Lauterman and Ackerman, 2014; Sidi, et al., 2017).

Thus, in trying to understand reading behaviors across media there are several factors that are important to consider, including whether the reading is done with time pressure, the length of the text as well as the cues to depth of processing that may be present in the task requirements. In addition, it is essential to recognize how these aspects of text and task interact with the characteristics of individual readers to shape the reading experience.

 

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Digital reading and individual differences

Earlier, we highlighted the ways in which digital texts present challenges to the rich language interactions around storybooks so conducive to early reading development and enjoyment. It may be, however, that although technology cannot replace the role of a parent or teacher when reading to children, it does have the potential to support readers of varying skill levels and backgrounds achieve reading success. Properties of digital texts, such as the ability to adjust font size and spacing, the possibility of providing definitions of key words (e.g., Dalton and Proctor, 2008; Anderson-Inman and Horney, 2007) , as well as the presence of multimedia that compliments story elements (e.g., Mayer, 2005), can all aid in children’s comprehension (see Bus, et al., 2015; Takacs, et al., 2015). Studies into the effectiveness of these features, however, illumine the important interaction that exists between the affordances of different technologies and the abilities of readers (e.g., Smeets, et al., 2012).

Research indicates that when well-designed, the use of multimedia features may prove particularly beneficial for children from risk groups, such as immigrants and low income families (e.g., Takacs, et al., 2015), who may have limited vocabularies and poor linguistic knowledge. Verhallen, et al. (2006) found that the additional nonverbal information from music and animations in electronic storybooks supported the comprehension and linguistic skills of children from immigrant language-minority families. Similarly Stakhnevich (2002) found that new immigrants, whose first language was not English, benefitted from reading texts digitally, where they had access to an online dictionary and other language supports. Segal-Drori and colleagues (2010) further found the most growth in the early literacy and decoding skill of low SES kindergarten children who read an ebook with adult mediation relative to groups who read the print book. On the other hand, Segers and colleagues (2004) found that immigrant children with limited vocabularies benefited more from teacher-read presentation of a book than from an electronic version with limited interactivity, whereas native speakers benefitted from both.

Reading ability and attentional difficulties may also influence the way children interact with and benefit from digital texts. For example, when primary school children with ADHD were presented with reading comprehension tasks on paper or on laptops, they were outperformed by their peers when reading the printed text. In the digital medium, however, the performance of the ADHD group was commensurate with that of their peers and they spent more time on task (Shaw and Lewis, 2005). These results suggest that a digital environment may help some children with attentional difficulties sustain their attention on academic tasks. In addition, Stern and Shalev (2013) found that the reading comprehension of short passages among students with ADHD improved when the text was presented on screen with double-spacing between lines. A more recent study with longer texts (Ben-Yehudah and Brann, 2017), however, indicated inferior comprehension on screens than in print among university students with ADHD. These results highlight the interplay between text property and reader skills, with benefits seen when texts were short and detriments with longer texts.

Among struggling readers, Schneps, et al. (2013a; 2013b) investigated the influence of digital devices on the reading comprehension and fluency of adolescents with dyslexia. In a comparison of reading on paper versus a smart-phone sized device (an iPod), they found that reading speed and comprehension was improved for a subgroup of this population with the most severe reading difficulties, when reading on the iPod as compared to paper. Intriguingly, for individuals whose reading was slightly stronger (though they still met the criteria for a dyslexia diagnosis), the reverse result was found: reading speed and comprehension were stronger when reading on paper, as opposed to on the iPod. A follow-up eye-tracking study (Schneps, et al., 2013a; 2013b) suggested that for the individuals with the most severe reading difficulties, the smaller window of text perhaps reduced the amount of visual “noise”, facilitating smoother reading. This study highlights that while a certain digital text format can help one group of readers, it can actively hinder another.

The impact of digital text on reading behavior is thus complex and it is critical to understand the properties of texts, the characteristics of readers themselves, and the dynamic interplay between these, that shape the reading experience. A further challenge that results from such an interaction is understanding the roles and responsibilities of the individuals and organizations supporting children in the process of learning to read.

 

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Digital reading and the impact of mediating adults and industries

Children’s reading experiences are influenced by the attitudes, preferences, and resources of the adults in their lives who select and support the consumption of both print and digital text. The importance of caregivers and teachers in fostering language and literacy skills during the early stages of learning to read cannot be overemphasized. As we have seen, digital devices may alter the influential interactions between adults and children. A recent focus study further reveals that teachers, many of whom are also parents, report a fear of being “outsourced” by digital technology (Kucirova and Flewitt, 2018). Echoing the research findings presented earlier, the group reported that with ebooks it was more difficult to recreate the collaborative nature of meaning-making between adult and child that occurs when reading in print. Further, in their survey of U. K. parents of children from 0–8 years, Kucirkova and Littleton (2016) found that 31 percent of the parents surveyed reported feeling confused about how to use e-books with their child to best to support learning, with the belief that screens can hurt children’s brains also articulated by a proportion of respondents.

