Confident Readers in our Digital Age

Alex Quigley

Alex Quigley is a former English teacher and school leader, of over 15 years' standing, who now works for the Education Endowment Foundation, supporting teachers to access research evidence. He has worked with primary and secondary schools around the UK and is a highly influential voice in the media on best practice in education. His previous books include Closing the Vocabulary Gap and The Confident Teacher.

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We live in an era when the act of reading is changing as rapidly as any time in its 5,000-year-old history. Children have gone from reading on clay tablets in ancient Sumer (modern day Iraq) five millennia ago, to… well, reading on electronic tablets today!

Lots of aspects of reading have changed, though some enduring aspects have stayed the same. When teachers better understand those differences, they are in pole position to help their pupils become confident readers in our digital age. In every era of reading, new innovations change not just reading, but our very society. With the advent of mobile technology and the Internet, we are quickly chasing the story of reading through dizzyingly fast turns. 

A natural response to such drastic changes in how we live our lives is one of fear. It is a noble tradition. The great philosopher Socrates greatly feared how books would be a detriment to the power of both memory and speech. Today, respected professor of education, Professor Maryanne Woolf, has written sensitively about worries that attend our new digital reading habits:

 “What concerns me as a scientist is whether expert readers like us, after multiple hours (and years) of daily screen reading, are subtly changing the allocation of attention to key processes when reading longer, more complex texts.” 

We should ask: are our current worries about the act of reading being replaced by a diluted diet of speedy scrolling warranted? 

The limits of digital reading?

The most recent available evidence would indicate that reading from paper books would offer more learning benefits to pupils than its digital counterparts (though this is only really evident under timed conditions and when reading fiction texts). There is also some evidence that there is less interaction with shared reading with parents and caregivers when reading on an e-book compared to paper books. 

Perhaps then our pupils better associate paper-based reading with learning, whereas tablets can prompt a playfulness in their mind? It could be that scrolling, switching and multitasking on our devices, inhibits our attention, to echo Woolf’s concerns? Crucially, however, this evidence on the limits of reading on technological devices doesn’t mean they’ll disappear from view any time soon. Our pupils will continue to mediate most of their reading on their devices. 

So, should we chuck out the laptops? No! We cannot turn back the clock – so better training pupils in how to read better in a digital space is our best bet. We can start by ensuring digital reading maximises learning. These question prompts can help us:

  • Are our pupils sustaining their attention when they read? How do we know?
  • How effortful is our pupils’ reading on technological devices? Are they skimming and skipping – and actually only reading at a surface level?
  • How do we ensure our pupils are active, strategic readers, regardless of the mode of what they read?

Confident reading during a digital revolution

If you consider the impact of the Coronovirus shutdown, it makes it obvious how vital training our pupils to navigate digital reading with skill and confidence is essential. Indeed, focusing on the platform and the device can be a distraction. Whether it is a phone or a laptop, or an e-reader, pupils need explicit training and supporting to undertake digital reading successfully. 

For example, websites offer a tremendous wealth of rich knowledge, but, crucially, we need to help them skilfully mediate it on a laptop or phone. In his recent researched Home talk, Professor Dan Willingham shared how we can help pupils think critically about internet sources

There are likely going to be benefits gained by the boom in audiobook sales and podcast downloads for adults, but we need to help our pupils navigate these different media and sources of knowledge too. Currently, countless thousands of pupils are learning online. We shouldn’t assume they’ll scroll, click and comprehend well all at the same time. 

Like most learning, pupils need lots of explicit guidance. Just because they can navigate TikTok, it doesn’t mean that they can read complex online texts effectively. We should consider teaching them reaching strategies, such as skimming and scanning, as well as getting them to record key vocabulary as they read, and summarise their understanding as they go – such as using the Cornell Note-taking System

The Education Endowment Foundation has just released a rapid review on remote learning. The evidence suggests that “peer interactions can provide motivation and improve learning outcomes”. My youngest boy currently talks to his best friend online as they both read David Walliams latest book. It is motivating him and using technology to connect up readers can motivate and drive learning.

We should consider the following then for our pupils: 

  • How do we help our pupils to discuss their reading and share what they have read? 
  • How can we help them question, clarify, predict and summarise their digital reading?
  • What tech can we exploit to share our reading, write about reading and connect up teachers with their pupils and their peers? 

Alex Quigley is the author of ‘Closing the Reading Gap’, available on the Routledge website: You can find him on Twitter as @huntingenglish and at his website:

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