Chapter 7 of The Reading Mind: “Reading After the Digital Revolution” Summary, Implications and Discussion Questions

“Chapter 7: “Reading After the Digital Revolution” Summary, Implications and Discussion Questions


  • Software designed to teach reading has been variable in its success. Some applications work well, others do not. Advantages that software could theoretically bring to the teaching of reading have been harder to exploit than anticipated.
  • There is a small cost to reading on a screen compared to reading on paper. That cost will likely decline and may well disappear in the coming years, as engineers find better ways to design ebooks.
  • Students can access information at unprecedented scale and with unprecedented speed, but there is little evidence that this access is influencing reading or learning.
  • There’s also little evidence that digital gadgets have displaced reading in students’ lives, but that may mostly be that students have never read much.


  • Although the comprehension cost associated with e-textbooks is modest, it’s large enough that most students don’t want to use them. Schools and districts should be cautious in adopting them until they improve.
  • “Digital literacy” (defined as learning how to navigate common applications) seems to be mostly overblown. Common applications and platforms are written to be easy to use, and most students gain familiarity with them at home. The exception is disadvantaged students who do not have the access to digital technologies that wealthier students do. For these students, the idea of gaining this sort of digital literacy at school makes sense.
  • Although there’s little evidence that digital amusements are displacing reading, I still favor limits on screen time. I believe the lack of evidence is due to what statisticians call a “floor effect”: reading didn’t decline with the introduction of digital technologies because it couldn’t go much lower. Limiting screen time will not only make time for reading, it removes choice from the environment for part of a kid’s day, and that may make reading the most attractive choice available, as described in Chapter 6.
  • If I’m right about children today having a lower threshold for boredom than children a generation ago, then limits on screen time might help. If children are more often left to entertain themselves, we would expect that they will not only learn to do so, they will learn that sometimes one is bored for awhile before there’s a payoff. Sometimes a book starts slowly, but builds in excitement. A flower or an ant hill initially may seem mundane, but sustained attention reveals more there then was first appreciated. There are, as far as I know, no data on whether this supposition is true.

 Discussion Questions

  • Many parents I speak to express a sense of helplessness about screen time. They feel the digital revolution makes technology ubiquitous and they cannot keep their children removed from it. What would you say to such a parent?
  • As noted, students are often too trusting of information they find on the Web. Researchers are trying to develop training regimens to help students learn the skills to evaluate what they find, but progress has been halting. What should parents and teachers do? Limit the sites that students visit for research to list of trusted sources? Let students roam the Web, but follow them and provide feedback?
  • Data indicate that children spend most of their digital time on activities we would not say are especially enriching: Instagramming selfies, shooting zombies in virtual worlds, and so on. Most parents would prefer they were getting some fresh air, or seeing friends face to face. The obvious strategy is to limit screen time. But doing so surrenders the possibility that children will take advantage of other great opportunities a computer affords to learn, or to build, or to meaningfully connect with others. Is there not a strategy by which we can nudge students toward doing more of the digital activities we think are enriching, rather than cutting them off entirely?
  • I suggested that children today read more than ever, but the big increase comes for texting, reading within computer games, and the like. I noted that this type of reading is unlikely to improve comprehension, but would improve fluency. There’s no data on whether or not it would actually work, but would you be willing to take the plunge? Should increased access to text-heavy gaming be a routine part of reading instruction (presumably used as children are developing fluency)?
  • Have you ever cut yourself off from digital devices for a significant period of time, say 48 hours or more? How did you react? Did you feel differently in the 48th hour compared to the first hour? Would this be a useful exercise for students?”

Excerpted from: Willingham, Daniel T. The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017.

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