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K-12 Reading in the Digital Age: Books or Nooks?

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Think back to the last book you read. Did it have a smell? Did it glow? Could you dog-ear the pages? Could you read it in the dark?

Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and an expert in the field of communication and technology, spends time mulling over these questions, thinking about how we read in the digital age. She has written widely about language and changes for communication in our newly wired world. In her eighth book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (Oxford University Press, 2015), Baron unpacks the history of reading and the media we use to do so. As screens take over our lives, reading has become a digital activity. E-books and other forms of digital learning are making their way into classrooms across the country because of cost, personalization, convenience, and easier accessibility for learners with disabilities.

Baron Headshot.jpg

But students, she says—at least the 430 college-age students Baron surveyed through American University's Reading Habits Project from the United States, Japan, Germany, Slovakia, and India—prefer print books over e-books if given the choice. And a 2015 Scholastic survey found that 65 percent of children ages 6-17  will always want to read print books. What dictates those choices—cost, environmental factors, long vs. short texts, and pleasure vs. schoolwork—depends on the individual. What Baron wants us to think about is how the media we use to read may be changing how we learn in subtle ways, and, she notes, that deserves a closer look.

As BookMarks continues to explore the intersection of print and digital reading and its effect on today's readers (see our post earlier this month about school districts' push for e-textbooks and my colleague Alex Lenkei's Q&A with writer David Denby), we talked to Baron about how she thinks K-12 classrooms should continue to navigate an increasingly paperless world.

BookMarks: You study the intersection between communication, language, and technology. Why did you decide to tackle books and reading in the digital age?

Baron: One of the things I care about in education is whether we have academic reasons for making the pedagogical choices that we do. In the last seven or eight years, with the growth of digital reading and changes in the cost structure of digital vs. print, cost considerations were often driving pedagogical choices without our knowing whether pedagogy was the same regardless of medium. In an educational setting, we are assuming that bringing more and more digital reading into K-12 classrooms is improving students' education. Some studies suggest basic comprehension levels are not as good when reading digitally vs. in print, but the tests are not refined enough that I know the answer.

But if you ask readers, they will tell you things that are very different from what we as teachers or school administrators or governors have assumed to be the case.

Fate of Reading in the Digital Age.jpg

If you survey students about which medium is best for concentration—reading in print vs. the whole range of digital devices—92 percent say they concentrate best when reading print. If cost were the same, 87 percent say for schoolwork, they prefer reading in print. Similarly, if you ask them about reading shorter texts for academic work, it's all over the map; but for long texts, 86 percent prefer hard copy.

My assumption when I began research was it would only matter to older readers but that isn't the case. When you look at anecdotal data from Scholastic, kids will say: "I take pride in being able to take this big book that I read and put it on a shelf and say, 'That's part of who I am now.'" What surprised me was how much emotions, ascetics, and the feel of a physical book matter to younger readers.  

BookMarks: For these students who are given digital technology to read more often than print because of cost concerns and other factors, do you think that we will see a change going forward in young students' preference of print vs. digital?

Baron: The first thing is to ask what parents feel they would like their young kids to read. Even though there are more digital technologies around, that doesn't mean parents are shying away from also making sure children have exposure to print. If our goal is education, we have to ask what the best ways are to bring about meaningful education—not the best ways to get good grades. What we have not worked out is pedagogies through which kids of all ages can learn how to focus when they read on a digital device. When students themselves tell us what the easier media are for them to learn with, it behooves us to do two things: 1) listen to them; and 2) ask if there is a way digitally to replicate the concentration levels, the annotation levels, and the level of serious reading, which doesn't always happen in print, but more easily happens in print for most people.

BookMarks: What should K-12 educators be aware of with reading as they continue to incorporate digital technologies into their classrooms?

Baron: One of the best things one can do is talk about what the two media are good for. The problem is overwhelmingly that most digital devices have an Internet connection, and it's too tempting. So if we're telling students digital is the right way to go, and we don't teach them what they don't know how to do yet—namely, don't give into temptations to check Facebook or send a tweet—it's not the students' fault if their concentration flags. We have to teach people how to work effectively, efficiently, and in a way that gets your mind engaged. That in itself has always been a challenge for teachers, but it's especially been problematic with digital devices that are inviting your mind to go somewhere else.

BookMarks: You conclude that while reading has without a doubt evolved, there is no way to predict what it will look like in the next 20 years—how we will approach text or how that choice will impact us. What do you envision in the world of reading for our next generation of students? Do you think print and digital worlds can peacefully coexist?

Baron: The publishing industry is overwhelming saying, at least for the foreseeable future, that it is a both/and world. It's going to be digital and print, and for different purposes we will use different things. If you ask me to look in my crystal ball, for at least the next five years, we are going to have some things in print and some things digital, and it will differ a lot from person to person, age group to age group, and culture to culture. In the U.S., as of now, roughly 20 percent of book sales are digital and roughly 80 percent are print. 

Similarly, I think to the extent that we model behaviors, we will shape those behaviors. If we keep telling the younger generation that digital learning is the best way to do things and there are no other options, they will believe us. We should say: Let's figure out the things that are really great to do in digital media and print, or what might work well in both formats. But outside of a small number of people, we're not thinking about that enough. Is the level of richness we want for children going to be available if we just assume that nature or commerce should take its course? There are great things you can only do digitally for learning, but it's not all of learning, and we have to figure out which parts and why and what age levels to say what to.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo credit: Headshot, Naomi S. Baron; Book cover, Oxford University Press

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