Sunday, November 14, 2010

Processing Digital Text

As educators, we are concerned with how digital text might influence cognition, interest, and literacy. As I read downloaded e-books, I try to be aware of how I am processing--especially how well I am paying attention. What behaviors do I observe in myself as I read texts online? What does research have to say about this topic?

Vocabulary: When reading digital text, I can tap a word to make its definition appear (also called a gloss, as in glossary).  I am finding that I take advantage of the embedded pop-up gloss more than I would typically consult the glossary at the back of a printed text and far more than I would typically consult a dictionary. If I do not know how to say the word, the computer will pronounce it for me, in some programs. These features are clearly beneficial.

But I wonder...could pop-up definitions eventually inhibit readers from attempting to infer the meaning of unknown words? If used to excess, would students stop learning to utilize contextual and morphemic clues? Inferring word meanings is a critical, complex, and challenging literacy skill--one we use to understand spoken conversation as well as written communications. Nonetheless, I think the benefits of e-reader access to definitions and pronunciations will outweigh consequences, especially for English language learners.

More on glossing: One longitudinal qualitative study (Lenders, 2008) examined how upper-intermediate and advanced students use the gloss feature in e-books. By examining the results of videotaped observations during class periods, along with Likert-scale questionnaires and interviews, Lenders found that learners perceive electronic glosses as useful and appropriate, particularly if the words are perceived as relevant to their future careers. When the e-text was used in combination with a related task, the glossing feature enabled active vocabulary learning.

"media multitasking"
 "continuous partial attention"
"HYPER attention"
Tractable: As I read an e-book, I am distracted by email and attracted to the ever-tempting Web (tract is Latin for 'to pull').  I begin to lose interest in the text. This is not so good. In one related study, Salmerón, Kintsch, and Kintsch (2010) found that adult readers with little prior knowledge of the topic are especially vulnerable to making poor use of hyperlinks, randomly following their interests instead of following links in a logical, sequential order. Comprehension suffers. However, when it comes to reading (offline or online) interest can also work for us, if certain conditions are met:

The psychological state of interest, that is, being interested in a particular context or content, is characterized by rapt attention and focus. Psychologists have found that readers who are interested in the content tend to stay with the printed text --including scientific texts -- even when it becomes difficult to understand (Ainley, Corrigan, & Richardson, 2005). Interested readers draw more inferences, process more deeply and retain more information, compared to disinterested readers (Hidi, 2001; Renninger, 2009). The likelihood that an adolescent will stay focused on a printed text has been found to vary by gender, by learning goals, and by whether the text aligns with the reader's particular areas of interest and topic knowledge (Graham, Tisher, Ainley, & Kennedy, 2008). Emotion psychologist Paul Silvia found that adults will only become interested in a novelty (e.g., examining abstract artwork, interpreting sophisticated poetry and throwing darts at a board) if they feel capable of comprehending it and of eventually making sense of it; his experiments demonstrated that self-efficacy was essential to the awakening of interest as "the curious emotion" (2005).

Note-Taking:  When I read something interesting on an e-reader, I highlight or annotate. The text that I highlight -- including newly learned terms -- and the notes that I type are then automatically stored in a separate file. I can read all annotations and all text excerpts at a glance. Essentially, I have created a summary and a study guide. I find myself highlighting and annotating a lot -- maybe too much! It takes longer to read the book, but this feature has the potential to reinforce content and engage readers. 

Trust: Finally, as I read e-novels, I note a slight but persistent underlying anxiety that urges me to read ever faster and to even skip ahead at times. What is this anxiety? Simply put, I worry that I will not be able to finish the book! The more I like the book, the more I fret.

How does your own processing differ when reading e-books versus printed material? Have you noticed any differences in your students? For more information on attention, interest, cognitive space, and the digital age, visit these hyperlinks:

Here is a brief overview regarding interest and reading, written by Dr. Hidi, posted by

Here, The National Writing Project offers a collection of readings related to the topic of digital information (Digital IS).  The hyperlinks are quite interesting! Explore the brief videos (Howard Rheingold, UC Berkeley) on Paying Attention to Attention.

UCLA professor N. Katherine Hayles was co-teaching Media Theory for the 21st Century. In a blog created mainly for students, she discusses the cognitive differences in reading a book with deep attention compared to reading "stuff" online, with what she calls hyper attention. (Download Hayles' entire article, Hyper and Deep Attention, in pdf.)

A team of French scientists explore multitasking, cognition, and the problems associated with trying to split our attention as we focus on three things at once (like reading text online and attempting to remember the book as we stop to check email and decide how to respond to the email). Their research is reported in Science and summarized by National Public Radio.

Here is a brief, Divided Attention: In the Age of Classroom Multitasking... written by David Glenn for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Also, FRONTLINE ( has published a wealth of resources pertinent to these topics. See digital_nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier. There is too much to describe...visit the website. Here is the video, Digital Nation, published in 2010.

Wishing you all a Glad Thanksgiving,


  • Ainley, M., Corrigan, M., & Richardson, N. (2005). Students, tasks and emotions: Identifying the contribution of emotions to students' reading of popular culture and popular science texts. Learning and instruction, 15(5 ), 433-447.
  • Graham, J., Tisher, R., Ainley, M., & Kennedy, G. (2008). Staying with the text: The contribution of gender, achievement orientations, and interest to students' performance on a literacy task. Educational Psychology, 28(7), 757-776.
  • Hidi, S. (2001). Interest and reading: Theoretical and practical considerations. Educational Psychology Review 13(3), 191–208.
  • Lenders, O. (2008). Electronic glossing: Is it worth the effort?  Computer Assisted Language Learning, 21(5), 457-481.
  • Renninger, K. A. (2009). Interest and identity development in instruction: An inductive model. Educational Psychologist, 44(2), 105-118.
  • Salmerón, L., Kintsch, W. & Kintsch, E. (2010). Self-regulation and link selection strategies in hypertext. Discourse Processes, 47(3), 175-211.
  • Silvia, P. J. (2005). What is interesting? Exploring the appraisal structure of interest. Emotion, 5, 89-102.


  1. Great, Nicola! It is interesting stuff. And soon, in an upcoming post, we will hear more on this topic, from an expert in the field of new literacies.


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