Tagged E-Learning

How Children Read Differently From Books vs. Screens

The Checkup

How Children Read Differently From Books vs. Screens

Scrolling may work for social media, but experts say that for school assignments, kids learn better if they slow down their reading.

Credit…Cristina Spanò

  • March 16, 2021, 11:20 a.m. ET

In this pandemic year, parents have been watching — often anxiously — their children’s increasing reliance on screens for every aspect of their education. It can feel as if there’s no turning back to the time when learning involved hitting the actual books.

But the format children read in can make a difference in terms of how they absorb information.

Naomi Baron, who is professor emerita of linguistics at American University and author of a new book, “How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen and Audio,” said, “there are two components, the physical medium and the mind-set we bring to reading on that medium — and everything else sort of follows from that.”

Because we use screens for social purposes and for amusement, we all — adults and children — get used to absorbing online material, much of which was designed to be read quickly and casually, without much effort. And then we tend to use that same approach to on-screen reading with harder material that we need to learn from, to slow down with, to absorb more carefully. A result can be that we don’t give that material the right kind of attention.

For early readers

With younger children, Professor Baron said, it makes sense to stick with print to the extent that it is possible. (Full disclosure: As the national medical director of the program Reach Out and Read, I believe fervently in the value of reading print books to young children.) Print, she said, makes it easier for parents and children to interact with language, questions and answers, what is called “dialogic reading.” Further, many apps and e-books have too many distractions.

Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician who is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, said that apps designed to teach reading in the early years of school rely on “gamification meant to keep children engaged.” And though they do successfully teach core skills, she said, “what has been missing in remote schooling is the classroom context, the teacher as meaning maker, to tie it all together, helping it be more meaningful to you, not just a bunch of curricular components you’ve mastered.”

Any time that parents are able to engage with family reading time is good, using whatever medium works best for them, said Dr. Tiffany Munzer, also a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Mott Children’s Hospital, who has studied how young children use e-books. However, Dr. Munzer was the lead author on a 2019 study that found that parents and toddlers spoke less overall, and also spoke less about the story when they were looking at electronic books compared with print books, and another study that showed less social back-and-forth — the toddlers were more likely to be using the screens by themselves.

“There are some electronic books that are designed really well,” Dr. Munzer said, pointing to a study of one book (designed by PBS) that included a character who guided parents in engaging their children around the story. “On the other hand, there’s research that suggests that a lot of what you find in the most popular apps have all these visually salient features which distracts from the core content and makes it harder for kids to glean the content, harder for parents to have really rich dialogue.”

Still, she said, it’s not fair to expect parents to navigate this technology — it should be the job of the software developers to design electronic books that encourage language and interactions, tailored to a child’s developmental level.

With preschoolers as opposed to toddlers, Professor Baron said, “there are now beginning to be some smarter designs where the components of the book or the app help further the story line or encourage dialogic reading — that’s now part of the discussion.”

Dr. Radesky, who was involved in the research projects with Dr. Munzer, talked about the importance of helping children master reading that goes beyond specific remembered details — words or characters or events — so a child is “able to integrate knowledge gained from the story with life experience.” And again, she said, that isn’t what is stressed in digital design. “Stuff that makes you think, makes you slow down and process things deeply, doesn’t sell, doesn’t get the most clicks,” she said.

Parents can help with this when their children are young, Dr. Radesky said, by discussing the story and asking the questions that help children draw those connections.

For school-age kids

“When kids enter digital spaces, they have access to an infinite number of platforms and websites in addition to those e-books you’re supposed to be reading,” Dr. Radesky said. “We’ve all been on the ground helping our kids through remote learning and watching them not be able to resist opening up that tab that’s less demanding.”

“All through the fall I was constantly helping families manage getting their child off YouTube,” Dr. Radesky said. “They’re bored, it’s easy to open up a browser window,” as adults know all too well. “I’m concerned that during remote learning, kids have learned to orient toward devices with this very skimmy partial attention.”

Professor Baron said that in an ideal world, children would learn “how to read contiguous text for enjoyment, how to stop, how to reflect.”

In elementary school, she said, there’s an opportunity to start a conversation about the advantages of the different media: “It goes for print, goes for a digital screen, goes for audio, goes for video, they all have their uses — we need to make kids aware that not all media are best suited to all purposes.” Children can experiment with reading digitally and in print, and can be encouraged to talk about what they perceived and what they enjoyed.

Dr. Radesky talked about helping children develop what she called “metacognition,” in which they ask themselves questions like, “how does my brain feel, what does this do to my attention span?” Starting around the age of 8 to 10, she said, children are developing the skills to understand how they stay on task and how they get distracted. “Kids recognize when the classroom gets too busy; we want them to recognize when you go into a really busy digital space,” she said.

