The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Innovations in technology have changed the way in which society acts. As classical scholar and university librarian James O’Donnell points out in the 1999 radio broadcast “From Papyrus to Cyberspace,” one generation’s frontier becomes the next generation’s reality. One can assume that with each new frontier there are gains and losses. For example, the invention of the automobile sparked a transportation revolution, but with this improved accessibility we also implicitly accept thousands of car-related deaths each year. Advancements in writing technologies have unpredictable changes in human roles and geography. Printing presses led to the spread of unorthodox ideas across the world and new forms of democratization, while the shift from a primarily oral to literate society brought with it new lines of exclusion between those who could read and those who could not.

James Engell, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard, highlights the point that such revolutions of technology do not occur suddenly but are instead a gradual shift within societies. Just as manuscripts continued to be produced well after the invention of the printing press, it is common for information from the internet to be written down on paper. Thus the challenge with emerging digital technologies is not that such societal shifts are occurring, but finding the most effective way new technologies can be integrated with the way things are currently functioning. Learn more about the impact of the typewriter on literacy in my short documentary The Shift from Handwriting to Typewriting:

Full List of References and Media Content Sources

The shift from handwriting to digital text and their associated issues continue to plague educators as one-to-one devices become the norm in schools. My English Department meetings often consist of heated debates concerning whether students should complete their coursework on paper or digitally. The topic seems to polarise the teachers within the department and we cannot collectively decide on the "correct" answer.

"students who write out their notes on paper may actually learn more" (Mueller & Oppenheiner, 2014).

In 2012, scientists find that the brains of preliterate kids respond like a reader's brain when they write their ABCs, but not when they type or trace the letters (Pauly, 2016). Another research team reports that college students who transcribed lectures on their laptops recalled more information than those who took notes by hand because the use of laptops results in shallower processing (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Across three experiments, researchers had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory for factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information. The two types of note-takers performed equally well on questions that involved recalling facts, laptop note-takers performed significantly worse on the conceptual questions (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). This research suggests that perhaps completing tasks on paper may be more beneficial for students.

However, sometimes the purpose of note taking is simply to collect information. During novel studies I often have my students take notes to record key quotations or details from the book we are reading under the categories of the elements of fiction (e.g. setting, characters, style, theme). When forced to write on paper, I find students’ notes quickly become disorganised and chaotic. Factor in that a novel study last several weeks - sometimes months - I find students’ paper notes become more of a hassle than helpful.

Instead of making the paper-or-digital choice for my high school students, I share research findings and we collaboratively discuss the benefits and advantages of each format. I then prompt them to make the choice for themselves and give them the opportunity to change formats if they feel they made the wrong choice. In Benedict Carey's book "How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens" he refocusses attention away from a mono-solution to the learning conundrum, by prompting learners to consider the task at hand:  

"It's not that there is a right and wrong way to learn. It's that there are different strategies, each uniquely suited to capturing a particular type of information. A good hunter tailors the trap to the prey" (Carey, 2014, p. 44). 

My vision for my students is for them to discover for themselves how they work best in a time where they are living and learning during this technological revolution. The following is a lesson to prompt a discussion surrounding the ambiguity of the paper of digital argument:

While reading and writing remains at the heart of education, emerging technologies will continue to alter the concept of literacy itself. As we continue to move from written text to digitized information, educators must adapt their didactic methods to coincide with modern technologies. The technologies of handwriting and typewriting need not exist in a binary relationship in our postmodernist culture. They can co-exist, offering us a multiplicity of ways to communicate where each is geared for its own different purpose.


Mueller, P. A. & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25(6). 

O'Donnell, J. & Engell, J. (1999). "From papyrus to cyberspace" [radio broadcasts]. Cambridge Forum.

Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Pauly, M. (2016). A Brief History of Handwriting. Mother Jones, 41(5), 60.

No comments:

Post a Comment