Reading is Reading is Reading… or is it?

Is reading a book on your phone different than on your computer, or on an ereader? Are we good at reading digitally? Does digital reading change the way we perceive text? Context, including distractions like internet connectivity, plays a large role in how various digital reading experiences can be distinguished.

Context shapes how we read and how we interpret what we read. The surrounding elements of a book or piece of text such as where a person is reading, the goals they have for the reading experience (whether they want to be informed or entertained etc.), and the interface of the text all will change how the text is perceived. Reading on your computer or phone has an innate connectivity, that many ereaders don’t have. When I’m on my phone I feel like I’m in a state of multi-tasking because the phone itself has the so many other functions outside of just reading. With many tabs and apps open all at once, I can hop from my ebook, to look something up on Google, check in with Instagram, text a friend, then get back into the book. Patricia Greenfield found that multi-tasking slows the reading speed down, although it doesn’t seem to impact understanding of the text. I can definitely relate to that finding about, however I would  argue that my comprehension takes a hit from this experience because I’m not focused and engaging deeply.

Since ereaders are designed primarily for reading (rather than other actions like browsing, texting or emailing), I can imagine that I would be able to focus on reading much more than attempting to read on my phone. When I read, I want to do so in a printed format so that I can limit distractions and really immerse myself, but that is perhaps because I grew up reading printed books and I’ve been really stubborn in transitioning to digital experiences. An ereading device would, in theory, offer me the distraction free reading experience I’m looking for.

I really like Maria Konnikova’s stance on this debate as she doesn’t say which type of reading experience is best, but rather that as we all start to read online more and more, we just need to become better digital readers and learn how to work at limiting distractions in order to have deeper reading experiences online. She stated in her New Yorker article, “We cannot go backwards. As children move more toward an immersion in digital media, we have to figure out ways to read deeply there.”

I think that ebooks have come a long way for reader retention and comprehension, but what I think will really require more work, as Konnikova suggests, is articles or other forms of long format articles found online. For the similar reasons of distraction, I find myself giving less importance to online reading experiences. I often scan through the text since there is so much surrounding the text from ads and links to “related articles” and more. I don’t see the reading experience as in depth or valuable as a printed book because of this. Again, this is likely my own personal bias coming through. With learning and practice I could reverse the effects of years a childhood of reading in print.

Since each digital reading experience is so different, and has not had the benefit of hundreds of years of refinements like the reading of printed books, we still have a long way to go. Consider even hyperlinked interactive books, how do we become good readers of those? Are we able to remove distractions all together because of their ability to immerse readers into the story by allowing their choices to impact how the content plays out? Each of these new digital reading experiences have different contextual elements that distinguish them. We grapple with these elements in order to have an optimal reading experience and we may require new skills and practice to become better digital readings.


While observing the differences in reading experiences one question that also comes to my mind is one about form. Do we read or listen to audiobooks? I keep overhearing discussions and reading articles that make mention of audiobooks as a form of reading a book but I don’t entirely agree. I don’t agree because the definition of reading that I have come to adopt is that reading is done by visually decoding text. But, even as I type that statement, I realize that this overly simplified definition negates using braille as a form of reading, when vision is not required at all.

A screen reader may be reading the text to the user who is listening, but does that then mean that people with visual impairments don’t read? I definitely would disagree with that statement so I think my definition of reading needs updating. I would call upon the wikipedia definition, but even it’s explanation of reading needs to be revised. The page states, “The symbols are typically visual” and acknowledges both printed and tactile texts that can be read, but there is no mention on the entire page about audio.

As Linda Flanagan 

I really like this quote by William Irwin that states, “Audio books began as a boon to the blind and dyslexic and have been mistaken as a refuge for the illiterate and lazy.”  This article by Writer’s Edit outlines a helpful summary of the two sides of this debate and has started to convince me that listening to an audiobook is a form of reading especially when you look at the comprehension rates of reading visually or ‘reading’ by way of listening. I look forward to following how this debate unfolds.