For older readers

In experiments with middle school and university students asked to read a passage and then be tested on it, Professor Baron said, there is a mismatch between how they feel they learn and how they actually perform.

Students who think they read better — or more efficiently — on the screen will still do better on the test if they have read the passage on the page. And college students who print out articles, she said, tend to have higher grades and better test scores. There is also research to suggest that university students who used authentic books, magazines or newspapers to write an essay wrote more sophisticated essays than those just given printouts.

With complex text in any format, slowing down helps. Professor Baron said that parents can model this at home, sitting and relaxing over a book, reading without rushing and perhaps generally de-emphasizing speed when it comes to learning. Teachers can be trained to help students develop “deep reading, mindful, focusing on the text,” she said.

For example, students can be trained in digital annotation, highlighting but also making marginal notes, so that they have to slow down and add their own words. “We’ve known that for years, we’ve done it with print, we have to realize that if you want to learn something from a digital document, annotate,” she said.

There are also studies that suggest that reading comprehension is better onscreen when readers page down — that is, when they see a page (or a screen) of text at a time, and then move to the next, rather than continuously scrolling through text.

Seeing information on the page may help a student see a book as something with a structure, rather than just text from which you grab some quick information.

No one is going to take screens out of children’s lives, or out of their learning. But the more we exploit the rich possibilities of digital reading, the more important it may be to encourage children to try out reading things in different ways, and to discuss what it feels like, and perhaps to have adults reflect on their own reading habits. Reading on digital devices can motivate recalcitrant readers, Professor Baron said, and there are many good reasons to do some of your reading on a screen.

But, of course, it’s a different experience.

“There’s a physicality,” Professor Baron said. “So many young people talk about the smell of books, talk about reading print as being ‘real’ reading.”

How to Help a Teen Out of a Homework Hole


How to Help a Teen Out of a Homework Hole

The more students fall behind in the pandemic, the less likely they are to feel that they can catch up.

Credit…Marta Monteiro
Lisa Damour

  • Feb. 26, 2021, 2:33 p.m. ET

Pandemic school is taking its toll on students, especially teens. A recent study, conducted by NBC News and Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education, found that 50 percent more kids in high school report feeling disengaged from school this year than last. In December, Education Week reported that schools were seeing “dramatic increases in the number of failing or near-failing grades” on report cards.

A major symptom of school disengagement is not turning in homework, a problem that can easily snowball. The further students fall behind, the more overwhelmed they often become and the less likely they are to feel that they can catch up.

The good news is that finding out about missing homework is a first step to helping kids get back on track. You just need to keep a few considerations in mind.

Empathy will get you further than anger

At this point in the pandemic, finding out that your child has let schoolwork slide may trigger an angry response. Everyone is worn down by the demands of pandemic life and many parents are already operating on their last nerve. Getting mad, however, is likely to cause kids to adopt a defensive or minimizing stance. Instead, try to be compassionate. What students who have fallen behind need most are problem-solving partners who want to understand what they are going through.

If you’re having trouble summoning your empathy, bear in mind that there are many good reasons a student could fall off pace this year. For instance, Ned Johnson, a professional tutor and co-author of the book “The Self-Driven Child,” noted that most teens have very little experience managing email, which is now a main source of information for those in remote or hybrid arrangements. “We know how overwhelmed we as adults are by email. Imagine not being comfortable with it, and then suddenly getting everything — from Zoom links to assignments — that way.”

Some students learning remotely may also have unreliable broadband service; others may miss key information because their attention is split between the teacher on the screen and distractions at home.

“Many adults are having the exact same issues,” said Ellen Braaten, a psychologist and the executive director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “They are really productive when they can physically be at work, but may find themselves less attentive in the unstructured environment of working from home.”

Even teens who are attending school in person and using familiar systems for tracking assignments may be having a hard time managing their work now. The mental skills that help us stay organized — commonly called executive functioning — are being undermined by psychological stress, which is unusually high among today’s teens.

Work together to diagnose the problem

Finding out that your child is in academic trouble can tempt you to jump to solutions. It’s best, however, to properly diagnose the problem before trying to address it. Liz Katz, assistant head for school partnership at One Schoolhouse, an online supplemental school, suggested looking into the reasons students fall behind at school. Some don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing, others know and aren’t doing it, and still others “are doing their best and just can’t meet expectations.”

