New Reading for a New Generation? Interactive Digital Texts and their Role in Basic Literacy and Academia

Literacy today is still mostly focused around the written word. Teachers foster literate students by encouraging written-text based comprehension skills. However, the introduction of the internet, video games, and hand-held digital devices causes new challenges for parents and teachers, literacy is no longer purely about the ability to comprehend texts, the 21st century provides the unique challenges of needing to be able to engage meaningfully and intelligently with the digital world. A side effect of so much technological exposure is that it is causing a “crisis of reading.” This so-called crisis is caused by having a generation of technology-distracted children and adults, making it more difficult to foster avid readers. How do you motivate children of early literacy stages to commit to the time-consuming task of traditional literacy: decoding and comprehending written text through print media? More importantly, is this still the way that we should be encouraging children to learn? In a world where almost every other facet of your life touches in some way with hand-held devices, educators are seeing multi-modal digital texts as an important educational tool to teach digital literacy alongside reading comprehension and analysis. The school-systems in Canada and the US are slowly adopting digital, interactive, multi-modal texts but there are two challenges in implementing them more widely as they are more expensive to produce than regular texts, and also are less well liked, in their experimental iterations so far. Studies have found that before readers can use interactive texts usefully, the content should be tailored to the course, and students may require special training on how to engage with the text.  The inclusion of interactive, digital texts can be an essential tool to leverage to meet the contemporary definition of literacy, however the challenges around cost of production of these texts, as well as the hurdle of engaging meaningfully with a digital delivery format is preventing them from being more widespread in the publishing industry. 


Education scholars argue that reading works of literature is fundamental for linguistic, cognitive and emotional development in childhood, but technology has taken a central role in our lives and has created a need for multi-modal digital literacy in students. Previous to the digital age, multi-modal literacy referred to becoming literate in speech, written text, gesture, silence etc. Basically literacy meant to be able to engage in social and academic meaning-making. Academic institutions are now recognizing that a key part of engagement with texts should also include the interactivity that we see in operating systems, mobile, desktop and web applications. Engagement with online activities and mobile technologies has moved from being perceived as a leisure activity to a key part of life and success in work for the majority of the world’s population. Educators are now using ‘multi-modal literacy’ as a term to describe a holistic fusion of reading comprehension, as well as the technological skillsets required to engage in today’s world. A key way to introduce these concepts is to introduce them early with interactive multi-modal digital texts, such as learning and reading apps, but we have yet to see a large supply of multi-modal digital texts created by the publishing industry.  


Since the launch of the iPad in 2010, interactive books have mostly appeared as book apps. These books aim to expand on the traditional print picture book by encouraging the child and the adult reading to them to engage in responding verbally, such as reading out loud as well as making sounds, movements and generally engaging in the real world with the text. Interactivity can describe any text, print or digital that creates a relationship between the real world and the world of the text. Under this definition, a choose-your-own-adventure print book is considered an interactive text. However, the digital environment creates a world of opportunities to engage and practise life skills in the digital age, so I am referring to these more dynamic, digital counterparts as interactive multi-modal digital texts. These book apps are hybridized texts, incorporating elements from different narrative formats: print picture book, illustrated animations and games that are more typically found in educational games. The texts can also include the participation of the reader, having the child or parent read aloud the book and play the recording back. The same technique can be used to encourage story-telling and literary engagement: children to narrate aloud to a visual narrative of a classic fairy tale such as “Little Red Riding Hood” Interactivity has an element of playfulness and which is why it can be appreciated so much by children, and serve as a powerful motivator for learning to read. one reason why it is very appreciated by children. A study performed in 2016 on gamification found that integrating technology into educational resources increases student engagement and can reduce the dropout rate. However, this study notes that gamification only works so long as engagement and interest in the subject has to take over as the main driver of value for the participant. The interactive learning experience can serve as a powerful tool to draw someone into the learning experience, but they will only continue if they see the content as valuable to them. 


Children’s literature and ESL texts tend to be the most common formats for interactive texts currently, since visual narratives such as graphic novels, comics and picturebooks are the easiest to adapt to interactivity so the studies referenced in this paper discuss those text formats exclusively. However, there is a large opportunity to create interactive texts in higher academic settings, self-learning applications, or leisure-focused reading. 


One obstacle to having digital textbooks more incorporated into our everyday lives is that people report they just like print books better. A study on ESL learners found that the average student prefers print to digital textbooks, and a study in 2013 showed that only 34% of 600 NES (New English Students) said that they felt satisfied with their publisher created digital textbook. Another study from 2013, again with a different group of ESL students showed that there were no differences in learner’s scores on quizzes after reading from either a print or digital textbook, however the students using the digital texts tended to spend their time on non-reading activities on their digital devices. The two most prevalent issues that they found with digital texts were that the students in the study found the interactive elements of them confusing and unfamiliar, and that they were not accustomed to consuming digital media content on their personal devices in an educational context. The study found that design, training on successful usage, and the ability to customize and tailor learning content is essential to a successful experience. In order for these texts to be successful, they require that they are produced with patterns of student usage in mind. Bikowski points out that we do not have any reason to expect that technology, the way it is used on an everyday basis, prepares us at all for learning from digital texts. We are accustomed to viewing digital mediums on our hand-held digital devices for leisure focused activities such as browsing social media sites or video game apps. Therefore for digital texts to be successful they may require training for how to learn on a digital device, and how to engage with a personal device with educational intent: 


“The way a tool (or artifact) is used leads to a culture-of-use; for example, a tablet can fit into a personal or academic culture-of-use. Thorne (2003) found that a learner’s prior artifact-mediated activity can either facilitate or constrain their future learning activity.”


