Moving Beyond the Digital vs. Print Reading Debate

In a recent blog, Larry Ferlazzo’s posed a question, Which is better for students — reading paper or reading digitally?  There are a variety of responses that are both insightful and backed by research to support both sides of the debate.  I encourage you to check them out if you haven’t already. As I was reading the various posts, I couldn’t help but think about the perceived tension between literacy and technology. This tension is real and manifests itself in educational dialogues as statements like these :

“We aren’t focusing on technology right now, our priority is literacy.” or “We need kids to learn to read so we don’t want to distract them with devices.”

With the abundance of information online and the rate at which content is added and changes, readers must be able to access and engage with both print and digital text.  I don’t see technology and literacy as mutually exclusive. I believe that schools should provide access and choice to a wide variety of material to read for pleasure and to learn in way that meets their needs and personal learning styles including digital and print texts.   I think there are three questions we should be asking to move beyond the print vs digital debate and ensure we are providing more options and access for students to become better readers, learners and thinkers.

1. Are we allowing readers to have voice and choice in their reading?

From the time I can remember I avoided reading the mandated books my teachers assigned and made it through school listening to the teachers recap the chapter, skimming for answers, watching the movies or reading the cliff notes to pass the tests.   What I have come to realize is that reading is not what I loathed, it was the lack of voice in choice in how and what I was reading that turned me off.  I read all day long now that I get to choose what I want to read!

I see a range of literacy practices across different schools and classrooms and when students are excited about what they are reading and want to read more it is because they are reading books, or articles, or accessing information that interests them.  I have seen kids aimlessly click through digital programs or haphazardly turn the page of the basal readers because it is what is assigned.  The joy of reading, or lack thereof, seems to have less to do with digital or print and more about empowering the reader.

2. Are we providing access to a wide range of texts?

My 7  year old enjoys finding recipes, reading jokes and devours books with weird facts and information.  If you ask her if she likes to read she will probably say no, but she reads all the time to learn and find out new information. She will read a book, a website, a blog or whatever she can get her hands on to figure out the information she wants but if I hand her a chapter book she considers it work and merely does it because she has to get in her 30 minutes a day.

My husband reads news online but prefers reading books in print. My son is an emerging reader and loves RAZ kids because he can be independent and hear the book read aloud first and then read on his own.  He also likes the structure that allows him to move through the levels systematically.

The bottom line is that we all read in different ways for different purposes that suit our own personalities and needs.  We have bookcases and baskets full of books throughout the house but we also have iPads, phones and computers galore.  The same range of preferences, and more, exist in our classrooms but are we providing the same type of access to meet the diverse reading preferences and styles?

3. Are we sanctioning time for readers to authentically engage with a range of texts?

It’s great if you provide access to a variety of books and allow students to choose, but they also need time to read and engage with texts authentically.  Authentic reading has to move beyond providing time to move through a leveled program online or reading a passage out of a textbook with static questions that exist as part of the predetermined curriculum.

As a 7th and 8th grade English teacher I taught kids who saw themselves as non readers and often tested “well below average” embrace reading. When they were given a wide range of texts to choose from and opportunities to read and share what they were thinking and learning with their peers, they began to see the value of reading.  We need to understand that not everyone shares the same preferences for reading and that’s ok, what matters is that we are developing students who can read and choose to use their skills to learn and explore the world and generate new ideas.

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