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Is Reading on the Computer Bad for Your Child?

Is Reading on the Computer Bad for Your Child?

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Updated on Mar 12, 2009

Most people will agree that technology has presented our children with an array of new ways to read and seek knowledge, but it also has created new questions about the most effective methods of learning. Should we be encouraging our kids to “get with the times” and turn to the computer as their main source of reading material, or is there something still to be said for the “old-fashioned” advice to pick up a book?

According to Katherine Wiesendanger, Ph.D., a professor in the Graduate Literacy and Culture Program at Longwood University in Farmville, VA, there are huge advantages to reading hard copy materials, especially for younger children. "It is important for beginning and early readers to have experiences with actual books so they learn how to turn the pages, hold a book for proper orientation, and read from left page to right page." she says. "Learning to manipulate on screen will not give children the tools they need to use when manipulating a book.”

However, even when older children start turning more and more to the computer, it's important to go over the mechanics of reading online. Adaptations can be made to computer text, such as increasing font size or separating the line your child is reading from the remainder of the text. David Reinking, the Eugene T. Moore Professor of Teacher Education at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C, says the mutlimedia and hypertext function of online reading should be seen as friend, not foe, to children. “Printed texts are static. They just sit there challenging a reader to make sense of them and a reader has no choice but to stay within the boundaries of the text,” he says. “Digital texts, on the other hand, can provide a range of immediate assistance. For example, a reader can click on a word to hear it pronounced, immediately access its definition, and perhaps see a video that contextualizes its meaning.”

Beyond the potential ability to make information clearer, Reinking also notes that digital texts may stimulate a reader’s creativity and interest. “Digital texts, most prominently on the Internet, provide incredible freedom to move between texts and information. That freedom makes them inherently more engaging.” This can be great news for parents who would love for their children to discover the joy of learning and pursue subjects beyond the minimal level necessary to just complete an assignment.

But some researchers, such as Anne Mangen at the Center for Reading Research at the University of Stavanger in Norway, have their qualms. In a recent ScienceDaily article, she talks about her research on reading fiction on screen and worries that all the hypertext and multimedia features may not only be distracting readers from the actual story itself but also may take away the valuable experience of creating one’s own mental images.

Perhaps when thinking about the issue of reading on paper versus on a computer, it pays to remember a simple lesson educators have known for decades: The more you read, the better you tend to become at it.

“When reading shorter amounts of material, reading comprehension is not affected when comparing the two forms,” states Wiesendanger. But there is something else to consider.

“We also know that most students do not read novels on line, and to significantly improve comprehension, one needs to read longer text,” says Wiesendanger. “Reading a longer book is more cognitively demanding than reading short digital bites, and research supports the notion that reading more books improves reading comprehension and grades in school.”

So go ahead and relish the fact that technology has given your children many additional reading opportunities – including computerized library catalogs that make it easy to find some great books!

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