Making Sense of Content in a Digital World: Teaching with Digital Text

Eaton: Making Sense of Content in a Digital World

Take a moment and consider everything you read in the past week. What types of reading material did you engage with? Was it books? Online articles and blogs? Social media? Text messages and emails? Magazines? You will likely find that typical reading for you involves both print and digital text.

Reading online is a reality for all of us. For this reason, it is important for us to clearly understand the differences between how we read online and how we read print materials. You are much more likely to skim and scan digital text than you are print resources. When we don't adjust for this, it can have a negative impact on comprehension. If presented in the same way, you are likely to read print text more deeply than online text.

So, if we read print text more deeply than digital text, why would we introduce so much online material to students? While there are clear challenges with digital media and online text, it is not going anywhere. We need to help students develop what Maryanne Wolf calls a "biliterate brain" (2019). Students need to be able to move between print and digital texts with no loss of comprehension. Just because there are challenges does not mean that this is an impossibility. Print and digital text are different. Therefore, we must teach with each differently. We can do that by building on the strengths of digital media while addressing its limitations head on.

To do this, we must address three things:

  • the impact of shallow reading on comprehension;
  • the nonlinear nature of digital text;
  • the introduction of multiple types of text.

Skimming and Scanning Digital Text

Our tendency to skim and scan digital text leads to shallow reading. As a matter of fact, one study shows that 55% of us spend fewer than 15 seconds on a single webpage, on average (Haile 2014). While we may mentally commit to sustained reading when we sit down with a book, intending to read each page word for word, often when we are reading online, we are hunting and searching for information. We have trained our brains to read online materials differently.

2:1 Device Use

The best use of devices in the classroom does not necessarily mean that every student needs to have their own device. This is especially true when you want to help students stay attentive to the digital reading activity.

Especially with young learners, I like to pair two students per device for reading and other online activities. In this scenario, one student would work the computer and read the text from the screen. The second student would give verbal instructions to their partner about the active part of the reading or to verbally navigate the learning activity. The students can discuss and then switch roles.

I really like this particular activity because it encourages cooperative learning and helps to ensure students stay focused on the material at hand. It also maximizes the use of devices in a classroom when you are not 1:1 for every student.

For this reason, our ability to recall facts and details is often better with digital text, but our ability to comprehend deeply can be negatively impacted. In an interesting study, Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan studied these comprehension differences while looking at nonfiction and fiction texts in a print format and a digital format (Kaufman and Flanagan 2016).

As we introduce digital text to students, we must also address the distractions that come with reading online. There are obvious distractions present if students are not fully engaged. You are always just one click away from social media, games, or other off-task material. However, distractions online involve more than just off-task behavior. The nonlinear nature of digital reading in and of itself can be a distraction. As you chase one thought to another through hyperlinks and related webpages, it requires an increasing amount of attention to stay focused on the material.

Four Step Approach to Digital Reading

As we dive into some specific strategies for helping students to actively read, let's first look at the elements of a high quality online reading lesson. To help students slow down and focus on deep reading, Devin Hess from UC Berkeley recommends taking a four-step approach to any digital reading you lead with students (Schwartz 2016). When designing any online reading activity, look for opportunities to help students do these four things:

  1. Slow down while reading
  2. Actively engage via reading response, annotation, or notetaking
  3. Discuss with another student
  4. Reflect.

If we intentionally design our digital reading lessons to include these four elements, we can disrupt the patterns of skimming, scanning, and disruption that can lead to shallow reading.

Collaborative Documents for Annotation

There does not have to be a comprehension gap between reading print and digital text. Research tells us that taking notes on paper and using annotation tools can help eliminate that dip in comprehension when we move online (Subrahmanyam, et al. 2013; Ben-Yehudah & Eshet-Alkalai 2014). This is great if you are in a school that has access to adapted reading materials and electronic texts with built-in annotation tools. But what should you do if you do not have access to these kinds of paid materials and platforms?

