21st Century Curriculum

Child reading on a tablet

How to Raise a Reader in the Digital Age

Parents and researchers alike have a long history of hand wringing about reading and children, especially as they get older. The migration of reading to digital media has only compounded these fears. Parents frequently comment, “I feel like I haven’t seen my child pick up a real book for fun in years!” while researchers busily scramble to try to understand the impact that digital readers and reading online has had on teen literacy.

There is certainly reason for concern. Data show that reading for fun drops precipitously from childhood to the teenage years. A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics confirmed that one out of three teens had not read a book for pleasure in the previous twelve months.

Despite the overall downward trend, getting an accurate picture of children’s and teens’ reading habits is no easy task. For starters, there is no consistent measure of what constitutes “reading.” Some studies ask only about paper books while others include magazines, e-books or online reading. In addition, only a few studies count “short form” reading such as tweets, text messages, or blog comments.

If we do take into account time reading on Snapchat or Instagram, it is likely that teens today read more words than generations before them. Yet it is undeniable that on these platforms reading is usually more fast and fragmented. As young people scroll, tap, and click through more and more words, how is it affecting their reading habits? What about their comprehension of all the ideas they might encounter there.

Child reading on a tablet

When Reading Goes Digital

Like many questions in this field, the relationship between reading comprehension and platform (paper vs. tablet) is complicated, and we don’t have robust longitudinal data yet. According to a new review of the studies published over the past decade, reading on paper appears to have a small but statistically significant benefit when compared to reading online.

Current research suggests that the following is true when reading goes digital:

  • We are more likely to skim and browse. We don’t read the same way online as we do on paper. Online readers tend to browse, scan, and skim for big ideas and headlines.
  • We get better at quickly pulling relevant information from texts. Frequent online readers are adept at finding keywords and are likely to read in a less linear, more selective way. They can also quickly include different sources of information.
  • We tend to think we are better at reading online than we actually are. We tend to be confident in our reading online despite the slight costs to comprehension. In other words, we think we understand digital text just fine, so we are less likely to slow down or go back to ensure that we understood it correctly or build connections based on the text.
  • We are more likely to get tired and distracted online. Reading online is a high demand cognitive activity. Readers have to use impulse control as they resist distracting hyperlinks and must constantly adjust to shifting layouts, colors, and sizes. It appears that this kind of stimulation not only taxes our focused attention but also our working memory.

This last point can’t be understated. Reading articles online actually requires more brain power because the brain has more tasks that it needs to attend to and manage. Think about the hyperlinks, notifications, and headlines we encounter online. All this “noise” might mean that online comprehension doesn’t dip because of the medium itself but because of the embedded distractions.

So What?

Does this mean that we should encourage a mass return to paper? Discourage all e-reading? This doesn’t seem likely or necessary. Remember, the latest research only shows that reading online has a small negative impact. Let’s not lose sight of some of the benefits including increased access to texts, adaptive technologies, and the ability to engage reluctant readers.

Some researchers believe that it’s not that we can’t read deeply online, but that we need to learn and practice a new set of skills to do so. In other words, children may need to learn that there are different reading strategies for different purposes, and in different contexts.

For example, one study found that when readers take notes on paper while reading online they are far better at writing about the text later.Veteran literacy researcher and neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf argues that we need to raise “bi-literate” readers that are capable of both deep reading and effective skimming – both online and offline. She argues, “We cannot go backwards. As children move more toward an immersion in digital media, we have to figure out ways to read deeply there.”

Encouraging “Cognitive Patience” in Your Young Reader

Maryanne Wolf encourages parents to think about ways to nurture “cognitive patience” in young readers by carving out time for deep reading.