Another study was performed in 2018, albeit with a relatively small control group of thirteen students in a large US University English Business class. Incorporating feedback from the previous studies on ESL students experiences, an interactive digital textbook was created with shorter readings with sufficient white space (to help avoid eye-strain), which integrated learning tools and hyperlinks to other resources within the text, as well as incorporating relevant images, videos, and self assessment quizzes etc. The textbook underwent several iterations focused on learnability and effectiveness and revised to maximize progress to course objectives. The 2018 study showed that students were very satisfied with the digital textbook, and would recommend it to future classes. The customization, tailor-made aspect of the text seemed to be the most well received, and the readers reported that they felt more engaged and better learning due to ease of use. According to this limited study it seems that learners preferred the digital textbook over traditional ones due to its highly customizable, updated content and its easy-to-use format. 


The transition to digital textbooks has been a slow one but behemoth textbook publisher Pearson is ramping up the transition into high gear after announcing in July 2019 that it is moving from traditional textbook publishing to a “digital first” model. This transition is not motivated by the increased learning capabilities of using digital texts and the educational value of multi-modal literacies (at least from what Pearson has revealed), but rather because of the financial incentives of bypassing intermediary distributors like Follet. At the same time as Perason increases its profits, it can get better data from digital access that will help them make more strategic choices about publishing in the future. Forbes technology writer Bill Rosenblatt notes that this phase is simple digitization of texts, but that he anticipates the next phase will be focused around what he calls “learning objects,” which I interpret to be interactive multi-modal digital textbooks. 


One prohibitive feature of adopting more multi-modal digital interactive texts, or “learning objects” into the hands of every day readers is that the cost of production is so much higher than producing an ebook. An app for instance, requires high development costs, possible recording costs, copyright costs (if not covered under “fair use” in copyright law) as well as the time consuming and expensive quality assurance processes that follows the creation of any digital app. Though, more traditional publishing houses such as Penguin Random House Canada are incorporating audio recording capabilities in-house, and it may require less cost overhead to incorporate responsive elements into texts as a younger, more tech and coding-savvy generation gets hired in. 


The benefits of using interactive digital texts for learning basic reading comprehension and tech literacies, as well as encouraging a more immersive and tailored experience for textbooks are potentially great as a motivator. As most studies have found, there has not been a significant enough push towards incorporating them into everyday classrooms, and cash-strapped publishing houses do not have the overhead to capitalize on this technology as is. There is also the question of whether this digital format is an overall beneficial to mental well-being for students; We are already over-exposed to screens that emitting harsh light and cause eye strain and mental fatigue linked to depression. Regardless, screen-time is more and more a part of our lives and this nascent text-format seems like an opportunity for the technology community to combine forces with publishers to create products that are both immersive and engaging. It will be telling to see if the shift to digital for Pearson will transition into a program of re-creating their more popular texts into “learning objects” as Rosenblatt predicts, which will almost certainly usher in a new age for digital texts.



Bikowski, Dawn. “Interactive Digital Textbooks and Engagement: A Learning Strategies Framework.” Language Learning, n.d., 18.

Brown, Sally. “Young Learners’ Transactions With Interactive Digital Texts Using E-Readers.” Journal of Research in Childhood Education 30, no. 1 (January 2, 2016): 42–56.

Dierking, Rebecca. “Using Nooks to Hook Reluctant Readers.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 58, no. 5 (2015): 407–16.


Penguin Random House Canada. “Meet an Audiobooks Producer: Ann Jansen,” March 13, 2018.

Mills, Kathy A., and Len Unsworth. “Multimodal Literacy.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education, December 19, 2017.

Nowell, Shanedra D. “Using Disruptive Technologies to Make Digital Connections: Stories of Media Use and Digital Literacy in Secondary Classrooms.” Educational Media International 51, no. 2 (April 3, 2014): 109–23.

Orlando, Linda Venticinque. “Learning Literacy Though Play Using Interactive Texts during Storybook Reading: A Parent/Child Experience.” Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education 25, no. 3 (January 2005): 247–53.

Rosenblatt, Bill. “Pearson’s Digital-First Strategy Will Change How Students Get Textbooks.” Forbes. Accessed December 8, 2019.

Stiglic, Neza, and Russell M. Viner. “Effects of Screentime on the Health and Well-Being of Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review of Reviews.” BMJ Open 9, no. 1 (January 1, 2019).


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