George Lucas Educational Foundation
Technology Integration

Getting Students to Read Digital Texts More Deeply

Since so much of what students read is presented onscreen, it’s important to ensure that they slow down and really engage with the content.

March 1, 2024
Gurzzza / iStock

Digital curricula and other texts are the new normal. What should we know about reading to learn when the textbook is a laptop? My school district has committed to multiple curriculum pilots over the past few years, and one through line is clear: Digital reading is here to stay. Students are just as likely to open module five as they are to turn to page 116. Clicks, scrolls, and tabs are the gateway to the real work of reading to learn. A significant portion of what students read in school has moved from the page to the screen. Reading is still reading, but there are strategies we can harness to build deep reading skills that consider both the medium and the text.

Teach Students to slow down

Longer reads require a sustained investment of time and attention in the classroom. That sustained attention comes as the antithesis of the quick scrolling and swiping we increasingly do on our phones or other devices. Sustained, focused reading—or deep reading—can occur onscreen or in print, and it’s crucial for fostering reflection and analysis. This is true whether students are reading novels or critically analyzing informational text. 

In a world full of online scrolling, slowing down is a skill that needs to be explicitly taught. For starters, simply pausing to highlight a passage or a word requires students to slow down and identify a key piece of information. It can also counteract readers’ tendency to overestimate how well they understood something that they quickly read on a screen. Annotating goes a step further to nudge students toward making meaning of what they read. Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s book Notice and Note presents one of many strategies that make slowing down habitual, and it can be done on paper or online platforms.

Marking up a text used to require pencils and highlighters, but many texts presented in digital curricula include annotation features. They also allow teachers to see students’ annotations so that feedback on the process can be timely. 

Consider students’ reading preference

An investment in sustained attention literally shapes the circuitry of our reading brain. It may be the case that even as adolescents, different individuals have begun to reinforce neural circuitry that favors one medium over another. A study by Julie Coiro compared seventh graders’ reading comprehension online and offline. Her surprising finding was how much students’ reading comprehension varied with the two different mediums. Students whose reading comprehension excelled in print didn’t always see the same strength on a screen, and some students who grasped concepts well online didn’t do as well in print. 

In her book Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, scholar Maryanne Wolf surmised that the difference Coiro found in students’ reading comprehension may be evidence that different adolescents are already starting to develop different “reading circuits” in their brains. Some are favoring (and reinforcing) the neural patterns that comprehend best on paper, and the converse. 

Stretch STUDENTS’ minds with intention

Encouraging students and teachers to be metacognitive about what’s working well for them on paper or screen can help them make informed decisions about how to read. A newspaper article, literature, or a blog post may warrant different approaches depending on how deeply students need to mine for information. Taking this into account is increasingly important as online reading options increase and print formats grow scarcer. 

Teachers and students can benefit from paying attention to what keeps their attention and where it wanders. Doing this can also allow learners to be mindful about an intentional stretch into improving their comprehension with a text and format that may not be their first choice. 

Align expectations across content areas

It’s not just English class that requires students to read, analyze, and evaluate. Literacy is woven into science and history standards as well. When preparing for a literacy study session in my district, our English teachers were surprised to see that the online highlighting and annotation tools in our new science curriculum mirrored the tools students had been using in English for years. 

A connection between teachers from opposite sides of the building was all it took to realize that the same guidelines that seventh graders learned for annotating in English class could be repeated in science. Teaching students the same annotation techniques in multiple content areas can reduce cognitive load and help them to transfer their annotating skills to new contexts. It can also help teachers in content areas outside of English support literacy in their own classrooms.

Use the best of both formats

Consider mixing it up. Though the reading onscreen is here to stay, a growing body of research is exploring embodied cognition, the connection between physical experience and learning. If students are reading an article that’s only available online, consider using the Cornell note-taking method on paper. 

The reverse could also be an option: Students might have a novel in hand but take notes in a graphic organizer on a Google Doc or a slide deck. An added benefit is that digital notes are less likely to get misplaced between class periods. 

Talk to your students

During a recent curriculum pilot, I asked high school students which medium they preferred for reading. This should come as no surprise: They all had opinions. Many said they liked reading on paper because of its simplicity. No clicking to the next page or waiting for a screen to load. Others preferred screens because they liked the enhanced visuals and ease of keeping all their resources on a laptop.

Astonishingly, a few teens said they preferred reading and writing on paper over everything else. One boy’s explanation hit home for me: “I just don’t want to be staring at a screen all day.” 

Students may have a pretty reliable hunch about what works best for them. Teachers can be strategic about how and when to honor that preference, and when to stretch their students’ abilities in navigating the page or the screen. Either way, building this kind of metacognition in students is a step in the right direction. 

The next generation of readers has already arrived. Whether they’re combing through primary sources in history class or comparing great works of American literature, they’ll benefit from thinking deeply about the nuance that exists between the topic sentence and concluding paragraph. Choosing the right mediums for the right purpose will depend on teachers and students paying close attention not only to the text, but also to the format.

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  • 6-8 Middle School
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