As Schools Jump to Tablets, Questions Linger Over Impact on Writing and Reading Skills

A group of students in English class sits arranged in a horseshoe. Two signs on opposite sides of the room read “strongly agree” and “strongly disagree.” Colorful posters fill the walls.

Teacher Daniel Lawler’s desk rests front and center. No notebooks, pens or even Sticky Notes are visible. All that can be seen is a remote control, a laptop computer, and an iPad.

Welcome to a discussion of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill. The school  has decided to utilize iPads school-wide. Next year, every student will be given one. Lawler  teaches a senior class in which students are reading books, such as The Road, in print and on iPads.

Still, Lawler expresses reservations over the pervasiveness of tablets and digital technology in the classrooms.

“I’m always wary of any justification for… new technology, for instance, where the benefit is expediency, or efficiency, or speed,” says Lawler. “I want my kids to slow down as thinkers.”

Yet his students make digital annotations, define complicated words with one touch, and relate their annotations to broad themes by clicking to the Internet. During the discussion about The Road, however, some of the students do seem slightly distracted by their tablets.

“I think the concern at this point… really has to do with student attention. There’s a lot of anxiety around that right now,” stated Megan Garton, who also teaches English Teacher at New Trier.

Many schools are diving into the world of e-readers, but many educators share doubts about the impact tablets and other digital tools have, not only on their reading comprehension, but also on their students’ writing capabilities.

Some students find they perform better on deadline using computers. “I’m able to get [ideas] out there faster and then I just have more time to go back over it,” said Bryan Caspersen, a New Trier senior.

Others prefer classic writing methods, like Aaron Frankl, also a senior at New Trier. “I’m a lot more careful when I’m writing by hand,” he explained.

Chart: How Teachers, Parents and Student View Digital Tools' Impact on Writing Skills. Source: The Pew Research Center. (Click to Enlarge)

A July Pew Research-National Writing Project Survey examined teacher,  student, and parent perspectives about digital writing tools. Sixty-eight percent of teachers felt students were more likely to “not put effort into their writing.” However, only 46 percent thought students write carelessly.

Plagiarism adds to the dilemma. With copy and paste, students can instantly steal ideas, even entire projects. But some teachers still find digital tools to be beneficial for the research process.

“I think it’s excellent,” stated Megan Garton. Garton believes her students get a “much more complete picture of their topic” from databases containing reputable articles and essays. Additionally, her essay topics are unique; students “really can’t plagiarize,” Garton asserts.

David Noskin of New Trier has seen classroom technology develop during his 28 years in the classroom. Noskin enjoys using Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” for editing students’ work. Beyond accelerating the writing process, Noskin finds little use for technology,  but he recognizes the possibilities.

“That’s just going to open a whole new chapter,” said Noskin, referring to iPads, which he generally opposes. “I think reading comprehension is compromised.”

Consumers may disagree. According to Pew, between December 2011 and February 2012, the number of adults reading e-books increased by 4 percent.

In Lawler’s class, some students found the annotating and dictionary tools on iPads beneficial. Yet “screen time” excess caused concern.

Blogs “create a very real audience,” said Lawler, and Google Docs may “better foster collaboration.” He suggested, however, that meeting in person is still probably the best path to successful writing.

“The only technologies you need are two chairs and a table and a paper.”