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Read Like a (Digital) Writer

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By now -- in fact, right now -- there is a very good chance that you are reading text on something smaller than a typical computer screen, perhaps your smartphone, tablet, or e-reader. And, that means that the opportunity to interact with this text has, quite literally, come straight to your fingertips. While scholars of digital writing and rhetoric have long been interested in what this means for us as writers, it is in this existing world of e-reading where our blog posts for the next few days will take us.

This year, I have been working on a study of adolescents’ digital reading habits with my colleague Dr. Kristen Turner from Fordham University, and they have collected nearly 1000 responses to a survey that asks teens to reflect on both what and how they read, in school and out. We are writing a book for NCTE as a follow-up to their policy research brief, “Reading Instruction for All Students.” Part of our work is to identify how to help students read. Equally important, for those of us interested in digital literacies, we are trying to identify when, where, and how students read, too.

We begin with the understanding that many teachers are, rightly, concerned about their students access outside of school to digital devices and the Internet. Thus, part of our work has been to confirm a great deal of the existing data about device ownership and access to the Internet as reported by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. And, we are finding very similar percentages in terms of the number of teens who have devices and access to the Internet from our rural, suburban, and urban samples of students. In short, most kids have devices and access. This is not to say we are completely over the hump of the digital divide, because we are not. Yet, knowing that well over half and upwards of 80% of our students are reading on digital devices, we really do need to start teaching reading and writing as if every student has a device in her pocket because, most likely, she does.

In particular, Turner and I have also been interested in how students are using these devices as readers. While some teens do report being distracted by digital media, just as many adults are, a number of them are also reporting strategic uses of smart phones and tablets as reading devices. Using a variety of techniques to select books, skim the news, and engage deeply in various forms of online reading, the teens are not, as some would argue, “too dumb for complex texts.” This, however, does not mean that we can’t teach are digital natives some new tricks. While many of them know about social networking and photo sharing, fewer of them know about tools like Feedly or Pocket. Thus, we are very interested in teaching them about how these tools can enrich their (digital) reading lives.

Over the next two weeks and four blog posts, I would like to share some of my current thinking about what it means to be a digital reader, and what implications that might carry for us, too, as digital writers. To begin, I would encourage you to review Avi Itzkovitch’s “Interactive eBook Apps: The Reinvention of Reading and Interactivity.” In this thorough post about different types of interactive ebooks, Itzkovitch describes three types including basic ebooks, which essentially mimic paper, enhanced e-books which may include multimedia components, and interactive ebooks which demand a level of participation from the user. I’ve also recently seen the terms “fixed format,” “enhanced,” and “flowable” used as terms to describe digital books, too. Here is a visual way of thinking about it that I have shared in some workshops.

eBook Comparison Graphic

Since so many people are talking about how e-books work, as well as how they work for us (or not) as readers, the next three posts will explore each of Itzkovitch’s categories in more detail, as well as provide examples. By mid-month, I will look at a variety of the basic e-book formats such as ePub and Kindle. Then, during the week of January 20, we will explore what happens when print is re-mediated in the digital environment, adding some measure of interactivity. Also that week, we will look at some multimedia publications and how they make different demands on the reader. Finally, toward the end of the month, I will wrap up the series in reply to any questions or comments as well as provide a list of various e-publishing resources.

As digital writers, we need to become increasingly aware of why and how our readers find our work, click on our links, examine our images, and then share what they have read. A few questions for you to consider (since this is meant to be a “yack” session, after all):

  • As a digital reader, how would you describe your experience with ebooks? Hypertexts? RSS feeds? Other forms of digital reading?

  • As a digital writer (and rhetorician), what are some of the considerations that you need to make for your audience? What are the affordances and constraints of various digital reading platforms (web-based, ebooks, tablet vs PC)?

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