How we read digital texts

Last time, we looked at the specific features of digital texts. This is akin to examining the structure of a poem, in my opinion. It’s something we have to do in order to fully make meaning of any text we read.

Even when reading a plain article that has been published online, that’s a different experience than reading that same article on paper.  We have to be aware of those differences in our experience as readers. Increasingly, it seems that we need to explicitly acknowledge those differences with our students, and assess whether or not they have the specific skills required of reading a text on a device.

First, let’s acknowledge that the term digital text is just about as specific as the term novel.  We have to dive into the specifics in order to make progress in understanding this type of reading.

Kinds of digital texts

Here are the types of digital texts I’ve identified in my own reading, ordered from simplest to most complex:

  • The Plain Article: a simple text-based article, which could easily appear in a paper format, but is published online
  • The Hyperlinked Article: this could or might be published in a paper format, too, but the article is enhanced with hyperlinks that point to source material or references. Most of the articles on this blog
  • The Multimedia Article: Building on the hyperlinked article with images and video. Here is an engaging example, an article about the death of Fidel Castro.
  • The Digital Story: This is more of an immersive experience created by a writer, usually with a mixture of media and some other coding or design applied. This is an awesome example.

Why reading a digital text is hard

All of the skills required to read a paper text are also required of a digital text (except, perhaps the ability to avoid paper cuts). In addition, though, there are a certain set of skills and habits that we need in order to read digital texts successfully:

  • We have to be mindful of the urge to skim the text, especially when reading on mobile devices where swiping is so easy
  • We have to make decisions about what additional media (links, images, videos) to consume, and then determine how those additional media contribute to our understanding of the text
  • We have to consider the source, as it is hard to avoid straight up fake news or just bad news, well-hidden bias, or our own self-created intellectual echo chambers
  • We can interact with other readers through comments and social media, and our understanding of the text may be swayed, challenged, or undermined by these readers’ comments
  • We have to remain focused on reading the text and avoid creating attention residue. Depending on the device that we are using, our reading might be interrupted by notifications, pop-ups, comments, and advertisements that are specifically designed to distract us from our reading.

Observe your digital reading

Observe the experience that you’ve had reading this article, an email or a book on your Kindle.  Here are a few things you might pay attention to:

  • How easy it is to quickly swipe down, skimming a text
  • The immediacy of tapping the screen to turn the page on an e-reader
  • The tendency of your eyes to immediately start scanning the page instead of reading every word and sentence

If we can begin to observe the features of digital texts and the challenges of digital reading, we can recognize the skills required for successful digital reading and teach those skills to our students.

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