How to get students to read deeply on digital devices

One of the challenges when switching from print to digital resources in the classroom is reading on digital devices. Of course, students are already doing this in their personal life, but the question is whether students are able to engage deeply with digital text in the same way they do when reading printed text.

That’s why an article about deep reading strategies caught our attention. In it, Devin Hess, former middle school social studies teacher and early tech adopter in his classroom, highlight strategies that teachers can adopt to help students develop this critical skill. Devin is currently working with the UC Berkeley History-Social Science Project to train social studies teachers on deep reading strategies.

The full article is available here. No time to read? Here are the key points:

1) The definition of deep reading

According to Devin, “in the digital space, that means disrupting a pattern of skipping around, writing short chats and getting lost down the rabbit hole of the internet. It means teaching kids ways to break down a complex text, find key ideas, organize them and defend them.”


2) The importance of integrating technology and strategy

Devin believes that technology should never be taught separately. Instead, he focuses on developing core reading strategies and highlights how “practicing them in the digital space can make feedback easier and help students go further in their thinking”.


3) The goals of deep reading

Similar to reading in print environment, Devin’s strategies encourage teachers to focus on four key goals to help develop students’ reading comprehension. While not new, “the trick for teachers is to learn how to transfer these processes into the digital space and push them even further.”

  1. Slowing students down so they are focusing on the text
  2. Engaging students in an active way with the text
  3. Encouraging oral discourse
  4. Getting students to reflect



4) Two strategies to improve reading comprehension

STRATEGY #1: The “Headings and Highlight” strategy

This strategy focuses on getting students to identify the main idea of a reading, and understand the flow of the ideas and to connect concepts.

How to help students find meaning

Starting with a difficult text open on their digital device, the approach works as follows:

  • Students read through the text on their own and highlight words they don’t know. The teacher then facilitates a classroom discussion to clarify the meaning of unknown words.
  • Pairs of students read a paragraph together and highlight key ideas. Each will need to explain why they believe those parts are important.
  • After a few minutes, students individually come up with a four-word heading for that portion of the text based on the main ideas they’ve highlighted (if possible, students should write this into the actual text as “Heading 1”). Then back in pairs, students explain their heading and the pair chooses the best one.
  • Teachers can continue the discussion by forming larger groups to compare headings until there is consensus on the single best representation of the main ideas. In the end, groups may present their headings or the entire class can vote on their favourite heading.

Hess believes this approach works because it forces students to slow down their reading and think about why they are reading something. With some practice and reflection, the goal is that students internalise this practice and start looking for the main idea in each paragraph as they read.

How to help students build connections

After students have successfully created headings throughout the text (labelled as “Heading 1”), Hess recommends that students highlight a subsequent sentence or phrase that represents evidence supporting that main idea. Students then summarize this text and label it “Heading 2.”

Again, this approach works because students need to slow down to properly comprehend the text and determine the supporting evidence.

If a school is using Google Docs (which Devin himself uses), the “Document outline” tool will automatically create an outline with main ideas in Heading 1 and supporting evidence below in Heading 2. Students can export the outline as a table of contents, which serves as a jumping-off point for writing, and/or a test for teachers to see if the student understood the reading.


STRATEGY #2: The “Highlighting” strategy

A second, simpler approach is the highlighting strategy, which effectively is the same as with printed text, except much easier and more effective because it is digital. Depending on the technology being used in the classroom (again, Hess uses Google Docs), students can easily highlight different concepts in different colours. Additional functionality may include labelling the colours (for example, as “Argument #1”, “Argument #2” and so on) and exporting the highlights into one table with all ideas. Students can then build on the table to create a summary of each highlighted category.

This approach helps students learn to prioritise and summarise, which, in turn, requires reflection and a thorough understanding of the text.

Of course, teaching students to read deeply on digital devices will take time and it’s important that teachers not overwhelm students. That’s why Hess recommends starting with text that isn’t too difficult, until students appear to be comfortable with the technology and new reading approach.

What do you think? If you have any tips to share about how to get students to read deeply on digital devices, let us know in the comments below.