As you talk with a teenager about where things have gone off the rails, be kind, curious and collaborative. “This isn’t about you being in trouble or getting off the hook,” you might say. “It’s simply about figuring out what’s going wrong so we can solve the right problem.”

Students who are struggling to keep track of what’s expected of them may need to reach out to their teachers, either for clarification about specific assignments or for general guidance on where and when they should be looking for information about homework. As a parent or caregiver, you can coach them on how to approach their instructors. Start by pointing out that teachers are almost always eager to lend support to students who seek it. You can also offer to give feedback on a draft email to an instructor explaining where the student got lost and what they have already tried.

“For many students, the ability to ask for help is not fully formed,” said Ms. Katz, “or it can feel like an admission that they’ve done something wrong. Normalizing and praising self-advocacy is so important.”

For students who know what they’re supposed to do but aren’t doing it, other approaches make sense. They may be having a hard time sustaining motivation and need support on that front, or they may be swamped with commitments, such as caring for younger siblings, that make it impossible to complete their schoolwork. Here, parents and students will want to work together to make a realistic plan for addressing the biggest priorities in light of these circumstances. This might mean coming to an agreement about where the teen’s energies should be directed or exploring what additional support might be put in place.

In some cases, academic problems may be linked to issues with mental health. If there’s a question of whether a student is suffering from depression or anxiety; using drugs; or exhibiting any other significant emotional or behavioral concern, check in with the school counselor or family doctor for a proper assessment. Treatment should always take precedence over schoolwork. “If you’re depressed,” Dr. Braaten said, “no amount of executive function coaching is going to help, because that’s not the issue.”

Some students have subtle learning or attention disorders that became an issue only when school went online. Under regular conditions, said Mr. Johnson, instructors can notice when a student is tuning out and bring back his or her attention in a gentle way. Unfortunately, “Teachers really can’t do that effectively on Zoom.” If this is a concern, parents should consider checking in with teachers or their school’s learning support staff to get their read on the problem and advice for how to move forward.

Step back to see the big picture

“We all need to be easier on ourselves,” Dr. Braaten said, “and to sort through what students really need to do and what they don’t.” Well-meaning parents might hope to motivate students by emphasizing the importance of high grades, but that can make it harder for kids to recover from a substantial setback.

As students start to work their way back, give some thought to how comprehensive their turnaround needs to be. Do they really need to get equally high grades in every class? Could they instead direct their energy toward getting square with the courses they care about most? Could they work with their teachers to agree upon trimmed-down assignments for partial credit? According to Mr. Johnson, “Lowering expectations, for now, can actually help kids to get back on track.”

Dr. Braaten also noted that much of what students gain from school is not about content, but about learning how to solve problems. Engaging teens in constructive conversations to figure out how they fell behind can be an important lesson unto itself. “Having a 16-year-old who understands, ‘When I’m stressed, this is how I react,’” says Dr. Braaten, “may put us further ahead in the long run.”

In any school year, students learn a great deal beyond academic content. This year, more than most, might be one where students gain a deep understanding of how they respond when feeling overwhelmed and how to ask for help or rebound from setbacks — lessons that they will draw on long after the pandemic is gone.

Remote Learning Isn’t Just for Kids

Remote Learning Isn’t Just for Kids

New online tools and an array of remote classes and programs are ramping up education and training for adults.

Credit…James Yang

  • Feb. 9, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

This article is part of our new series, Currents, which examines how rapid advances in technology are transforming our lives.

Deb Livingston, a former business consultant, was always curious and eager to learn just about anything.

“When the pandemic hit, I was confined at home and found myself diving into online exploration,” said Ms. Livingston, 61. She discovered GetSetUp, an interactive website that delivers virtual education to older adults.

Even former chief executives like Jeff Mihm, a Miami resident who led Noven Pharmaceuticals, sometimes need a new life direction.

After resigning from his corporate post, Mr. Mihm, 55, decided to go back to school — virtually, because of the pandemic — and enrolled in the University of Texas’s Tower Fellows program in September. “I have a love of learning, and it was an opportunity to step back, study and explore,” he said.

The internet has empowered adult learners by providing new online tools to ramp up education and training. “The need for workers to keep pace with fast-moving economic, cultural and technological changes, combined with longer careers, will add up to great swaths of adults who need to learn more than generations past — and faster than ever,” said Luke Yoquinto, a research associate at the M.I.T. AgeLab and co-author of “Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn.”

By 2034, the number of adults age 65 and older will outnumber those under the age of 18, according to the Census Bureau. “That growth of older age demographics will translate to new demand for enrichment in the form of digital education,” Mr. Yoquinto said. “I would say that, for both good and ill, older demographics are going to serve as a proving ground for learning technologies in the coming years.”

