Question: Advantages of reading/writing online vs. reading print and writing by hand?

Icon-round-Question_markLately, I’ve been asked by several teacher colleagues for information that could help them understand the complexities of digital literacies, and by extension, digital literacies instruction.

I’ve decided to begin posting my responses to my colleagues on my blog, in case there are others who could benefit from these thoughts.

I also welcome input from others who could inform answers to these questions!

Here’s the first question.

“I have a question from our Foreign language department chair. Have you found any research on the advantages of reading/writing online vs. reading print (and writing by hand). These teachers feel that in their field the writing by hand is so crucial to learning the language. Thank you if you know of any research specific to learning languages and online vs print reading/writing.”

Here’s how I responded:

In response to your question, here are my thoughts. I do have some research to share — but first, a synthesis of my understanding that could inform your colleagues’ thinking.

1) Language learning is a complex socio-cognitive process that requires vast and varied opportunities for both comprehensible input, but also output. Work by second language scholars such as Stephen Krashen, Merrill Swain and Sharon Lapkin has told us that input and output are essential. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Opportunities to receive and understand language, but also opportunities to produce language and communicate ideas are obviously essential for the learning of any language. Moreover, the input and the output must take many forms — oral language (input and output) and written language (input and output). Plus, we know that for our students to become confident, fluent communicators, they need access to multiple types of input and output that serve a range of rhetorical purposes and force an understanding of a range of audiences. So, students need to read texts that inform, persuade, describe, narrate etc. and also create these texts. In the 21st century, this needs to occur in digital contexts too. This is because we know that the structures of online texts differ, and that the skills required to produce digital texts for a range of purposes and audiences are different than those acquired through print-based or even face-to-face exchanges. If your colleagues are worried about the digital world taking over — do assure them that traditional, print-based contexts for input and output matter a LOT. Learning to read, write and communicate in the “traditional” ways is as important as ever — and even, perhaps foundational for the development of digital literacies skills. However, it’s my view that to deny students opportunities and access to digital composition is also to deny them opportunities to use language for a variety of purposes and in a variety of contexts that are absolutely essential to their futures as citizens in a world that is becoming increasingly networked.

2) Human beings learn everything by interacting with, and acting on, their world. To do this, we use all of our sensory faculties — we hear, we see, we touch, we manipulate, we smell. Increasingly, we understand learning as an embodied experience — so that what our bodies do, how they are oriented in space, and how they interact with the context of our learning or activity, is now understood to matter quite a lot. The tools we use, the places in which we use them, and the feelings and senses we have as we use these tools in context are all inextricably connected to the thinking and learning we do. Scholars like Andy Clark, Arthur Glenberg, and Kevin Leander have helped us to understand the ways that learning and literacies are, in fact, embodied. This is the theoretical foundation for the gesture approach to L2 learning championed by Wendy Maxwell

Okay — so given this, we must also acknowledge that we process and manipulate information in our brains. The extent to which we integrate the information that reaches our brains depends on a lot of factors — but to address the factors related to your colleagues’ assertions about the importance of writing with pens/pencils vs. typing — I can say that there is probably some truth in their observations because writing with pens/pencils engages multiple sensory channels. And, the more channels are engaged, the more information is coming in to our brains to be processed. So, writing involves holding a pen, moving it in certain ways to produce letters that are then seen/read. Some students might even say the words aloud as they write them — so there are two more modalities engaged — the ears and the voice.

3) Moreover, for young learners, the written page is a defined space that is clear of distraction. And, for cognitively demanding work — like learning another language — we know that distractions reduce our ability to attend to important details. The more we have going on in our environment (i.e., on the Internet) the more our attention will be divided. So, the observations that your colleagues have made may be as much about creating an optimal environment for undivided attention as anything.