I like to use collaborative document platforms (Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, etc.) to get access to free annotation tools. By moving a text into a Google Doc, for example, I can have students use the highlighter, text boxes, and the comments tool to actively annotate and respond to the text. When copying a digital text into a collaborative document, be careful to ensure you are not breaking copyright or fair use guidelines, provide linked attribution at the top of the document so it is clear where the original text came from, and use the document only within your classroom for educational purposes.

Headings and Highlights

Devin Hess recommends using an online collaborative document for a strategy called "Headings and Highlights" (Schwartz 2016):

  1. Copy and paste the text into an online document. Then delete all of the headings from the document.
  2. Have students do an initial read of the text, highlighting important information.
  3. After reading and highlighting, have students review their highlights and add in their own headings and subheadings for the text.

The goal in this exercise is not to guess the original headings. Instead, this strategy asks students to slow down and summarize each section. Simply by looking at the headings, the teacher can see if a student gets the gist of the text or could use some additional support.

SQ3R Strategy

The SQ3R strategy is another great active reading strategy you may already be familiar with as a tool to support reading print texts. There is an easy way to incorporate this with digital text by using online collaborative documents. (You can view a short tutorial by Mary Burns at This strategy includes five steps:

  • Scan – Do a quick preview scan of the text.
  • Question – Write down any questions you have before you read.
  • Read – Read the text while annotating and highlighting.
  • Review – Review your notes or compare and discuss with a partner.
  • Recall – Share the big ideas and main points from the text.

To do this with digital text, copy/paste the article into an online document and add text boxes for the Question and Recall steps. For an example using a Google Document, take a look at a professional learning exercise I set up for some teachers in my district at

Color-Coded Highlights

Another simple way to use online collaborative documents to facilitate active reading is by leveraging color-coded highlighting. After you copy and paste the text into an online document, add instructions at the top. Give a prompt to students for each highlighter color you choose. For example when I did this with teachers I gave them instructions to highlight in different colors the things they were already doing, things they wanted to implement, and things they were interested in but needed more support.

Close Reading

John Sowash, an educational technology consultant in Michigan, shares a free close reading template using Google Docs ( The template walks students through a "reading to understand" activity. If you use this template and copy/paste your text at the bottom, there are built in instructions you could edit to fit your instructional needs.

You can lead a similar close reading activity as a whole class or in small groups. Having students discuss a text using the comments feature of a collaborative document is a great way to get them to reflect on the reading while also collaborating and connecting in meaningful ways. I have found that this strategy often creates more meaningful and authentic dialogue than what I can create in a more traditional discussion forum.

Active Reading for Young Learners

If you are introducing digital text to primary students, these strategies using document tools that are very text heavy may not be the best option. However, you can still leverage the free collaborative tools you have available in your school or district. For emerging readers, I like to move the reading to Google Slides (you could also use PowerPoint Online). In Slides, I can still use highlighting, text boxes, and comments. I can also create shapes as manipulatives (e.g. "move the circle around a specific word") or sort and move objects on the slide.

Using Slides or PowerPoint gives you more flexibility to create online reading activities that are tactile and contain several images when there is not a lot of text to share at once.

Online Reading Is Nonlinear

One of the challenges we face with digital reading is the loss of spatial information. When you read something from a textbook, for example, the ability to picture in your mind where on the page or at what point in the book helps you with comprehension (Ross, Pechenkina, Aeschliman, and Chase 2017). However, when you are scrolling down a page or flipping through an eBook without being able to physically feel where you are in the text, that spatial information is missing.

A second challenge lies in the nonlinear nature of digital reading. We are able to chase our thoughts while moving from one hyperlink to the next. While it is great that we have such limitless resources readily available, this nonlinear approach to reading makes it harder for us to focus on the digital text.

Reading Roadmap

Taking physical notes on paper while reading digital text can help close the comprehension gap we see between print and digital materials. Pairing this with our understanding that we lack spatial information when reading online, Kristina Smekens suggests having students take notes on paper, creating a roadmap of their reading (2017).