These findings highlight the importance of providing caregivers information both about the importance of reading to their children in print and about how best to manage and support their children’s use of digital devices. Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics amended its recommendations to parents around screen time, from the no screen time for children younger than two, no more than two hours per day for older children rule, to a more nuanced acknowledgement of the multiple ways in which children use screens (American Academy of Pediatrics. Council on Communications and Media, 2016). The report advises families to choose programs of high-quality, a recommendation that pre-supposes easy identification and availability of such high quality programs. Although, strides are being made in providing such resources (e.g., Guernsey and Levine, 2015; and the literacy app guide produced by Natalia Kucirkova in conjunction with the National Literacy Trust of the U.K., http://literacyapps.literacytrust.org.uk/), there remains a great need to provide families with more specific guidance.

The perspective of industry professionals such as publishers and app designers concerning the role of digital text in children’s learning is somewhat different, and by its very nature more influenced by market forces. For those individuals who have engaged with research, there is unsurprisingly, more optimism about the affordances of digital text, including the view that it may encourage greater engagement within lower ability groups, and be a more motivating reading medium for boys (Kucirkova and Flewitt, 2018). As we touched upon, however, understanding and taking advantage of such digital affordances involves recognizing the interplay between reader characteristics and appropriate text properties. Thus, this optimism requires scrutiny. For although the chance to read an interactive, hyperlinked digital text may draw in a struggling reader, or one with attentional or language issues, the presence of too many hyperlinks and hotspots, or text that is too long, may all influence how well the student is able to focus and comprehend the material (e.g., DeStefano and LeFevre, 2007; Singer and Alexander, 2017a; Schneps, et al., 2013a; 2013b; Stern and Shalev, 2013). Further, finding ways to incorporate cues that encourage the processing of text more deeply (e.g., identification of keywords), may help students approach digital texts prepared to invest greater mental effort. Thus, research is needed on both the optimal design of digital text environments for the comprehension needs of different readers, as well as on how best to help readers understand their digital reading strengths and challenges.

Another area where emerging research on learning to read in digital environments is particularly relevant for publishers and software developers is the educational assessment industry. For example; the potential screen inferiority under time pressure and over-confidence concerning comprehension on digital devices discussed above (e.g., Ackerman and Goldsmith, 2011), are very pertinent to educational assessment and should be considered as many high stakes assessment are transitioning to digital media. Gender differences in the impact of computer-based assessment have also been reported, with boys, on average, demonstrating a more noticeable benefit from computer-based assessment as compared to girls (Jerrim, 2016). Such findings strongly suggest the need for increased collaboration between test designers and researchers, to best understand the interplay between the skills under assessment and the mediating role of the assessment medium.

 

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Conclusion

The research reviewed suggests that reading on digital devices, so often accompanied by interruptions and disruptions, whether in the form of hotspots, games, or links, presents several challenges to maintaining focus and influences the interactions that parents and children share around reading. These early reading experiences pave the way for not only language and literacy learning, but also for shaping children’s views of reading as a time of focus and contemplation, or as a more passive activity. Young readers are particularly vulnerable to breakdowns in comprehension when left alone with digital texts as they have yet to master the cognitive skills required to funnel out irrelevant information and focus on their reading goals (e.g., Salmerón, et al., 2018). Further, features of digital texts themselves, including whether texts are read with time constraints, influence readers’ ability to comprehend, as do the characteristics of readers themselves, such that different properties of digital texts may aid or hinder comprehension among different profiles of readers.

Thus, learning to read in a digital world encompasses a multidimensional problem space of learner, reading goals and digital context, which itself is situated within a societal context. To be able to understand and support children’s reading development in digital environments, the individuals and industries that influence children’s exposure to text need more opportunities to interact with each other, and with emerging research. The nuanced effects of digital environments need to be matched by equally nuanced responses from digital users, consumers and the research community all with the shared goal of ensuring that children benefit from the affordances of both media and have the opportunity to experience deep, focused, reading of print as well as digital texts. End of article

 

About the authors

Mirit Barzillai’s research focuses on reading development and remediation across different media. Her research has explored the importance of semantic flexibility for the development of reading skill as well as the influence of different media on aspects of ‘deep reading’ among young readers. She worked at the Center for Applied Special Technologies, where she helped develop an Internet-based reading program to support shared reading and was the director of content in the Global Literacy project. She is currently examining the efficacy of a digital reading intervention on the reading development of children across different age groups and impairment levels.
E-mail: Mirit [dot] moffie [at] gmail [dot] com

Jenny M. Thomson is Reader in Language and Literacy at the Department of Human Communication Sciences, University of Sheffield, U.K. Her research interests include language and literacy difficulties, as well as the impact of medium upon reading development.
E-mail: j [dot] m [dot] thompson [at] sheffield [dot] ac [dot] uk

 

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Editorial history

Received 3 September 2018; accepted 7 September 2018.


Copyright © 2018, Mirit Barzillai and Jenny M. Thomson. All RIghts Reserved.

Children learning to read in a digital world
by Mirit Barzillai and Jenny M. Thomson.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 10 - 1 October 2018
https://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/9437/7600
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v23i10.9437





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