Turn the page or scroll down: Technology is reshaping reading lessons — and kids’ brains

Zenia Quinn, a fourth-grader in Courtney Allen’s class at L’Ouverture Computer Technology Magnet Elementary School, uses her iPad during a reading lesson.
Zenia Quinn, a fourth-grader in Courtney Allen’s class at L’Ouverture Computer Technology Magnet Elementary School, uses her iPad during a reading lesson. The Wichita Eagle

It’s reading time in Courtney Allen’s classroom, and the iPads are charged up and ready.

“If you’re the narrator, I want you to start with the setting,” Allen tells her students. “Hold the iPad up close to your mouth, and read directly into the microphone.”

The fourth-graders at Wichita’s L’Ouverture Elementary School — a career exploration and technology magnet — are reading “Hoderi the Fisherman,” a retelling of a Japanese folk tale.

But they’re not just reading it: Using an app called ChatterPix, they’re finding images online, pairing them with characters, speaking lines into their iPads and turning the three-page script into an animated movie.

“I just think that the kids of today, they learn differently,” said Gregory Croomes, principal at L’Ouverture.

“They’ve been brought up in the age of technology, and everything is really quick. There’s a lot of information out there and different activities where they can use their imagination to maybe illustrate things on their own. . . . It’s just a different way of them being able to show what they’ve learned and what they’re comprehending.”

In today’s digitally-fueled landscape, where parents calm fussy toddlers with “Paw Patrol” on portable screens, many experts and educators worry that technology might not be just another distraction: It could be reshaping the way we read, learn and think.

In her new book, “Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World,” cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, an expert on the science of reading, considers the intellectual and cultural consequences of our increasing dependence on digital technology. Have our collections of electronic devices altered our capacity for critical reasoning, empathy and reflection?

“Young reading brains are evolving without a ripple of concern by most people, even though more and more of our youths are not reading other than what is required and often not even that,” Wolf writes — “tl; dr (too long, didn’t read).”

Read Next

Read Next

Technology in schools — including iPads, ChromeBooks and other devices, which are becoming ubiquitous at younger grades — “is no longer a choice,” said Tiffinie Irving, deputy superintendent for Wichita schools.

“It is part of society. It’s part of who we are now,” she said. “We have been very intentional in recent years to ensure that our curriculum includes components where children are able to interact with technology . . . for literacy as well as for communication, researching, and all of those skills that are going to help them become more proficient and prepared.”

But schools strive to balance digital technologies with traditional reading and writing using printed texts, Irving said, “because those have been developed and tested by educational experts.” And recent research shows it may be worthwhile to stick to at least some old-school techniques.

In a study of American college students, scientists from Princeton and UCLA compared old-fashioned pen-and-paper note-taking to typing notes on a laptop and found that physically writing things down helped boost students’ memory and performance.

At L’Ouverture Elementary, where a federal grant paid for an iPad for every student, teachers regularly incorporate the devices into reading lessons.

Fourth-grader La’Ryah Martin said she likes using iPads in class because they’re fun. She enjoys reading and listening to stories, she said, but doesn’t often read for pleasure at home.

“I like to play on my phone,” she said. “Or my XBox 360.”

Her classmate Brazil Adams said she still likes to check books out of the school library, especially volumes from the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Captain Underpants” series.

“Those are funny,” she said. “I like to read because you get to learn.”

Allen, a first-year teacher at L’Ouverture, said she often hears from students and parents that TV screens, computers, smart phones and video games outrank books at home. But she directs her students to read at least 30 minutes a day — whatever they want and however they choose to do it — and rewards them using a digital program called Class Dojo.

“We talk about it at conferences, at Meet the Teacher Night — they know I want them reading at least 30 minutes,” she said. “I don’t care what it is. If they read their homework out loud, that’s fine. If they’re reading a book, that’s fine. I don’t necessarily know what that looks like at home, but most of my kids get their agendas signed and get the points.”

Are books and screens interchangeable? In his 2010 book, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” author Nicholas Carr explains how the printed book served to focus our attention, promoting deep and creative thought. By contrast, the Internet encourages the rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information from many sources.

Not surprisingly, then, we have become a culture of skimmers, notes a recent article in The Guardian — ever more adept at scanning for facts but losing our capacity for deep thought and reflection.

Gail Becker, supervisor of library media for the Wichita school district, said she hasn’t noticed a decline in the number of kids reading for pleasure — or for sport. Circulation figures at school libraries are “very steady,” she said, and Battle of the Books, a districtwide competition that tests students’ reading comprehension in a game-show-style format, continues to be popular among fourth- through eighth-graders.

“I’ve never felt that it’s more of a challenge because technology has entered into our world,” Becker said. “You can still hook a kid into reading, and the way you do that is by finding out what they’re interested in and finding a book that has those similar types of themes in it.

“Lots of our kids may be interested in technology or engineering or computers, so we just need to find those books. . . Our kids are so resilient that they could read on a page or on a screen, but I do think that some people have a preference.”

Irving, the deputy superintendent, said one advantage of technology is that it often helps teachers to turn learning into a game. With reading apps such as Epic! or Hoopla, kids can get sucked into the magic of a book without even realizing it — like sneaking cauliflower into their pizza crust.

“Smart devices can be an extremely useful tool because of the engagement it allows,” Irving said. “You watch them playing a game, and they don’t even realize all the things they’re learning as they’re doing that.”

Allen’s recent lesson with ChatterPix illustrated the point. Nine-year-old Mario Rodriguez uploaded a photo of Mr. Miyage from “The Karate Kid” and giggled as the character’s mouth moved up and down with Mario’s voice.

Meanwhile, Mario and his classmates learned new vocabulary words such as “memorable,” “seafaring,” “horrified” and “betrayed.”

“There are readers and then there are kids who prefer to do other things in their recreational time,” said Becker, the library supervisor. “That’s always been the case.”

Read Next

This content was created with support from Impact Literacy, a strategic initiative of the Wichita Community Foundation.