Why We Need to Be Teaching Students with Digital Texts

ximg_5512e58839818.jpg.pagespeed.gp+jp+jw+pj+js+rj+rp+rw+ri+cp+md.ic.u32AS6fEhaI have an admission to make: I still get a newspaper delivered.  

My colleagues, who usually see me as a proponent of technology, always on the side of the tech-progressive pushes at our school, might be aghast at this.

But yes, I’m still supporting the dead-tree industry.  This is despite the fact that I’m environmentally minded—my wife and I do worm composting in the basement, my baby daughter is wearing cloth diapers right now, and part of the reason why I love living in a big city like Philadelphia so much is that it’s much more energy efficient. Nonetheless, every Sunday morning I’m woken up to the sound of two pounds of the Inquirer bouncing off my front door.

So, why do I do this?

I could wax nostalgic about my days as a paperboy—early June mornings, ink-stained fingers, life lessons learned and the like. I could say that it’s just inertia—I’ve had the paper delivered for years and I’ve just never gotten around to stopping it. I could talk about the way a newspaper feels in your hands—getting the reverse fold just right and so on.  But none of these are the real reasons.

The truth is, I like reading from paper.  Early in the morning, when I know I’m going to spend a good part of my day staring at a variety of devices, I just can’t face the harsh glow of a screen to start my day. I also find that I read more slowly and deeply when reading from paper.  I don’t just hit topic sentences and conclusion paragraphs, I read the whole thing.

And yet, last week, during a conversation with my department about electronic vs. paper reading, I found myself singly defending electronic reading for our students.  Why?

The biggest reason has to do with preparing students for the reality of their future.  In ten years, how many companies will still be making their employees read from paper sources that are clunkier, slower, and costlier, when electronic texts are faster and cheaper?  How many college textbooks will still be around, weighing down backpacks and draining students’ meager bank accounts?  I would hazard to say, very few.  And yes, I’ve read this article, but clearly there is an overall trend, and that trend shows paper print going in the direction of Blockbusters and travel agents.  Or maybe more aptly, stone tablets and papyrus.  

If we really want to live up to our mission to make kids “college and career ready,” we’ll give them electronic texts, and lots of them.  As educators, we need to take an unflinching look at ourselves and ask how many of our decisions are guided by our own biases and perceptions, and how many of our choices are based on what is really best for students.  

And I’m not saying that students are going to like it (because yes, I’ve read this article, too).  Just like me, a lot of them prefer to read print for the same reasons as I do.  But sometimes, we have to make decisions for kids that are best for them, even when we meet resistance.  

We also need to teach them how to read electronic text: slow down their reading, reread parts they didn’t understand, annotate—classic reading strategies that we’ve been using for years.  Just like how we need to teach them how to use social media responsibly and be good digital citizens, teaching them to read e-text is one of those skills that adults need to provide for students in this ever-changing world of technology where there is no standard operating procedure yet.  

So, the next time my paper delivery renewal comes up, I’m honestly not sure if I’ll shell out the money for another six months.  Because maybe instead of getting the newspaper, I’m the one who needs to change.  I need to reteach myself how to read digital text and redevelop the art of reading for the electronic age.  

What I do know is this: after my morning coffee and newspaper, I get to work where there are tons of emails to respond to, tweets to read, articles to digest, and essays written on Google Docs to grade.  And my old newspapers, what happens to them?  After they’re read and have outstayed their welcome in our living room, they’re shredded up and fed to the worms.  


4 thoughts on “Why We Need to Be Teaching Students with Digital Texts

  1. Hey Dylan — nice blog. I wish you good luck with it. You’re definitely an old soul. (I know this isn’t the point of your article, but I used to vermipost, too. Nice job…and yes, the worms will ingest the news!)


  2. Your post fails to address the most important issue regarding reading online with screens: attention; not to mention ownership and a million other devil’s bargains implied in your post.

    Every day, my students have the option to read or write for ten minutes. Most of them find writing too hard, the journal prompts require complex thinking and self-analysis . . . why bother when Google tells them what to think? Most of them choose to read, from my class library. If the student enjoys reading for pleasure, the worn, used, and donated books invite them in, bring them texture and a world separate and uniquely singular within that one brilliant invention . . . but the screen traps them, pulls them in, endlessly distracting, a million possibilities, that’s not reading, that’s not being able to pay attention–zapping power, time, the lot of it. And then there are the students who ask me to read on their phones, about 5% of my 188 students. 1/2 of the time they are switching screens, floating around with messages, or trying to get more power. And you propose we just get real and dump what works? Why lead with such nostalgia if you don’t even believe in paper?

    If you are going to give advice to teachers insisting that we provide our media saturated kids with the tools to read effectively on screens–or the natural logical end of this game we all insist on playing: implants; then you must offer us techniques to instill these skills; I have encountered nothing effective. I am going to bring a Faraday cage into my class for students to dump their screens off by choice or by punitive discipline, so they can actually learn something that day, and nothing gets to their phone; shut it down.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Nathan. I understand your frustration – it’s hard to successfully adapt our teaching strategies when the competition for our students’ attention is so fierce. But I think that putting technology into a Faraday cage – real or metaphorical – is akin to sticking our heads in the sand. I may not have a panacea that will work for all students everywhere, but I’m working hard to develop ways to best support my kids and the world they will be entering.

      And technology can open up all kinds of resources and connections that weren’t available before. For instance, this conversation we’re having wouldn’t be possible without technology – we would have never had a means to connect and communicate. I’d encourage you to allow your students to have those same opportunities while working with them to develop self-discipline while online – even if they’re not perfect every time. So don’t shut it down just yet!


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