Have students write a list of all of the important details from their reading. Creating a visual of the information on paper helps students picture where in the text each piece of information was located. The act of writing the notes down on paper will also help them comprehend the material.

Pair Digital Text with Analog Activities

Katie Muhtaris and Kristin Ziemke, authors of the book Amplify, suggest a similar strategy. As you introduce digital text to your students, consider pairing the online text with an analog reading strategy, and vice versa. Consider creating paper guided notes or graphic organizers for students to engage with while reading online. And if you introduce print text, try creating a digital reflection activity to go along with it.

Introducing Multiple Types of Text into the Classroom

We know the amount of digital text we read regularly is increasing. Students need to develop skills to effectively read and comprehend all types of text and media. At the beginning of this article, I asked you to reflect on what you had read in the last week. I encourage you to regularly reflect on the text that students read throughout the week for class and personal interest. Introduce them to eBooks, infographics, blogs, social media, and more, in addition to print resources.

In Taming the Wild Text, Pam Allyn and Monica Burns suggest intentionally teaching students how to engage with various digital texts and media. Most elementary teachers are used to creating anchor charts to introduce text features of print resources. Have you considered doing something similar to showcase the features of a blog or an infographic?

We engage differently with digital text than we do with print text. It is important we intentionally design learning activities that can maximize the unique features of digital media while simultaneously addressing the obstacles head on.

Works Cited

Allyn, Pam and Monica Burns. Taming the Wild Text: Literacy Strategies for Today's Reader. Shell Education, 2017.

Ben-Yehudah, Gal and Yoram Eshet-Alkalai. "The Influence of Text Annotation Tools on Print and Digital Reading Comprehension." Proceedings of the 9th Chais Conference for the Study of Innovation and Learning Technologies: Learning in the Technological Era, January 2014.

Haile, Tony. "What You Think You Know About the Web Is Wrong." Time Magazine (March 9, 2014).

Kaufman, Geoff and Mary Flanagan. "Digital Media May Be Changing How You Think: Study Finds Users Focus on Concrete Details Rather than the Big Picture." Dartmounth University, press release (May 8, 2016).

Muhtaris, Katie and Kristin Ziemke. Amplify: Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-6 Classroom. Heinemann, 2015.

Ross, Bella, Ekaterina Pechenkina, Carol Aeschliman, and Anne-Marie Chase. "Print versus Digital Texts: Understanding the Experimental Research and Challenging the Dichotomies." Research in Learning Technology (November 3, 2017).

Schwartz, Katrina. "Strategies to Help Students 'Go Deep' when Reading Digitally." KQED Mindshift (October 16, 2016).

Smekens, Kristina. "Maximize On-Screen Reading Time." Smekens Education Solutions (March 10, 2017).

Subrahmanyam, Kaveri, et al. "Learning from Paper, Learning from Screens: Impact of Screen Reading and Multitasking Conditions on Reading and Writing among College Students." International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning 3, no. 4 (2013): 1-27.

Wolf, Maryanne. Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. Harper, 2019.

About the Author

Michele Eaton is the director of virtual and blended learning for the M.S.D. of Wayne Township in Indianapolis, IN. She focuses on staff and course development for Achieve Virtual Education Academy and provides leadership for the district's blended initiatives. Michele is a 2020 ISTE Making IT Happen Award winner, CoSN CETL and 2016 Next Generation Leader, 2018 EdWeek Leader to Learn From, president of the ISTE Online and Blended Learning Network, conference chair for the Indiana Connected Educators organization (an ISTE affiliate), and moderator for the #INeLearn chat. For more information, see Michele's new book The Perfect Blend at You can follow her on Twitter at @micheeaton.

MLA Citation

Eaton, Michele. "Making Sense of Content in a Digital World: Teaching with Digital Text." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2023, Accessed 28 Jan. 2023.

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