New Reviews

Learning to Read in a Digital World

Learning to Read in a Digital World. Edited by Mirit Barzillai, Jenny Thomson, Sascha Schroeder and Paul van den Broek. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 2018. x + 238 pages. £221.56 (hardback).

Learning to Read in a Digital World explicitly seeks “to examine how advances in technology are influencing children’s reading skills and development across a variety of environments and populations” (1). The book grew out of the EU funded COST-action on digital literacies and is comprised of nine extended literature reviews, framed by an Introduction and concluding discussion written by the editorial team. The volume’s unstated goal is to provide a road map for this diverse research field by identifying areas of mismatch or contention. For instance, the Introduction observes that universal agreement as to what constitutes a ‘digital environment’ has not been reached. For researchers interested in the role of the body in meaning formation, the difference between reading on paper or on a screen is sufficient to refer to the former as a digital environment, whereas others are more interested in the affordances of highly interactive settings such as the Internet. The editorial team also note that some researchers regard reading in digital environments as an extension of other literacy skills whereas others regard digital literacies as being fundamentally different. The papers are clustered around three broad themes: foundations (the mapping of existing practices), cognitive and emotional processing in digital environments and education, instruction and assessment.

The opening chapter by Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak & Frank Huysmans situates concerns about how polarised the research and, to an even greater extent, media intended for the general public have become. Their response is to supply “a balanced and empirically grounded factual context for current debates about reading in general, and reading from digital devices in particular” (Deszcz-Tryhubczak & Huysmans 2). They draw parallels between debates surrounding the spread of TV during the 1960s and 1970s and current debates on the impact of computers, more specifically the Internet, on children’s reading. The same concerns as to whether the ‘new’ media constitute 1) a distraction from reading, 2) a substitution for reading or whether it 3) activates the same processes. Deszcz-Tryhubczak & Huysmans also raise the issue of multiple, simultaneous media (such as surfing in front of the television) and question distinctions between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media. Their conclusions highlight individual differences brought about by factors such as parental influence, cultural capital in the home environment, access to public libraries and the very different attitudes and provision for digital education in schools. They also observe the considerable variation within the EU concerning the level of Internet use, dividing countries into four bands ranging from 75% or more Internet users to 30% or below. Their point is to highlight the very broad range of practices within the EU, and the factors that need to be considered when forming educational guidelines and policies on both national and international levels.

In the second chapter, Sue Walker and her colleagues describe the issues designers consider when creating digital texts for children who are just learning how to read, paying particular attention to typography, the use of space and the picture-text arrangements. Their overview highlights the way in which some devices allow readers more control over these arrangements than others (for example, some devices allow readers to increase the font size, whereas other are more fully controlled by the designer). The sheer range of aspects designers must consider is obvious as soon as they are brought to our attention, but I for one had not considered how, for example, the use justified layout makes the size of the gaps between words vary and the use of serif vs sanserif scripts might affect the legibility of reading materials for young children before. They conclude with a call for more research on readers’ experiences of various interfaces, but do not consider the potential of the cognitive sciences including neurological studies of reading to provide information on, for example, the size of the visual form area and how this might support our understanding of the salient features of font type, size and layout. The following chapter, headed by Judith Wylie, examine the interplay of four executive functions – attention, working memory, executive control and metacognition – affects the reading of texts on paper and on screens. The on-screen reading is further divided into studies on linear text and non-linear text (hypertext) since the latter places even greater demands on executive functions (those functions which coordinate so-called ‘low-level’ skills such as letter recognition). The result is a detailed, cautionary tale which, while acknowledging the advantages of digitalization, highlights the increased demand placed on the executive functions involved, especially when processing hyperlinked texts and dealing with distractors.

The theme of comprehension in relation to digital texts continues in the following chapter as Ladislao Salmerón and his colleagues provide a review of existing research related to on-line searching, coping with the diverse formats of texts available on the Internet and evaluating their quality. They divide the reading process into three elements – navigating, evaluating and integrating – but consistently point out the need for more research examining the connections between these processes in proficient online reading. The review addresses the problems of assessing the quality of information available in social media as well as more traditional forms of knowledge, and concludes with a summary of the main forms of data collection used in studies of these activities.

Gal Ben-Yehudah and her team examine the challenges and affordances of digital texts for readers with a variety of learning difficulties (with a focus on dyslexia) and attention deficits such as ADHD. They also provide a review of existing studies on the use of digital interventions (such as educational games) as well as enhanced story books and e-books to support such learners. The following chapter, headed by Johanna K. Kaakinen maintains the focus on the reader, this time highlighting the emotions inspired by digital texts according to genre (simplified as either narrative or expository). They then consider how these emotional responses are connected to motivation to argue that this explains preferences for digital vs. print texts.

The final three papers focus more exclusively on the educational implications of research on digital reading. Charles L. Mifsud and Zuzana Petrová focus on children’s first encounters with digital environments in educational settings. Their review of existing research on how digital technology is integrated into pre- and early literacy education highlights the interplay between different levels of influence ranging from national educational policies down to the specific needs of individual learners. Meltem Huri Baturay et al focus on the design principles which need to be taken into account when developing educational interfaces for children who are already able to read, and who are transitioning into the ‘reading to learn’ phase. The section on educational implications concludes with a paper by Hildegunn Støle and her colleagues, who are concerned with how digitalisation is affecting testing. Using traditional paper-and-pen tests as a point of contrast, Støle et al discuss the design features of digital tests and the educational implications of digital assessment. In the final chapter, the editors of the volume headed by Jenny Thomson reflect on the factors influences children’s reading development in digital environments, highlighting the interplay between traditional influencers – teachers, parents, educational policy etc. – and the specifics of digital design.

As a whole, the volume succeeds in identifying the main areas of concern in relation to literacy education in the context of digitalisation. Whilst none of the papers offers original data, these thorough overviews of existing studies serve as an excellent starting point for further research. The one aspect that is strangely absent (given the book’s origin as an EU project) is the place of multilingualism in digital environments. However, the more general discussions of educational policy as well as the more detailed investigations of design features can serve as a basis for such research.

Lydia Kokkola
Oulu University, Finland