The latest PIRLS International Report on Reading Skills has once again raised the question of the impact of digital devices on children’s reading comprehension. The international evaluation, carried out with 10-year-old children, showed that, on average for the 57 participating countries, students who use electronic devices to search for and read information for more than half an hour a day to do school tasks (whether homework or not) obtain worse results than those who use them for less time. And that in nine EU countries -Finland, Denmark, Ireland, Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Portugal and the Czech Republic- those who never use the devices show better reading comprehension than those who use them for more than half an hour. In Spain this does not happen, but only by a difference point, which is not statistically significant.
The PIRLS authors urged caution when drawing conclusions from data consistent with those found in previous studies. And they mentioned some factors that could have influenced the results of their evaluation: it is possible that those who use a computer, tablet or mobile phone for more than half an hour a day to do schoolwork are students who, due to being late, are sent extra work; or that they are “slower readers” and therefore spend more time in front of the screen, or that they simply “are more distracted”. Diego Redolar, a researcher in neuroscience and psychobiology of learning at the UOC, agrees that it is better not to rush. “To say that using a digital device for more than 30 minutes causes children to have less reading comprehension is biased. In the first place, because they are correlational studies in which there are a lot of confounding or mediating variables. To go further we would need more information. For example, how is the use of those digital devices? Is it supervised or guided by teachers or parents? It is not the same to give a child a book and tell him that he has to read it than to give him a tablet without the tasks being highly scheduled and supervised. It changes a lot,” he says.
Redolar defends, at the same time, the importance of keeping books on paper at school. “It has been shown that for the acquisition of reading it is important not to replace them. When our nervous system is developing cognitive abilities such as literacy, reading on paper, even though it can be combined with an electronic device, facilitates the process and improves reading comprehension. When reading in a book we have a concept map directly, while in digital format we advance in another way, by pieces. The paper helps us to make an outline of the content in a simpler and more optimal way ”, he assures.
The differences between digital and paper reading have not yet been sufficiently studied, points out César Coll, Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary and Educational Psychology at the University of Barcelona, ”and there is a very interesting field of research there, because it is not the same”. Coll believes that this should not be an obstacle for educational centers to train students in digital skills, because they will need them in the future, both at an academic, professional and private level. “Cases of overexposure can occur, but the good or bad is not the technology, but how it is used. The school cannot remain on the sidelines. You have to prepare boys and girls to develop skills that precisely allow them to take advantage of these devices and not fall into misuse. The devices are instruments of personal development, and they must be taught to use them just as they must be taught to read books and a thousand other things. In the same way that using a calculator does not eliminate the convenience of developing mental calculation ”, he opines.
PIRLS’s own international assessment is transitioning from a paper test since its inception in 2001 to a digital one. In the edition whose results were presented in May (and which corresponds to 2021), 26 countries took the test in paper format and 31 (including Spain) in digital, without the report mentioning differences attributable to the format used. Among the top 10 classifieds, half were done digitally (including the highest ranked, Singapore), and the other half on paper.
The extensive European Union project E-READ (Evolution of Reading in the Digital Age), presented in 2019, concluded that reading on paper favors concentration and comprehension of long texts. At the same time, he indicated, digital reading offers important benefits such as, at least in certain formats, allowing the presentation to accommodate the desires or needs of each reader. Or, points out the sociologist Mariano Fernández Enguita, who published the book in May The Fifth Wave. The digital transformation of learning, education and schoolthe possibility of doing searches in the texts.
How much time do 10-year-olds spend each day searching for and reading information for homework with digital devices? PIRLS shows that, on average across the 57 participating countries, 25% do it for more than half an hour a day, 52% for 30 minutes or less, and 23% not at all. In Spain, as in many other developed countries, the distribution is not very different, only that the percentage of those who never use them is somewhat lower (18%) and that of those who use it for half an hour or less, somewhat higher (57%).
More than before a dilemma between digital devices or paper, the debate seems to address a question of degrees and speed of progression towards new technologies. Two Nordic countries, Sweden and Denmark, with conservative and social democratic governments respectively, have opened a reflection on the matter in recent months. The educational leaders of both countries have requested more information on the evidence on the effect of the use of digital devices for children’s learning, fearing that there may be an excess of digital to the detriment of paper. “The problem,” believes Catherine L’Ecuyer, PhD in Education and Psychology, in this regard, is that new devices are being introduced in many cases “without asking technology companies to demonstrate benefits and absence of harm.”
Laia Vergés (Barcelona, 45 years old), mother of three children, who study primary, compulsory secondary and high school, came to the same conclusion from her personal experience. “From the first year of ESO, at least in their (subsidized) schools, everything is done with the tablet. And I am absolutely against it. The eldest failed everything because he studied from the screen. When he began to print the notes, to underline them, to make diagrams and to relate concepts, he began to approve. What is the point of having all the notes on the tablet, if you then have to print them out? ”, She wonders. Professor Mauri Sánchez, a professor in Castelldefels, Barcelona, points out another drawback of the digital leap that some centers have taken in recent years. “Tablets or laptops we have to carry ourselves, both teachers and students, they are not paid for by the school. And there are families that cannot afford it”.
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