  • Prioritize print in the early years. Consider focusing on print materials in early childhood as children build reading experience.
  • Choose e-readers carefully. When using e-readers with young children, choose platforms that don’t have a lot of bells and whistles. In other words, make it as similar as possible to the experience of reading a book.
  • Look for interaction “on the storyline” instead of distractions. For extra reading support, look for interactivity that supports comprehension like tools that highlight words as children read them (as opposed to interactions that are irrelevant to the storyline).
  • Set limits on screen time to ensure that children and teens have ample opportunity to choose paper books.
  • Use reading mode. Teach children to turn off all notifications when they are moving from light reading or skimming to something they demands focus and comprehension. In addition, have them switch to“reading mode” where the text fills the entire screen.
  • Teach kids about their brains and that we read differently in different spaces. Explain the strengths of being able to quickly skim, pull relevant headlines, and move quickly. Make sure they understand the cost. Knowing when to dive deep and when to surf will be key to their success as readers.
  • Use the digital tools that help kids engage with the text like digital highlighters, pens, and other abilities to mark up a digital page as kids process a text.
  • Use online adaptive technologies if your child needs extra support with reading and work with your child’s teacher to access the latest tools.
  • Encourage paper note taking. Going old school can help the brain slow down and disrupt the pattern of skimming, skipping around, and “butterfly reading” across pages when they need to really understand the content.
  • Most importantly, encourage a love of reading in all forms. Try not to talk about any form of reading as “bad reading.” Instead, build bridges between online and offline interests and give your child as much choice as possible in what they read.

Thank you so much, Erin! Share your tips for raising readers in the digital age on our Facebook Forum.

Erin Walsh, M.A. is the co-founder of Spark & Stitch Institute™ – Parenting for Courage and Connection. She is a parent, speaker, educator, and writer. Erin has worked with communities across the country who want to better understand child and adolescent development and cut through conflicting information about kids and technology. She is fiercely committed to bringing an equity lens and asset-based approach to our understanding of, and response to, youth and media. 

Kids running into school with their backpacks on

Brains Can Grow: Tips for Your ‘Growth Mindset’ Toolkit

We all bring something to school that doesn’t fit neatly inside backpacks or briefcases but is very important for academic success: A set of beliefs about students’ ability to learn and grow. These beliefs are a more powerful predictor of student success than test scores but aren’t always obvious.1They show up when we listen closely to how students talk about school. For example, “I don’t want to take that class; I am bad at math,” is quite different from, “I really struggled on that last math exam; I need to figure out some new study strategies.”

Statements like these illuminate a student’s mindset—either “growth” or “fixed.”

The degree to which a student possesses a growth or fixed mindset shapes their resilience in the face of obstacles, their enjoyment of learning, and their willingness to take on new challenges.2 According to renowned researcher Carol Dweck, Ph.D., people with fixed mindsets believe their intelligence and abilities are hardwired traits and that talent is what leads to success, not effort. In contrast, people with growth mindsets believe that abilities can be developed through persistence and hard work.

Kids running into school with their backpacks on

But it’s not all about the students.

Educators’ beliefs are inextricably linked to those of their students. A fixed mindset might show up in educator self-talk like, “The students might doubt that I am a good teacher if I show that I don’t know something” or in quick assessments about a student’s potential, “That student seems beyond my help.”

The good news is that both student and educator mindsets themselves are not fixed. For example, evidence shows that even small interventions can shift a student’s beliefs and boost achievement. Dr. Dweck’s now famous experiments on the influence of praise demonstrate the powerful relationship between feedback and mindset.

Many have hoped to boost young people’s confidence by praising innate qualities like intelligence or talent. While this kind of praise can feel good in the moment, it ultimately undermines confidence and reinforces a fixed mindset. In contrast, process praise, or praising students for their effort and perseverance, reinforces a growth mindset and increases motivation.3

Still, simply rewarding effort is not a silver-bullet solution. Without other strategies, it risks yielding a “growth mindset lite” mentality and can frustrate educators and parents.

One parent summed it up like this, “My daughter is working hard, and I am proud of her perseverance, but at the end of the day her performance isn’t necessarily improving. Do I just keep praising her for her work? This doesn’t seem to be working.”

