What Can Expert Digital Readers Teach Us about Reading Pedagogy? - National Council of Teachers of English
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What Can Expert Digital Readers Teach Us about Reading Pedagogy?

This post by NCTE member Matthew Overstreet is based on his article “Networked Reading: How Digital Reading Experts Use Their Tools” (College English, May 2021). 


A commitment to reading, and the cultivation of healthy reading habits, unites the membership of NCTE. It’s important to remember, though, that with technological change, how we understand and teach reading may also need to change. That was the impetus for my article, “Networked Reading: How Digital Reading Experts Use Their Tools,” recently published in College English. The best readers in contemporary reading environments, I argue, are networked readers, in that they are willing and able to use a wide variety of digital resources to supplement comprehension. To teach reading now, I believe, should be to teach networked reading.

English teachers often view what we might call “deep reading” as the paradigmatic form of textual engagement. Deep reading involves sustained attention to and linear progression through a single document. Many believe that technological change, particularly the shift from reading primarily on pages to screens, has made deep reading more difficult. With omnipresent connection, distraction prevails. In “Networked Reading,” I acknowledge that older paradigms have been disrupted, but rather than thinking in terms of distraction, suggest that we examine the behavior of digital reading experts in order to chart new paths to comprehension.

My analysis reveals that digital reading experts display both a networked mindset and skillset. Attuned to the networked logic of digital space, they understand that no text or idea exists in isolation. When confronted with a challenging read they are thus quick to look beyond it and seek out additional information. Once beyond the text they know how to find what they need.

All told, through mastery of online information resources, digital reading experts are able to build bespoke knowledge networks which allow them to evaluate and understand target texts. For instance, confronted with a complex, unfamiliar document, a digital reading expert might look up words in an online dictionary, read the gloss of key concepts on Wikipedia, and do a Google search to see what others say about the reliability of a source or the validity of an idea. This sort of “lateral reading” stands in sharp contrast to traditional deep reading practices which are defined by verticality. At the core of lateral reading is the idea that to read well involves learning. And to learn, one must look beyond the target text.

Lateral reading is not a new concept, having been originally proposed by researchers at Stanford. I suggest that we expand the idea, though, to denote behaviors that might not be considered “reading” in a strict sense. Digital reading experts have especially broad portfolios of potential reading supplements. They are willing and able to mix types of sources (popular and academic, for instance) and forms of media (textual, visual, audio, etc.). To understand a complex academic article, for example, a digital reading expert may watch a YouTube video, listen to a podcast and contact their classmate via Whatsapp. They know what each resource is good for, when to use it and how to query it. With the shift from page to screen, comes ready access to information. By not limiting themselves either to a target text or certain modes or genres, digital reading experts are able to exploit this affordance to the fullest.

I believe that English teachers—and indeed all teachers who expect students to read complex informational prose—need to teach networked reading skills. One might argue that to do so is to turn reading instruction into research instruction. There’s truth to this claim. My analysis indicates that the best digital readers, through mastery of common digital tools, seamlessly blend reading and research. Reading pedagogy should help students do the same.

Networked reading starts with self-monitoring. Readers need to be able to identify their reading goals and when and why those goals are not being achieved. Self-monitoring of this sort allows readers to generate questions that can then structure lateral reading activity. The desire to read laterally, as we’ve seen, is facilitated by a networked mindset—a recognition of the importance of looking beyond the target text. The ability to read laterally is facilitated by a network skillset— knowledge of potential information sources and how they might be used.

The first step in teaching networked reading, it seems to me, is to explicitly encourage students to use outside resources to supplement comprehension. There are certain information resources with which all readers need to be familiar. At the moment, Google search, Wikipedia, and YouTube fit in this category. No matter the subject or discipline, instructors should consider how they can help students utilize these resources to promote comprehension. Instructors might also consider identifying for students information resources of particular value in their specific class or discipline.

Of course, digital space is dynamic: new resources are always emerging. Instructors may also feel that they don’t have much expertise to impart. These challenges can be overcome by urging students to reflect on and share their existing supplemental tools and techniques. I’ve found that student reading practices are often inherently networked. Moving between Wikipedia, the class group chat, and a PDF document, say, students naturally engage in proto forms of lateral reading. The key is to help them recognize and optimize such behavior. Conducted at the class level, reflection on and discussion of current practices can also produce a valuable stockpile of sharable resources and techniques.

Students might also be asked to reflect on how they read certain course documents. Did you read “laterally” or “vertically”? Did you draw on any outside resources? What for? A more involved activity may entail providing students a certain document and reading context, and asking them to formulate a set of reading goals and identify the work necessary to accomplish those goals. They could then consider how outside resources might assist such work. What am I trying to achieve here? What do I need to know to achieve it? Where and how can I get this information? These are the basic questions networked readers ask. Reflective activities allow students to practice asking these questions.

All told, I believe networked reading habits are essential, and both a networked mindset and skillset can be taught. To cultivate the former, I suggest pedagogies that emphasize supplementation and the productive combination of different forms of knowledge. To cultivate the latter, I suggest explicit instruction in lateral reading, broadly conceived. The underlying idea, in both cases, is to work with, rather than against the reading environment as it now exists.


Matthew Overstreet is an assistant professor of English at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.  His research involves charting the ways in which technology shapes how we think, write, read , and relate.



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