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Reading Screens vs. Reading Paper: New Literacies? (December 2014): Textbooks

By James K Bracken


The standard textbook on teaching children’s literature, Charlotte Huck’s Children’s Literature, now in a tenth edition by Barbara Z. Kiefer, presents paper and electronic books as equivalent.  Kiefer’s introductory “The Development of a Multiliterate Society” notes that “children from all over the world have access to books if they have access to a computer.”  The ninth edition’s introduction was less explicit, when Kiefer noted that “a book should never be selected on the basis of format alone.  No book is better than its content.”  Now, by referring to contemporary culture as “postliterate,” Kiefer also implies that what readers do with electronic texts is markedly different from reading, although she clearly regards reading as the foundation of new literacies.  Kiefer’s successive editions make increasing references to using electronic resources to improve reading.

More thoroughly integrating paper and screen reading, Michael F. Graves, Connie Juel, Bonnie B. Graves, and Peter Dewitz’s Teaching Reading in the 21st Century focuses on insuring children’s abilities to read diverse textual formats.  The authors call this “critical literacy” without reference to format differences.  New in the fifth edition are “Motivating Children with Technology” sidebars that describe Internet and other computer-based programs to improve phonemic awareness, word recognition, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, and second language acquisition.  These screen-reading programs engage students in playing interactive reading games; using e-mail for letter-writing and telecollaborative projects; and reading and using e-books, electronic talking and animated books, translators, and other technologies.

By comparison, classroom teacher Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide gives real world advice about what he feels adults need to do if they really want children to read better.  Gallagher argues that young readers most need what he calls “authentic reading,” the kinds of reading adults do in “newspapers, magazines, blogs, and websites.”  He likens reading to athletic performance, citing the need for disciplined practice.  Gallagher’s conclusions reference reading’s research literature while calling attention to the commonsense recognition that more sustained silent reading and free voluntary reading equate with improved skills in word recognition, comprehension, reading fluency, and more.  Similarly passionate textbooks aimed at reading teachers that emphasize the importance of authentic reading are Gallagher’s earlier Deeper Reading, Nancy Atwell’s The Reading Zone, and Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer.  Other educators calling for more authentic and balanced reading combining print and electronic media include David Booth in Reading Doesn’t Matter Anymore and Linda B. Gambrell in “Reading Literature, Reading Text, Reading the Internet: The Times They Are a’Changing,” collected in Diane Lapp and Douglas Fisher’s Essential Readings on Comprehension.

Pointing out that “a book is a book is a book,” Terence W. Cavanaugh’s The Digital Reader focuses on fully integrating digital texts in reading instruction.  Reading and classroom applications for e-books, Cavanaugh says, are no different than for paper books.  Of particular interest is Cavanaugh’s chapter “E-book Reading Strategies,” which emphasizes active textual engagement to support comprehension and understanding.

A few textbooks aimed at librarians are also noteworthy.  Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Lynne McKechnie, and Paulette M. Rothbauer’s Reading Matters recognizes the diversity of reading practices associated with different readable formats.  The question of the equivalence of reading paper versus screens is secondary to the assumption that readers need multiple literacies.  Catherine C. Marshall’s Reading and Writing the Electronic Book discusses topics like the layout, typography, and legibility of electronic books.  While advocating for reading screens versus paper, Marshall is realistic about the diversity of reading, distinguishing reading from skimming, scanning, glancing, seeking, and rereading; she also acknowledges the need for a diversity of readable formats.  Admitting that what she calls electronic book reading is often actually closer to scanning, Marshall concludes that “there is no single way that people will read.”  More recently, Jennifer Pearson, George Buchanan, and Harold Thimbleby’s Designing for Digital Reading puts a similar emphasis on improving the technology of what can be read.

But making maybe the clearest statement on the equivalence of print versus screens for reading are complementary textbooks on typography by graphic designer Ellen Lupton.  In Thinking with Type, Lupton states that “crisp black text on a white background can be read just as efficiently from a screen as from a printed page.”  There is a twist, however; according to Lupton, typography’s main purpose is to “help readers navigate the flow of content ... one of design’s most humane functions is, in actuality, to help readers avoid reading.”  Typography is for information finding, an experience or practice that, according to Lupton, can be distinct from reading.  In her more recent Type on Screen, emphasizing that reading has never been a “singular experience,” Lupton concludes that “different media support the process of reading in different ways.”

Works Cited