Adult education, however, is “the Wild West” of education technology, according to Mr. Yoquinto. There are many outlets experimenting with ways to get a handle on the online adult education marketplace, including community colleges and universities, for-profit learning platforms, workshop providers and nonprofit organizations.

The new platforms are also opening doors to more adults. “There are already tons of people who, once upon a time, by dint of age or circumstance, wouldn’t traditionally have gotten the chance to partake in education, but can now sign up for free online courses,” Mr. Yoquinto said. Participants can choose a class here and there, without strapping on a backpack and heading to campus or signing up for expensive degree programs.

Virtual learning has become “the great equalizer,” said Gene O’Neill, the chief executive of the North American Veterinary Community, which provides continuing education for veterinarians around the world. “Because of virtual learning, veterinary professionals everywhere, even in remote, undeveloped countries, can learn from the world’s most renowned leaders and virtually participate in conferences,” he said. “This puts learning on an equal platform for everyone regardless of geography, income or time constraints.”

Ms. Livingston’s goal was to improve her skills so she could become a paid teacher on the GetSetUp platform, which offers classes — all taught via Zoom by teachers older than 50 — on skills from professional development to technology, health, wellness and hobbies like photography. There’s even a new class about registering for a Covid-19 vaccine, given the difficulties many people have faced. There are three membership levels, starting at free and topping out at $20 a month for unlimited access.

“The nature of work is changing,” said Neil Dsouza, GetSetUp’s chief executive and co-founder. “The traditional way of designing training and reskilling is a long, drawn-out program where you get a certificate or a degree. By the time you get that certificate, the skill is already outdated. We’re changing that model.”

Ms. Livingston, who lives in York, Pa., signed up to learn how to use Zoom to host classes, how to manage and lead an online class and how to teach Google Classrooms. “Seniors everywhere were in lockdown and were eager to learn and connect,” she said.

Because she’s interested in cooking and eating healthy meals, Ms. Livingston eventually began teaching classes such as “Great Dinners in 30 Minutes or Less,” “Healthy Eating on a Budget” and “Healthy Desserts That Are Delicious, Too.”

In January, Oasis, a nonprofit educational organization, launched Oasis Everywhere, with a menu of online classes on subjects from art to writing. Senior Planet, a unit of Older Adults Technology Services, or OATS, is a nonprofit resource for people 60 and older that offers courses and lectures.

OATS was founded in 2004 in New York City as a community-based project for older adults focused on tech education. Since then, it has expanded to over 200 locations in five states, serving urban and rural communities. But last year it was forced to pivot in response to the pandemic. “We taught hundreds of in-person classes before the virus forced the closure of Senior Planet locations in March,” said Tom Kamber, the founder and executive director.

That’s when his team pulled together and, within weeks, launched a fully digital set of courses and programs that have rapidly expanded its reach to its primary audience — a global community of anyone 60 and older.

Beyond Senior Planet, OATS launched Aging Connected, which aims to get one million older adults online. It provides tablets, along with training and technical support, to 10,000 older residents of New York City Housing Authority communities.

“I really wanted to create a program that would be able to get older adults to use technology and give them the kinds of training and support in environments where they could succeed,” Mr. Kamber said.

While older adults are continuing to learn new skills, they also are starting new businesses. In 2019, research from the Kauffman Foundation, a nonpartisan group supporting entrepreneurship, found that more than 25 percent of new entrepreneurs were ages 55 to 64, up from about 15 percent in 1996.

Online courses are riding that start-up wave. GetSetUp, for example, offers courses on running an e-commerce marketplace, starting a business from home and building a website.

Other offerings for entrepreneurs include Blissen, a three-month virtual boot camp for entrepreneurs over 50, and the AARP Foundation’s Work for Yourself @50+, which offers free webinars and workshops.

But all these online opportunities are not possible without access to the internet. “While there’s a rising passion for knowledge, people are getting excluded from the educational process in this country because they’re not online,” Mr. Kamber said. Based on a research report OATS recently released in partnership with the Humana Foundation, nearly 22 million Americans over the age of 65 lack broadband access at home.

“The good news, though, is the level of sophistication of online education is increasing and more access is coming to rural communities,” Mr. Kamber said. “It’s a brave new world of learning for people, and that gives me hope.”

For Ms. Livingston, that means continuing to take and teach classes at GetSetUp.

“Learning at any stage of life is what stimulates creativity and joy,” she said. “So much energy emerges from connecting the dots, having ‘aha’ moments and gaining skills. I love that I can help others keep their zest for life and help myself in the process.”