Yes, and… Thoughts on print versus digital reading by Kristin Ziemke

I come from a place of pedagogy.  Raised by teachers who were readers and nurtured by principals who believed their most important job was to place text in the hands of kids.  I come from classroom libraries and nightly book checkout, from teacher book clubs and living like a reader.  I come from conversations about what’s on your nightstand and passion for poetry and periodicals.

I am a reader. I have seen the power of books as a just-right title is placed in the hands of a child, and how that changes everything for that student from that day forward.  I love paper books and spend a significant portion of my time and salary procuring them for students.  In fact, my first graders often joke I visit the local bookstore so frequently that my car sometimes takes me there against my will.

As an author and someone who has spent the last several years exploring best practices in thinking and learning, I have the opportunity to collaborate with teachers and schools around the country. Whether it’s working on one-to-one initiatives or inquiry circles, in classrooms with just one device or those employing the workshop model, I’m often asked my thoughts on digital reading.

I’ve heard many conversations recently that push back on digital reading and identify factors for why it’s a less effective mode for comprehension.  Starting with citation of the Nielson Norman F Study (2006) that tracked eye patterns for reading web content emphasizing a skim and scan technique over deep reading to Anne Mangen’s work on comprehension and cognition in print versus digital text, we can find reasons for why we should NOT use digital tools to teach kids how to read.

In education, we can find data that will defend nearly any claim we want to make. From standardized test scores to student surveys we can collect metrics and architect statements to say, “Research shows…” But rather than make the print versus digital debate be an either / or conversation I’m advocating for a narrative shift to “Yes, and…”


Yes. We should use print texts with students.  The effects of reading books and articles are research-based, teacher-tested and kid-approved.  Books have been written, papers published and speeches given on how, why and which strategies kids need to comprehend. We’ve taught minilessons and conferred, assessed and reflected, and thus, invested huge chunks of time determining the skills our kids need to be effective readers of paper text. Despite spending the past 40 years deeply investigating reading comprehension, we continue to evolve our ideas and instruction as we teach students to be even better print readers.

And, so I wonder…

Have we explicitly taught our students HOW to be effective digital readers with the same energy that we’ve taught them to be print readers?

More so, are we expanding their definition of what it means to “read” and providing them layered opportunities and differentiated entry points to read, view and think deeply?

Just as we wouldn’t give our students an end of unit test before we taught the content or expect third graders to know their multiplication tables without instruction, we can’t give up on digital reading before we’ve explicitly taught our kids how to do it.

IMG_0704Take a moment to reflect:

How many minilessons have you taught this year that guide students to become effective digital readers?

Do you have anchor charts or scaffolds in place that will support them as they attempt to read digitally with independence?

Have you provided ample time for them to read diverse genres or self-select their onscreen reading material?

We know that reading digitally is a different experience.  Julie Coiro writes,

“Good reading in print doesn’t necessarily translate to good reading on-screen.  Students not only differ in their abilities and preferences; they also need different sorts of training to excel at each medium.” (2014)

I’ve spent the past year writing about this with Katie Muhtaris and we believe a balance of print and device, chunks of time for online choice and informational text, paired with explicit instruction in digital reading is the most effective course of action. On a screen, students must navigate new text features, hyperlinks and digital distractions as they read. Annotation looks different as sticky notes are often typed and not handwritten, color-coded, and stored within the device.  We need to “notice and note” these differences and give kids strategies to use these tools effectively.

But, digital text also yields new opportunities for readers to access additional content.  Embedded audio, video and high-quality visuals can amplify active literacy as students are invited to read, listen, view, research, interact and respond to the text.  These multimodal supports can often enhance the reading experience as students build and use a multifaceted approach to thinking.  With e-readers breaking onto the market only 10 years ago and the iPad recently celebrating it’s 5th anniversary, it’s important to stop and ask ourselves: have we had enough time to teach the skills our students need to be successful digital readers? Because there’s so much more we can do!

Yes, and…

We’ve long known that curiosity and the ability to comprehend far outpace a child’s reading level.  By differentiating the resources our students have access to, we can build skills and strategies that help learners become better readers. For a long time, I’ve been an advocate for re-imagining what it means to read.  As a primary grade teacher, I invite students to read images, artifacts and even toys. In Connecting Comprehension and Technology, we detail lessons on viewing to learn with short video clips and explicitly teach kids to annotate movies just as they do with text to build comprehension.  In Falling in Love with Close Reading Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts charge us to expand our definition of reading closely and to extend it across the grades to include not only text, but also media and life as tools to make sense of the world.

Working as an Apple Distinguished Educator my thinking has been fueled by innovators like Don Goble who has pushed me to consider media literacy as the most important skill we’re NOT teaching.  Take a moment and think about the websites you view as an adult.  ESPN.  BBC.  CNN.  Video, image, image are what appear at the top of each page on today’s search.  In fact, looking at the sites closely one can see that images and video capture more real estate on each homepage than text.

To be effective consumers and more importantly, effective communicators, we must explicitly teach kids to analyze, evaluate and create messages in a variety of media–print and digital (See CCSS Anchor Standards or ISTE Student Standards for more information).  To do this, we have to give learners time to read images, video and multimedia presentations. We must guide them to analyze photographs, infer the artist’s message and identify bias.  We must teach kids to read and reread video by showing them how to pause and watch a video clip multiple times to ask questions, clarify and look and listen once again through a different lens. In fact, we probably need to move beyond the terms “print” and “digital” and simply teach kids to be effective thinkers in every context.

Yes, and…

I firmly believe today is the best time to be an educator! We now have more access to information than ever before.  We can use a child’s curiosity to connect them to countless titles and authors and introduce them to new genres and modes for thinking.  Terrific sites like Wonderopolis and Newsela provide daily opportunities to pair text, images and media to grow readers. We can use books to spur inquiry as kids read text and then connect with an author on Twitter or use kid-safe search engines to conduct further research.

For me, it’s not an either / or debate, but instead, kaleidoscopic in nature. Great titles inspire online research. Curiosity fueled by a video clip guide students to read informational text. Devices provide emotional security as kids read text at their level while not being judged by the “thickness” of their book. Mindcraft inspires technical reading. Image study builds background knowledge. Choice motivates all learners to do more and show what they know in modes that are meaningful to them.  Digital reading does not replace print; instead it adds to and enriches our understanding of all types of text.


In their new book, Digital Reading: What’s Essential in Grades 3-8, Bill Bass and Franki Sibberson write, “The addition of technology is not about giving up what we’ve always believed about literacy, but it’s about expanding upon what’s possible and what we’ve been doing in our reading and writing workshops.” (2015).

Yes, and…

Yes to print.

Yes to explicit instruction.

Yes to digital text.

Yes to new literacies.

Yes to diversity.

Yes to choice.

And yes, to building readers.  This is not a zero sum game.

Kristin Ziemke has spent her career teaching and learning from children in urban and suburban school districts. A teacher and innovation specialist in Chicago, Kristin engages students in authentic learning experiences where reading, thinking, collaboration and inquiry are at the heart of the curriculum. Co-author of Connecting Comprehension and Technology (Heinemann, 2013), Kristin pairs best practice instruction with digital tools to transform learning in the classroom and beyond. An Apple Distinguished Educator, National Board Certified Teacher and Chicago’s 2013 Tech Innovator of the Year, Kristin seeks opportunities to transform education through technology innovation. She collaborates with educators around the globe as a staff developer, speaker and writer.  To learn more follow Kristin on Twitter @KristinZiemke or visit her website at Look for her upcoming book Technology Foundations: Power Up with Digital Teaching and Learning this fall.