4) I would say to your colleagues that they should not think of online vs. print-based literacies (L1 or L2) as being in tension or in opposition with one another. Rather, given the importance of digital literacies, we should think about providing students with a range of opportunities to develop all of the necessary literacies skills/mindsets/dispositions that will enable them to be fully engaged global citizens.It’s not a question of one context being better for learning than another. Rather, it’s about understanding the multiple contexts that our students will need to navigate and ensuring that they’re ready to do that. If anyone can help our students to do this — it’s the Modern/Foreign Language teachers. These are the colleagues who understand culture, who understand the complexities and multiplicities of meaning, who think in multiple sign systems all day, every day. In fact, I believe that the Foreign Language classroom is precisely where kids gain an understanding of the ways that meaning can be communicated that translate, actually, to the multimodal environments they meet online. Foreign language teachers have always, for instance, helped students to leverage images in ways that support meaning. Online, that’s an absolutely necessary skill because there are so many visual cues that communicate meaning.

References I shared:
Castañeda, D.A. & Cho, M-H.(2013).The role of wiki writing in learning Spanish grammar. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 26(4), 334-349. doi:

Kern, R. (2014). Technology as pharmakon: The promise and perils of the Internet for foreign language education. The Modern Language Journal, 98(1), 340-357. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4781.2014.12065.x

I also recommended that these colleagues regularly consult The Reading Teacher, The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, The Modern Language Journal and Computer Assisted Language Learning for research findings to inform their work.

Photo reference: Wilke, S. (2009). Black and white icon of a question mark. Retrieved from Used under author licensing to reuse the image “for any purpose without conditions”.

Online, is stopping or going more important?

ANZ_traffic_lights_ahead_sign_(colour)I’ve got another dissertation insight to share.

As I’ve analyzed the thoughts that treatment participants shared in response to the questions and scaffolding that I provided during their “practice sessions,” I’m seeing that my questions, more than anything, provided space for them to stop, think and reflect. Whether this is a “good” thing in terms of the variables of interest to the study remains to be determined (stay tuned for reports of statistical analyses — I’m getting close to being able to test models!) but based on the observations I’ve made so far,  when a “more knowledgeable other” (Vygotsky, 1978) asks learners to stop gathering, to stop reading, to update what they’ve learned, compare information with what they knew before, or to consider the connections they see among the texts they’ve read, they do.

Julie Coiro (in press) has talked about how online reading may be more about what readers can suppress than what they can take in, decode or collect. As we think about teaching students the skills they need to read both online and offline, I wonder if, starting in Kindergarten (or before!) we need to teach “stopping” skills as much as we need to teach the more traditional “going” skills. Decoding and then constructing meaning from texts is obviously an essential goal — no quibbling from me on this point. These are the “going” skills that enable all of us to consume information and they’re definitely essential! I wonder, though, if the online context presents us with something of a chicken-egg question? Or analogously, the age-old question of whether the engine or the brakes are more important on a car? Certainly, Kuhn and Pease (2010) have suggested that both inhibitory control and production of strategies are essential for the development of advanced inquiry processes.

Online, especially when the purpose is to construct meaning across many texts, I think we also need to help students suppress the pre-potent tendency to keep gathering. In our collective rush to teach children to read more and more fluently, to construct meaning at a faster rate, I also wonder if we are setting them up to struggle online where, to construct meaning from trustworthy sources, they will need to read a bit, and then stop to contemplate. I wonder what would happen if, as teachers, we emphasized stopping as much as the active reading and gathering of facts online? Would it help students to construct more integrated meaning across texts? Or, at the very least, help them to get lost a little less?

So far as I can tell, the questions I’ve asked participants in the treatment group give them the space them to pause, to articulate the connections they’ve determined, and to share the questions that are still on their minds. For me, this has resulted in richer insights for analysis compared with the control participants who seemed to stop less.

Here’s a sampling of questions I asked treatment participants:

1) How is this information the same or different from information you knew before?

2) What connections do you see between this text and texts you’ve already read?

3) What do you currently understand on this topic?

4) What do you still need to find out?

5) How do you know this is trustworthy information?



