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Digital Versus Print: Encouraging Literacy is a Balance

January 20, 2011

Regular followers know how I feel about reading. It’s essential. It’s one of the 10 Desirable Traits. There are more articles on this topic  that can be counted.  I’ve written on reading literacy before in 6 Steps to Foster a Love of Literature, Summertime and the Reading is Easy and the Resource Edition.

Lately  I’ve been questioning and researching the role digital literacy and electronic books play in our lives. As a reader, a teacher and a parent, I wonder just what part of reading and life electronic reading should play in our complicated, complex and oh-so-busy lives.  I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to log the number of minutes I read electronically versus print.   If you’re on email during the day, do research, or teach you may be able to empathize.   I am quite certain, and a smidge ashamed, that I  read exponentially more electronically  than I read on paper.

So I wonder what that “digital literacy” and traditional definitions of literacy mean for our kids? Specifically, I wonder what role digital literacy plays in the lives of those who have crossed the life-defining threshold of “learning to read” and are now squarely in that wondrous land of “reading to learn.”  This week’s LD On line newsletter opens with a reminder that  “Learning to read is an ongoing task. Even the best of readers can fine-tune their skills.”  So how to keep them moving on that path, both with traditional reading and electronic reading?  I also wonder how the advances in digital literacy support those who are just discovering books and are working through the arduous process of making meaning from text.

The traditionalist-bibliophile-teacher-collector in me simply cannot let go of the idea and the existence of books. Not to mention  the  cascade of positive emotions and learning that arises when one holds an amazing book in two hands.  The pragmatic-techie-innovator side of me says, “jump on the train before it runs you over.”  Digital life is here to stay. It’s moving fast and morphing.  Make peace with it. Learn to use its power for good, not evil.

How and where do electronic books have a role in the life of elementary, middle and high school students?  Bad news. I have definite answers.   I do have some insights and articles from other, far more eloquent writers.   If you have answers, by all means, comment on the blog or Facebook.  I’ll be sure to read that electronic print!

Several  articles point to the role of electronic print – a quick Google search churns up articles from a range of authors – everyone from the International Reading Association and Scholastic to tutoring companies and tech bloggers.  Scientific American’s blog On-line Print Versus Reading: Which One Makes You Smarter concludes that the jury’s out until we see more research.  Discovery Education’s Print Versus (Social) Media – Rethinking Literacy in the Digital Age conclude that the answers come from an expanded definition of literacy that reflects the 21st century demands and offerings.  Like many great educational debates (whole language versus phonics, arithmetic versus mathematical problem solving), the answer most likely likes in a balanced approach.  And that’s my stand on the print versus digital reading debate.  It’s not one way or the other because we all need the wide range of skills to read, comprehend and process text in various formats and venues. As adult readers, it’s our obligation to present a balanced set of options to younger readers as well as to have conversations about the benefits and limits of both.

I am by no means advocating giving up on traditional print; I’ve am avid reader of both types of print myself.  As a teacher, I’m cautious about how I balance the two and encourage readers to do the same.   Here’s my list of advantages of each:

Electronic media does offers readers:

  • Motivation – it’s cool, it’s hip, and it’s engaging
  • Multi-media – there are often plug-ins and other media that further engage readers, however those with “weak processing control issues” would benefit from having n adult read with them
  • Read aloud features – beginning readers benefit from hearing the sounds of letters and words either on a consistent basis or to give them a break as they fatigue and lose meaning while decoding
  • Additional meaning – many methods of electronic reading allow for easy note-taking, supplementary text, dictionaries, reference material, etc. which all the reader to process longer and/or more complex text with greater efficiency

My list of benefits of traditional print are simply too long to list here, but tops on the list include:

  • Life long habit of reading for pleasure and information
  • Developing and sustaining intellectual stamina, and curiosity
  • Serves as a tool for life-long learning in a variety of setting
  • Builds vocabulary, knowledge, emotional resilience
  • Allows reader to connect or disconnect from world
  • Companionship and pride in one’s collection of books, especially when old friends wait on the shelf to be revisited as the need arises

If gloss over the benefits of digital literacy, we shield ourselves and our readers from where life is moving.  Furthermore,  for readers who need support (decoding, comprehension, processing), we fail to give them all the tools they could have at their disposal to become a more fully engaged reader.  If you stick to all digital, not only does that limit neurological development in the brain, but there’s a whole range of skills that are shown to develop with traditional reading that we do not know if or how they develop.  Balance is essential.

Post Script:

It’s rare that I rave about any particular product on this blog, except for books that I find essential to teaching and parenting.  As my disclosure policy states I do not accept any compensation for products mentioned on this site.  However, in this blog, there is one particular product that I’m compelled to recommend to help balance print and electronic reading. If you’re looking for ways to engage young readers in digital media, check out Tales2Go.  They offer an ap that brings high quality children’s literature to life as a digital read aloud.  Used in conjunction with shared and independent reading, it brings literature to children’s lives in one more enriching way.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2011 1:32 am

    Lisa, I found this post particularly interesting – personally and as a parent.
    1) I am totally a traditionalist in terms of reading paper books vs digital books, yet I do 90% of my reading on-line: news sites, sports information, blogs, etc. 2) Yet as a parent I am just thrilled that my children are reading (and love to read) so therefore I don’t care if it’s digital or print… and yet I clearly do because I limit the amount of time they spend on the computer. There must be research that shows the downfalls of reading too much off a computer (vs. print) and that alone would stand to argue for print media.
    I just love a good book – and I mean that in theory and tangibly.

  2. Lisa Dewey Wells, Wonder of Children permalink*
    January 20, 2011 2:18 am

    Thanks for writing. There are emerging studies on the impact of digital literacy. Here’s one from the Pearson Foundation on emergent literacy and the impact digital literacy has:

    And another on digital literacy in the 21st century

    And one more that discusses how to use digital media to enhance literacy instruction

    It’s clearly an on-going conversation – thank for chiming in. It will be a challenge to keep a few steps ahead of our kids!

  3. January 22, 2011 8:39 pm

    Great article, Lisa. It always scares me when people frame traditional v. digital literacy as one making you “smarter” than the other. I guess the silver lining would be that if people do something they think makes them smarter and reading (whichever medium) is “it,” then at least their reading.

    Do you think that digital reading excludes the possibility of becoming a “lifelong habit of reading for pleasure and information”?

    Like you, I have been mulling this over for a while. I wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago called Does Everything Have to Be (on) a Screen?.

    Glad to have found you via Tales2Go


  1. Print Vs. Digital – Is the ebook not a ‘proper’ book? | The Digital Media Diet

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