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It’s a brave new (digital) world—but don’t throw out books yet!

by | Jan 31, 2024 | News, Schools

Technology in the classroom can open new horizons if used as a tool to enhance education. But as a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows, it is also linked to deteriorating achievement in maths, science and reading. New research from neuroscientists confirms that when it comes to improving reading and committing knowledge to memory, the human brain is wired to get the most out of printed texts. The key lies in striking the right balance

By Linda Roos 

Sweden is one of the countries that boasts of the highest literacy rates in the world. Yet in 2023, it was announced that schools there would move away from digital devices and go back to books and handwriting. “Physical books are important for student learning,” said the Swedish Minister for Schools, Lotta Edholm. 

This is an interesting development in the digital versus print debate. While this topic is not new,  research does seem to be indicating that while inviting technology into education is a good idea; books, pen and paper should not be thrown out just yet. This comes in the wake of the digital transformation of the past 20 years, during which technology was introduced to classrooms across the world, in some places replacing physical resources completely.

Yet making use of a physical book, such as a dictionary, for example, has been proven to have vast benefits, especially with younger children. When paging through a printed dictionary, children look up more than one word and they are reading more, boosting comprehension and reading ability. When using a printed dictionary that is adapted to local contexts and culture, this can deepen the acquisition of knowledge even more. This helps increase levels of engagement, promotes critical thinking, improves attention span and focus as well as promotes independent learning. It can also combat fake news and misinformation, leading learners to correct sources of knowledge and solidifying memory and vocabulary retention.

A literacy crisis

This is relevant to South African educators, in particular. The country is facing a literacy crisis with up to 81% of Grade 4 children unable to read for meaning, according to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) results. For educators trying to find ways to improve literacy, the subject of how we can help children learn better and more efficiently is particularly important.

Professor Maryanne Wolf, former director of the Centre for Reading and Language at Tufts University in the US has written extensively on what happens in the brain when we read. Her book: Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, has been described as a game-changer for parents and educators. The book shows the difference in the way the brain processes words when we read texts on screens. Basically, we tend to scroll and read more superficially – scanning it, essentially – as opposed to a more focused kind of reading when holding a book. This kind of “deep reading” is pivotal when it comes to retaining information and acquiring knowledge.  

When people read on screens, they are often distracted by ads. They take shortcuts, browsing more, scanning the screen and hunting for keywords. A study done in Spain with 470 000 participants found that reading printed books instead of looking at screens improves comprehension by six to eight times. This was true even when young children (three to five years old) were read stories from a print book as opposed to watching the story unfold on a screen, meaning that kids exposed to print books become better readers at an earlier age, which again impacts comprehension

The brain processes reading online differently

Our brains follow different neurological pathways when we read online, and we tend to focus more and pay closer attention when reading printed text. But this does not mean that we need to throw out screens or get rid of devices, merely that we should include books and printed material for learners.

Younger children especially often don’t have access to cellphones and are even more dependent on printed resources. Their thought processes are still being shaped and their language and comprehension skills need to be honed. This ties to the concept of visual learning, in which many young learners learn best by seeing text combined with illustrated examples and images. Choosing a full colour, illustrated dictionary for younger children, a partly illustrated dictionary for older children learning an additional language, or even a strategically illustrated subject dictionary explaining technical subjects simply, can facilitate children’s language acquisition and understanding.

Of course, convincing children to open a book these days is challenging. Most prefer doing everything online and many parents make use of online resources to help engage their children with educational material.

Try this “new app”

But considering load shedding and the problems with Internet connectivity, it could be fun to show children “an app” from the old days—as in, a printed dictionary. Parents can encourage their children to hold a book and try to look up a word in a dictionary, for instance. It is worth pointing out there is evidence that the tactile sensation of holding a book and turning a page plays a role in cementing language in the brain. In addition, being able to picture where a word is on a page is part of how the brain “maps” information, which strengthens memory.

For overwhelmed parents wondering how to get their children interested in books again, it may be an idea to encourage them to use a printed dictionary while doing homework—perhaps before allowing them their screen time as a reward afterward, of course!

Linda Roos is the Publisher: Dictionaries at Oxford University Press South Africa. 

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