How to Help Students Read for Comprehension on Screens
With recent events, students have been spending more time than ever on screens. Schools have shifted to remote learning and the AP exams went digital this spring. In September, the ACT will implement long-standing plans to offer a computer-based testing option. When it comes to testing, the shift to computer-based platforms has been a long-time coming, and exams like the GRE have been computer based for decades. Shifting from paper to screens certainly has its downsides but the reality is that our students spend a lot of time reading on screens and, increasingly, they’re going to be evaluated for how well they do it. Knowing this, how can we coach our students to thrive in a screen-based reading environment? While screen-based reading is different from paper based reading, it doesn’t have to lead to a loss of comprehension. Students can still read effectively with these best practices.
Create the right type of space for reading
Imagine a traditional study: walls lined with books and a comfy leather chair. Why would someone invest the resources in curating such a place? The answer is that reading benefits from a tranquil, focused environment. Unfortunately, most online arenas are the opposite, as various ads, notifications, and media attempt to distract students from their task. The solution is to create a space for reading. This can be both a physical space–a quiet location away from other distractions–or a virtual space using airplane mode and ad blockers to keep your students’ attention on what matters. Additionally, think about what’s comfortable for the eyes. This is one area where digital reading tools can actually have an advantage over paper texts. Many online readers allow students to increase font size, reduce contrast, and select a non-white background. Students can customize these options to make it easier for them to read on the screen for a longer period of time.
Create a mental map while reading
When we read something on paper, our brains use something called spatial-temporal processing to aid in remembering what we’ve read.¹ For example, we remember that a key detail is in the middle of the left column on the first page, and that an important quote from an expert quickly follows. When we’re scrolling through a long passage on a screen, it’s difficult for this mental map to develop.² The best solution is to try to create a mental map. One way to do this is by annotating the text, using an online tool like margin notes or writing notes on paper while reading online. If your student prefers to keep paper notes, they’ll want to give themselves a way to match the notes to the various sections of the text on screen. Students can do this by giving each paragraph a number and matching the paper notes accordingly or leaving spaces in the notes that match the structure of the online passage. Organizing handwritten notes like this is a great way to build a mental map that aids working memory and allows students to build a better understanding of the passage.
Know your digital tools
With paper-based reading, students know the tools at their fingertips: paper and a writing utensil. For decades, Applerouth has taught students about active reading, which involves using the pencil to underline key words and summarize paragraphs while reading. This helps students stay engaged with the text. By actively summarizing and processing sections as they read, more information stays in students’ working memory, where they’ll need to access it soon after to answer questions or explain what they’ve read. On timed tests, where there’s only enough time to read a passage once, it’s especially important to make sure that students are absorbing what they’ve read.
With screen based-reading, the tool kit is different but students can still read in ways that help ensure the information is absorbed in working memory and available for them when they need it. To do this, students have to become familiar with the tools available on the reading software they use for school assignments and standardized tests. Common tools in reading software include margin comments, which students can use to summarize the text in their own words, and highlighting, which students can use to flag key sentences and build a mental map of the document.
Now that we have our best practices, let’s address a mistake that’s easy to make. Most screen time involves a lot of scrolling, whether it’s looking through a social media feed or perusing items while shopping online. This is effective when we need to cull through lots of information, but when we are reading for comprehension, scrolling is one of the worst habits.³ Scrolling is the digital equivalent of skimming, which hinders students’ ability to comprehend nuanced ideas in the text.⁴ If reading a passage that won’t fit fully on the screen, determine a chunk to read at a time and then move down to the next chunk and continue the process. This will prevent skimming and also help you to create a mental map that helps with remembering.
In closing: attitude is key
So much online time is spent on amusement and distraction, especially for students, so it can be hard to shift gears to a more serious and focused online activity, like reading for comprehension. Research suggests that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with screen-based reading, but most readers have to overcome bad habits and/or attitudes when reading online.⁵ Tips like the ones on this article can help your student get there. With practice, your student will be ready to succeed when it comes time to do an important online assignment or even take a computer-based version of the ACT.
Your student has the ability to read effectively on a screen. A little understanding of how our brains work when we read and some new good habits can make all the difference.
¹ Stephen J. Payne & William R. Reader. “Constructing structure maps of multiple on-line texts.” 2005 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1071581905001722.
² Ann Mangen. “Textual Reading on Paper and Screens: Implications for design.” 2017 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325039230_Textual_reading_on_paper_and_screens_Implications_for_design
³ Katherine Hayles. “How we read: close, hyper, machine.” 2010 http://nkhayles.com/how_we_read.html
⁴ Hayles http://nkhayles.com/how_we_read.html
⁵ Ackerman & M. Goldsmith. “Metacognitive regulation of text learning: on screen versus on paper.” 2011 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21443378