Learning to Scroll Again for the First Time

Learning to Scroll Again for the First Time July 12, 2019

The Tech Edvocate made the claim that print textbooks will never go away, and that that is a good thing. One of the reasons particularly struck me:

Research has shown that scrolling negatively affects the reader’s ability to comprehend texts in a deeper way. Students are able to get the gist of a text from both printed and digital texts with no problem, but if the activity requires deeper engagement with the text, then students´ comprehension will improve if they read print.

Another factor in reading comprehension when reading digital texts is that students tend to read much faster. The way that readers consume digital media is gliding through the text, which gets in the way of engagement with the text.

As soon as I read those words, I immediately wondered whether this was simply due to learned behaviors, having to do both with how print books are handled and read, and with the most common uses and forms of engagement with on-screen text. To give one example, if you are someone who searches online for recipes, you get in the habit of having to scroll past stories and anecdotes to find the ingredients. You may in fact just want to get a second opinion on when to add the capers when making chicken piccata, rather than needing step-by-step instructions. The digital versions of books will often take me right to certain keywords that interest me. I may engage in less detail with a book on this occasion, but I have also been able to look up its treatment of a particular topic in half an hour rather than spend two weeks reading it cover to cover in search of those precious nuggets of insight relevant to my current project. Often when I do this, I discover that I do in fact need to read the entire book, or at least a whole chapter.

Lynch’s article recognizes this, as he writes, “teachers should be aware of the differences in how digital and print media are consumed by their students in order to help students to slow down as they read digital media. This will help students compensate for the disruptive effect that scrolling through a text has on their comprehension.”

My decision not to indent that quote may have impacted your reading or skimming of this blog post. Format definitely makes a difference. But so do reading habits. Those of us who work with scrolls of the ancient variety know that those were notoriously unhelpful when it came to looking something up. Writing in all caps without spaces didn’t mean ancient people were texting while angry, but older ways of writing impacted reading and made skimming nearly impossible. Young people today will probably make sense of CPS LCK TXT (WTHT VWLS) better than older readers, which may help them if they turn their attention to ancient scrolling.

I think we should try two things before we resign ourselves to print books being better. One is to actually teach students how to read, not merely making sense of words regardless of format, but in a way that takes seriously the difference that digital vs. print format makes.

The second thing is to evaluate students on deeper kinds of comprehension. If we are only going to quiz them on names and plot points, then why shouldn’t they skim, or perhaps simply turn to SparkNotes? If the point of the reading is the transformative life-changing impact that a novel can have, then we should stop asking questions that can be adequately answered by skimming or consulting Wikipedia, and focus on what we really want to know: how did reading this change your life?

I suspect that digital books and audiobooks can have that kind of impact just as print books can, and that the convenience of the former may allow for more consumption of fiction as well as non-fiction.

And all of those formats allow us to read in places, in ways, and at speeds that were impossible with even an ancient codex, to say nothing of a scroll.

When someone learns to read scrolls of the ancient sort, we teach them how to roll it and not just letters and words. Kindles, iBooks, and pdfs require similar training if we want them used as effectively as they potentially can be.

Did you read this post word for word? If not, did the gist come through? Did you read it on a device or in a browser that you were at some point trained to use, or that you figured out for yourself, and what difference did that make?

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  • John MacDonald

    I think students should learn to become consciously aware of what the brain unconsciously does to make meaning while reading (eg, underlining or highlighting for emphasis, analogizing, connecting what is currently being read with what happened 30 pages earlier, coding marginalia, etc.), so when “meaning making” breaks down (eg., with a hard text, a text outside a student’s frame of reference, etc.), the student has meta-cognitive awareness of what strategies they can employ to try to make sense of the text. That’s how I taught elementary school Reading Response, anyway.

  • Vucodlak

    I read (and write) very slowly. I’ve always been that way, and it was a great frustration in school. My teachers were always rushing me along, trying to force me to go faster, but I was never able to do it. My problem wasn’t with comprehension; I always ranked well above my grade level in that, but it simply took me “too long” to do it.

    Except… I can speed read. I can shoot through a page of text in a couple of seconds. I can give you quotes from the page (not the whole thing, but a few that jump out at me), I can tell the gist of the text, etc. I can do that, but in five minutes I won’t remember more than a handful of words and the most general meaning of what I’ve read. In an hour, I’ll have forgotten it entirely.

    For me, at least, reading and doing it right takes time. I have to be able to digest the material, and that’s simply not something I can rush. I am deeply skeptical of claims that new media formats will allow people to read faster and better (or, at least, not worse). I doubt that, and internet comment sections have done little to dissuade me from those doubts.

    However, another factor that needs to be considered is noise. Again, drawing from my own experiences, I can’t read at all well in a noisy environment. This goes for visual noise as well as auditory, and almost anything you read on the internet is going to be surrounded by ads. Ads are the equivalent of trying to read in a room full of colicky babies, by design. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have ADHD, which makes it more difficult for me to ignore distractions, but I still believe that the distractions of digital media have deleterious effect on nearly everyone’s ability to read for comprehension.

  • Tim Bulkeley

    In this discussion I have never seen a study that was three way: print codex, LED screen, and reflective screen (like on your e-book). The two screen types have quite different properties in many ways.

    I have a love-hate relationship with textbooks, they are a convenient way to try to force unwilling students to read, they are also a convenient way to standardise the information students have as a minimum, but using a textbook stultifies reading, encourages students to ‘read’ a whole book when they have no need to, and probably never will again (unless they write a PhD thesis 😉