Coiro, J. (in press). Purposeful, critical and flexible: Vital dimensions of online reading and learning. In R.J. Spiro, M. DeSchryver, M.S. Hagerman, P. Morsink, P. Thompson (Eds). Reading at a crossroads? Disjunctures and continuities in conceptions and practices of reading in the 21st century. New York: Routledge.

Kuhn, D. & Pease, M. (2010). The dual components of developing strategy use: Production and inhibition. In H. Salatas Waters & W. Schneider (Eds.) Metacognition, strategy use, and instruction (pp. 135-159). New York: Guilford.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

The Simple View of Online Reading — It’s Time to Push Back

Screencast Gallery - CEP 891Reading comprehension researchers will know that the simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) presents reading (and reading comprehension) as a function of two factors: (a) decoding ability (D) and (b) language comprehension (LC), a composite skill that is not well articulated by the model,  but that is generally understood to include vocabulary knowledge and auditory processing skills that permit comprehension of oral language too. As Paris & Hamilton (2009) discuss, the simple view falls short for several reasons. First, the equation R = D x LC suggests that D and LC should be weighted equally. Developmental research, however, suggests that as children grow, decoding and language comprehension skills will grow at different rates (e.g., Paris, 2005). The contributions of decoding and/or language comprehension to the index of reading comprehension should therefore vary according to developmental stage. Plus as Nell Duke outlined during a presentation she made to our Reading Comprehension doctoral seminar last semester (CEP 912) the simple view doesn’t take into consideration the many variables outside of language comprehension that have been shown to influence comprehension. Motivation to read, interest in the topic, genre, background knowledge about the topic, executive function, knowledge of reading comprehension strategies and the reader’s ability to apply them, cognitive flexibility, text structure, culture, reading context, the reader’s epistemic stance…all of these variables and many many others have support in the literature as correlates of reading comprehension. In brief, the simple view of reading fails to capture the true complexity of reading comprehension processes.

This week, in CEP 891, a Master’s in Educational Technology (MAET) course that I’ve been invited to co-teach with Paul Morsink and Rand Spiro, we are investigating definitions of online reading. Students have been asked to respond to the following discussion prompt grounded in quotes from Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Given the empirical, theoretical and observational evidence that you’ve read and explored so far, how do you now respond to these two claims from Nicholas Carr’s book?

(1) “the digital environment tends to encourage people to explore many topics extensively, but at a more superficial level” (p. 138) and (2) “skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading […] scanning is becoming an end in itself — our preferred mode of gathering and making sense of information of all sorts.” (p. 138)

Do you agree with these claims? Are these descriptions of online reading sufficient? deficient? or something else entirely? Please share your thoughts!

So far, several students have expressed agreement with Carr’s definitions of online reading. They agree that we are skimmers and scanners; they agree that online, we read more, but less deeply. A few dissenters, however, see that this may be too simple a view. Admittedly (though perhaps I shouldn’t be showing my cards just yet) I agree with them. I don’t disagree that skimming and scanning are hallmark online reading strategies. To me, however, reading online — a term that tends to be used in the singular — is much more dynamic and complex. Like its print-based analogue, ways of making meaning online cannot be simply defined by a such a narrow view. It’s time to push for broader, plural definitions of online reading that take into account the reader, her purpose, her context, culture, background knowledge, motivation, interest, executive function and cognitive flexibility, her understanding of internet text genres, structures and symbols.

Our students will also be posting video clips of two different types of online reading as a way to see how dynamic our online reading comprehension processes are. With their permission, I’ll see if I can post links to their screencasts next week.


Carr, N. (2010). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: W.W. Norton.

Gough, P.B. & Tunmer, W.E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7(1), 6-10.

Paris, S.G. (2005). Re-interpreting the development of reading skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 40(2), 184-202.

Paris, S.G., & Hamilton, E.E (2009). The development of children’s reading comprehension. In S.E. Israel & G.G. Duffy (Eds.), Handbook of research on reading comprehension (pp. 32-53). New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.