Are we Doomed to Read with Information Technology?

Reading contributes more to human excellence than any other form of knowledge acquisition. Reading comes so naturally to experts that they don’t tend to think much about the process. Yet reading is one of the most sophisticated mental activities.

Pressley and Afflerbach identified over 300  types of responses and mental processes involved in reading. To adumbrate, they found that:

  1. Expert reading is not just effective but affective. Weak readers may come across a stunning new insight or a contradiction of their beliefs without this affecting their heart rate. Experts in contrast are engaged, confident, enthusiastic and motivated about their reading. They can get excited, angry and upset about documents.
  2. Expert reading of complex material is laborious.
  3. Experts bring their prior knowledge to bear on what they read. They make predictions. They build up a mental model of the text and its relation to their prior knowledge. They experience surprise.
  4. Expert reading is purposive. Experts typically have a goal in mind that directs and focuses their information processing (the concept of goal setting applies across areas of expertise.) They seek to benefit from the time they invest in reading. 
  5. Expert readers tend to seek the gist of a document.
  6. Good readers strategize about their reading before, during, and after it.
  7. Expert reading is opportunistic. Experts can change their course while reading.
  8. Experts are knowledge builders. They seek to understand and apply the knowledge they process.
  9. Strong readers monitor themselves while reading.

In Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective, I summarized the cognitive science of reading thus: Effective reading is not speed reading, it is delving. Delving is a generalization of what Pressley and Afflerbach referred to as “constructively responsive reading”. This modern concept is required to deal with all kinds of processing of information, not just reading text, but also processing screencasts, listening to podcasts, attending talks, viewing videos, etc. Delving involves the use of manifold information technology.

The bulk of research on reading has been conducted with paper. Many people, even among the young, still prefer read important material with paper. For that matter, many still take notes with paper!

Information Technology and Our Reading

Maryanne Wolf and many other scholars have cautioned that information technology can have harmful effects on the reading brain. Wolf says it does not have to be this way for developing readers, if we teach them well. Some, like Nicolas Carr have taken a pessimistic view about adults, suggesting that the Internet is “rewiring” our brains.

Given that it is now impractical for most knowledge workers to read mainly from paper, are we doomed to be superficial readers? Or are we simply destined to?

In Cognitive Productivity, I acknowledged that many educated adults read less competently with IT than similar people used to with paper. However, I take a pro-active approach, explaining in considerable detail how information technology can be used for more productive reading than paper affords. When I say “more productively”, I don’t just mean “more efficiently”, I mean more effectively. In particular, I mean that information technology can assist in developing potent new mental mechanisms, or “mindware”.

Learning to use IT for cognitive productivity, however, does not come naturally. Nor are all the required concepts and skills taught in school or at university. Therefore, in part 3 of Cognitive Productivity, I explain how to use IT to

  1. systematically evaluate and select knowledge resources,
  2. identify and classify knowledge gems,
  3. delve rather than “surf” knowledge resources,
  4. engage in productive practice of knowledge gems.

Coming up. In the next blog post, I will demonstrate how Smile Software’s PDFPen Pro can assist with the third step, delving. Material from that blog post will figure in a book I will publish next year with a Read & Trust productivity blogger (name to be announced soon!). That book will be loaded with screencasts to illustrate the concepts and techniques described in part 3 of Cognitive Productivity.

Some Readings on Reading Cited in Cognitive Productivity

  • Beaudoin, L. P. (2015), Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. BC: CogZest.
  • Beaudoin, L. P., & Winne, P. (2009, June). nStudy: An Internet tool to support learning, collaboration and researching learning strategies. Paper presented at the Canadian E-learning Conference (CELC-2009). Vancouver, BC.
  • Bratt, S. E. (2009). Development of an instrument to assess pedagogical utility in e-Learning systems. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation) Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada.
  • Carr, N. (2011). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains (Kindle Edi.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Fayol, M., & Rouet, J.-F. (2008). Memory processes in text and multimedia comprehension: Some reflections and perspectives. In R. Lowe, J. R. Rouet & W Schnotz (Eds.), Understanding multimedia documents (pp. 267–280). Boston, MA: Springer US. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-73337-1_14
  • Junker, K. W. (2008). What is reading in the practices of law? The Journal of Law Society of America, 9(1), 111–162
  • Keshav, S. (2013, August 2). How to read a paper. Retrieved November 11, 2013, from
  • LaBossiere, M. C. (2013, November 25). E-reading & education. The Philosophers’ Magazine Blog. Retrieved November 26, 2013, from talkingphilosophy(dot)com.
  • McKinney, R. A. (2005). Reading like a lawyer: Time-saving strategies for reading law like an expert. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
  • Mulcahy-Ernt, P. I., & Caverly, D. C. (2009). Strategic study-reading. In R. F. Flippo & D. C. Caverly (Eds.), Handbook of college reading and study strategy research (pp. 177–198). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.
  • Pressley, M., & Afflerbach, P. (1995). Verbal protocols of reading. London, UK: Routledge.
  • Pressley, M., & Gaskins, I. W. (2006). Metacognitively competent reading comprehension is constructively responsive reading: How can such reading be developed in students?. Metacognition and Learning, 1(1), 99-113.
  • Quiller-Couch, A. T. (1920). On the art of reading. [E-book.] Gutenberg Project. Retrieved from
  • Rouet, J.-F. (2006). The skills of document use: from text comprehension to web-based learning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Spencer, C. (2006). Research on learners’ preferences for reading from a printed text or from a computer screen. Journal of Distance Education, 22(1), 33–50.
  • Wagner, R. K., & Stanovich, K. (1996). Expertise in reading. In A. Ericsson (Ed.), The road to excellence: The acquisition of expert performance in the arts and sciences, sports, and games (pp. 189–225). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Wallace, M., & Wray, A. (2011). Critical reading and writing for postgraduates, 2nd Ed. London, UK: Sage Publications.
  • Winne, P. H., & Hadwin, A. F. (1998). Studying as self-regulated learning. In D. J. Hacker, J. Dunlosky, & A. C. Graesser (Eds.), Metacognition in educational theory and practice (pp. 279–306). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. Cambridge: UK: Icon Books.
  • Wolfe, J. L. (2002). Annotation technologies: A software and research review. Computers and Composition, 19(4), 471–497.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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