Helping Students Learn How Best to Read on Digital Devices

Tips for how teachers can scaffold instruction so that students are adept at reading text on digital devices.

June 27, 2023
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The digital world affords amazing benefits when it comes to reading. We have more text readily accessible than at any other time in history. We can, in a moment, pull up text that fits a grade level, reading level, or student interest. However, this availability comes with instructional implications for teachers. 

Many digital resources—from online text to e-readers, audiobooks, videos, and more—can support reading comprehension and language acquisition. But to set students up for success when integrating digital resources into your lessons, it’s important to consider the following guidelines with regard to reading skills.

Eye movement

When reading on a screen, our eyes do not always move in the usual left-to-right direction, line by line, as they do with printed text.

Researchers have captured the fact that readers’ eyes often move in an F pattern to take in blocks of digital text, scanning the first line or lines of text left to right but then often skimming down the left side looking for something interesting (the vertical line of an F). Another common digital layout, generally for pages with less text, creates a Z pattern of eye movement while reading. Web designers create pages with intentionally designed reading patterns that influence how our brains take in information and make decisions. Students who learn about these patterns can increase their digital literacy.

To address eye movement with students, discuss these patterns to create awareness of our natural actions as digital readers. Use the patterns as a teaching tool to discuss how the text on the page impacts what they notice. For example, you might create a worksheet with Z and F patterns, then ask students to read a digital article, track their eye movements, and respond to questions like “What does your digital text say at each of these points [in the Z and F patterns]? What did you learn at these points? What do you notice, and what do you wonder at each of these points—and about the article as a whole?”

You might give students a purpose for their reading the piece: A question to answer, or words to look for, to focus their attention.


When reading onscreen, skimming and multitasking become a distraction more than when reading printed text. Address skimming and multitasking with your students by using the following strategies: As with eye pattern tracking, encourage students to set a purpose or goal to keep them grounded in their reading, or set a goal for them; set a timer and intentionally work on students’ focused reading to build stamina; remind students of reading strategies such as visualization and prediction; and, just as with print books, model reading on a digital medium, thinking through your comprehension, out loud, for students.

Name what it looks like when you lose focus during digital reading, and how you take your attention back to the text, to normalize this part of the digital reading process and demonstrate refocusing strategies. 


Annotation is key in students’ keeping focused, reading with purpose, and diving deeper into what a text says. As we read on a digital platform, teachers can model what annotation looks like on the screen. Students may need time to play with annotation tools first, before transitioning to intentional use while reading. 

Here are some tips and tricks for common annotation technology: iPad offers the built-in tool Markup, with which students can take a photo or make a screenshot of any text and access several drawing tools. Chromebooks and other laptops allow InsertLearning, a Chrome extension that offers live annotation options as well as many other learning supports. Drawing tools in Google Docs and Slides teach basic drawing skills to students so they can add underlines, boxes, circles, and more. And the Chromebook Camera app allows students to take a photo of text and use the camera drawing tools to annotate it. 

Since time is always of the essence, use video tutorials to teach digital drawing and annotating skills in small chunks. Screen-record your moves as you annotate digital texts, so that students can return to these as references while reading.


There are a number of digital reading tools that can scaffold online reading practices for students. I’ve found the following list useful and have enjoyed assigning student tech helpers who teach peers how to use these tools and answer questions along the way: 

  • Opening Doors to Access is a great resource to support reading on iPads with built-in tools.
  • Read&Write for Google Chrome offers many supports for all types of reading needs.  
  • Print Friendly & PDF Chrome extension offers a quick way to take a busy web page and create a print-friendly, text-based version. The text version can give readers a specific place to begin and simplify the message before extending comprehension by processing the accompanying webpage.

Digital reading is different from print reading, so it makes sense that teaching digital reading differs, too. Intentionally connecting the dots for students between how we read in print versus on digital devices can make them more aware and effective consumers of text. The above strategies are not entire lessons but offer quick interventions to include in existing reading instruction. Effective readers discuss their reading and reading behaviors. As teachers, we can set students up with needed life skills by intentionally discussing reading behaviors on devices as we do for print.

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  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Technology Integration

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