Digital Reading: Diligence or Distraction?

Are you concentrating as you read this?  Are you sure?  Will you pause in your reading and click on the hyperlink a few lines down…and then perhaps forget to come back to this blog post?

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A recent article in the New York Times (“Growing Up Digital: Wired for Distraction,” November 21, 2010:) explored recent brain research that suggests extensive exposure to digital media, including various forms of online text interspersed with hyperlinks, can actually affect the wiring of developing brains.  At least some children and adolescents, used to clicking from link to link and tweet to tweet, seem to lose focus, with diminshed ability to understand and remember what they have read.

And what about their parents and teachers, theoretically rooted in hard copy, linear text that does not embed its own distractions?  As a child, I can still picture myself making my bed with one hand, with a book I couldn’t put down in the other, voraciously reading as I tucked in the sheets and blanket.  I still happily read hard copy text–but consume much of what I read each day on my computer screen, scrolling through sentences and paragraphs, detouring to follow related links, searching for connected–and sometimes unconnected–ideas, checking out videos that pop up on the side, and so on.

As a result, I think–no, I know–I’ve become a more impatient reader.  I scan the lead paragraph of a news story or essay, and if it doesn’t grab me quickly, here I go with my mouse, rapidly scrolling down the page…or, click!, here I go, hopping to another story or website altogether.  On the plus side, I can sometimes develop a broader context and a deeper understanding of what I’m reading in the first place, if I can remember to go back to the original document.  On the down side, sometimes I have to push myself to stick with lengthy but still valuable prose.

How has exposure to digital text changed you as a reader?  How has it changed your students?  And what are the implications for teaching and learning on both the positive and negative sides?  Please share your thoughts, and we’ll explore in a future post.

Image by erskinelibraryCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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