Mindset is not about effort alone

Dr. Dweck has been actively reminding educators that mindset is not about effort alone. She emphasizes that “students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches, not just sheer effort, to learn and improve.”4

We need a variety of tools and strategies to develop a growth mindset, and we need more than praise in our toolkit. Here are a few strategies that parents, educators, and youth serving professionals can start using today:

Look at your own mindset.

Perhaps the most influential way to teach growth mindset is to model it and to acknowledge when we get “stuck” in fixed mindset thinking ourselves. Dr. Dweck reminds us that we are all a mix of both growth and fixed mindsets, so pay attention to your own fixed mindset impulses.8

Teach young people about their brains.

Don’t keep the latest science a secret.  Remind them that their brains can grow. Evidence shows that students who understand how their brains grow and develop are more likely to adopt a growth mindset.5

Set learning goals, not just performance goals.

Learning goals focus on acquiring new skills or knowledge, while performance goals focus on achieving measures of performance (like scores or grades). Students who embrace learning goals are more likely to have a growth mindset.6

Growth mindset isn’t just about working hard; it’s about thinking hard, too.

This means reflecting on which learning strategies work and which ones don’t — and being willing to switch strategies and try new things to improve performance. Try asking, “What else can you try?” instead of simply praising hard work that doesn’t seem to be paying off. Check out this feedback tool from Mindset Works for specific ideas.

Critical feedback isn’t off limits. 

Growth mindset doesn’t mean that you only offer positive praise, but be careful how you deliver tough feedback. Criticizing a young person’s character reinforces a fixed mindset (and undermines your relationship). Offering feedback about the process reinforces the idea that a different set of choices could lead to a different outcome.7

Plan your response to, “I can’t do this!” 

Children say this for all kinds of reasons. This resource from Edutopia has some great ideas for how to respond.

Normalize mistakes and struggle.

Sspecially those that result from pushing themselves to try challenging things. Check out this video to view this in action in the classroom.

Differentiate between stretch mistakes and sloppy mistakes.

Celebrating mistakes that result from being too tired, too distracted, or too lazy can backfire. Instead, encourage young people to glean lessons from sloppy mistakes. For example you might suggest that it is time to get more sleep or reduce multitasking during homework.

Don’t forget about the system.

Keep in mind that it isn’t appropriate to rely on a young person’s mindset alone to overcome persistent institutional barriers that get in the way of their success, or worse yet, blame a young person’s mindset for institutional failure. Growth mindset is no substitute for tackling issues like institutional racism, gender stereotyping, and special education reform in our schools.


About the Authors:

David Walsh, Ph.D., is an award winning psychologist, best-selling author, and international speaker. In 1995, he founded the internationally renowned National Institute on Media and the Family, which he led until 2010. In 2011 he founded Mind Positive Parenting to translate cutting edge brain science to everyday practice for parents, teachers and other professionals.

Erin Walsh, M.A., is a dynamic, knowledgeable speaker who has addressed a wide range of audiences on topics related to brain development and raising resilient young people in the digital age. Erin was instrumental to the development of the MediaWise movement and enjoyed working with her father, Dr. David Walsh, for 10 years at the National Institute on Media and the Family before creating Mind Positive Parenting together in 2010.

Articles cited:

  1. Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Penguin House.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Dweck, C. (2007). The perils and promise of praise. Educational Leadership, 65(2), 34-39. Access at: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct07/vol65/num02/The-Perils-and-Promises-of-Praise.aspxIbid.
  4. Dweck, C. (2017). Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset.’ Education Week. Access at: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/09/23/carol-dweck-revisits-the-growth-mindset.html
  5. Blackwell, L., Dweck C., & Trzesniewski, K. (2007). Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246-263.
  6. Dweck, C., Walton, G., & Cohen, G. (2011). Academic tenacity: Mindsets and skills that promote long-term learning. Paper prepared for the Gates Foundation. Access at: https://ed.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/manual/dweck-walton-cohen-2014.pdf
  7. Kamins, M. & Dweck, C. (1999). Person Versus Process Praise and Criticism: Implications for Contingent Self-Worth and Coping. Developmental Psychology, 35(3), 835-847.
  8. Op Cit. Dweck,C. (2017)