E-reading probed: is it effective?

International research in e-reading led by University of Stavanger


M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

As we all know, reading is one of the three R’s that we pick up in primary school. “Reading, and ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic” in the chorus of School Days, a 1907 pop song, lauds the teaching of them that was first mentioned in print in 1818, in an annual supplement of The Lady’s Magazine, a British monthly. The foundation of that teaching is older still, having been mentioned in AD 401 in The Confessions of Saint Augustine.

Despite being ingrained, reading now apparently is an endangered skill, ever more so as much of our daily reading has shifted from paper to screen. Cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tuffts University, recently discovered widespread concern about the impact of the trend on comprehension. After publishing Proust and the Squid: The story and Science of the Reading Brain (Further reading) in 2008, she received hundreds of letters from academics who agonized over the effects of diminishing reading skills on the professions. Evidence suggests that the more reading shifts to screens, the less students understand.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jeannie Batchelor,  University of Kent First mention in print of “the three R’s,” in annual supplement of British monthly The Lady’s Magazine for 1818 (Vol. XLIX).

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jeannie Batchelor,
University of Kent
First mention in print of “the three R’s,” in annual supplement of British monthly The Lady’s Magazine for 1818 (Vol. XLIX).

In multicultural Europe, the ongoing decline of reading skills has caused alarm at the international level. The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and other comparative evaluations have ranked European students below their peers in Asia, Canada, and Oceania, and one in five lack adequate reading skills. Speculation is rife on the underlying causes, though evidence to date suggests that the ongoing shift to reading on screen is the most significant trigger of the decline. The European Union (EU) accordingly has initiated Europe-wide research on the impact of digitization on reading. The research is organized through the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) framework of actions involving scientists and researchers across Europe, in a dedicated action called the Evolution of Reading in the Age of Digitization (E-READ).

Anne Mangen, an Associate Professor at the National Center for Reading Education and Research at the University of Stavanger on Norway’s west coast, initially proposed and now chairs the E-READ action. In the cyberspace lingo of our time, she observes that the process of reading always has taken place at an interface between a person and a technology, be it print on paper or characters and images on a screen. So the research task then is to explore how changes at the interface affect the reading experience.

The task is more complex than it might seem at the outset. We don’t read the same way on screen as we do on paper, even for seemingly identical texts, such as a page of an E-book compared to the same page of a paper book from which it was scanned. Our processing abilities depend on more than the format in which reading material is presented. In short, there’s more to reading than what meets the eye. The physical nature of a book, magazine, newspaper, or printed report—its weight and dimensions, the way it feels in our hands, the arrangement of its pages—give it tangibility that in turn may affect comprehension.

One of the goals of the E-READ action is to develop a measure of this tangibility as well as of other phenomena involved in reading. An overall measure of reading may involve ergonomics (all interactions involving touch), visibility (detection of what is seen), legibility (color, fonts), attention (including distraction of multitasking), comprehension (span and depth), memory (short- and long-term), metacognition (higher-level thinking that enables understanding), emotions, and phenomenology (consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view). Though we cannot measure it in the here and now, evolution may play a significant role. The invention of reading a few thousand years ago triggered an evolutionary process of brain reorganization that broadened thinking and in turn contributed to the evolution of the human species.

The main objective of E-READ is to develop a comprehensive model of reading that together with this overall measure will lead to scientific understanding of the digitization of reading. In turn, this understanding will help people, disciplines, societies, and sectors to cope with the effects of digitization.

When E-READ was first envisioned as a COST action, 15 European countries and two non-COST countries, Canada and the U.S., were interested in participating. By the time the E-READ kick-off meeting was held in Brussels, Belgium, on November 28, 2014, a total of 26 countries had agreed to participate in the four-year program, from the spring of 2015 to the autumn of 2018. At this writing, the first two working meetings are scheduled for April 2015 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and for October 2015 in Szeged, Hungary. You can follow the progress of E-READ on its website at www.cost.eu/COST_Actions/isch/Actions/IS1404

Further reading:
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf, (New York, 2008, Harper Perennial Edition, 336 page paperback, ISBN 978-0-06-093384-5); several other editions and formats available; translated into 13 languages.
University of Stavanger Reading Center website: lesesenteret.uis.no/frontpage

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 13, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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