Teaching Digital Reading: Q&A with Skim, Dive, and Surface’s Jenae Cohn

Headshot of Jenae CohnCollege students are reading on-screen more than ever. Yet in higher education, teaching strategies for reading are still largely paper-based and rarely account for the different types or how digital modalities can improve accessibility.

In her new book, Skim, Dive, Surface: Teaching Digital Reading, Dr. Jenae Cohn seeks to recast the conversation as one that’s focused on how educators can be more attentive to the spectrum of affordances available within digital learning environments. In this interview, Dr. Cohn shares highlights from the book and explains why podcasts are a form of reading.

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What is Skim, Dive, Surface about? 

We know that reading on a screen looks and feels different than reading on paper. And so much of the reading that we all do every day is on a screen, but a lot of approaches are still based on reading within paper or print modalities. In Skim, Dive, Surface, I’m inviting educators to be more attentive to students’ lived reading experiences in a digital space. This book is an opportunity to consider how our effective teaching approaches can engage students in reading techniques that align with what’s possible for reading on a screen.

What inspired you to write a book about digital reading?

In graduate school, I really struggled to manage the massive reading load. At first, I printed out hundreds of pages each week but it wasn’t sustainable. I couldn’t organize the information in ways that would allow me to see and connect patterns across all of the readings. I needed some digital reading solutions to help get me through it all.

At the same time, as a first-year composition instructor, I saw my students struggling with similar kinds of concerns. That made me realize that we really needed more directed advice and research about digital reading workflows. Ten years later, the book is here!

What are some important highlights from the book?

I’d say there are three main takeaways:

1. Identify the purpose of your reading task. There are different types of reading and each one requires different strategies. Some digital reading may not be optimal for certain reading tasks that require intense concentration. But for some kinds of reading tasks, “skimming” is exactly what’s needed. Skimming, or “shallow” reading, is particularly useful for conducting initial research. Being able to broadly engage with a lot of information on a particular topic is an effective way to establish and build background knowledge.

2. Digital reading requires different approaches. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “worse” than paper-based approaches. With digital reading interfaces, students are typically scrolling rather than turning a page, so they don’t have pagination as that traditional indicator of progress. So, how can they keep track of key information in the text? Students also have to grapple with hyperlinks, which can either disrupt or enhance the reading experience. Reading on-screen can be customized, remixed, and changed in ways that reading in print does not allow. As instructors, we need to understand and consider these implications when we are selecting or creating course content.

3. Be mindful that not all students can have the same experiences with reading activities – and that’s OK! The digital divide is real. We need to be mindful of this when developing course content so that it’s mobile-friendly and not just workable on a laptop. In Skim, Dive, Surface, I discuss strategies for supporting readers regardless of which device they’re using. Throughout the book, I encourage instructors to check in with their students about how they experience reading and design activities that provide flexible options for engagement.

Why is listening to a podcast a form of reading?

We tend to think of reading as a visual exercise. Literacy is defined, rather narrowly, by the ability to visually interpret written symbols and information. But visuals aren’t accessible to everyone. Blind or visually-impaired readers, for example, rely on braille or text-to-speech applications, which are, essentially, “audio” books. Are they not reading? Of course they are. A podcast can absolutely be a kind of reading because it involves receiving and absorbing content. Our definitions of reading need to be more inclusive, insofar as we might think about reading as the process by which we access, engage with, and respond to content knowledge in a variety of media.

Can you summarize the research on reading, student learning and digital screens?

There have been decades of research on student learning, reading, and digital screens. One of my favorite sources on this topic is a meta-study by Delgado et. al (2018)[1] of 54 studies conducted from 2008–2018. One of its core findings is right in the title of their meta-analysis: “Don’t throw away your printed books.” The studies included different age groups and sizes, and the evidence consistently pointed to paper’s superiority over the screen for retaining and remembering pieces of information.

At first glance, these findings can seem discouraging, especially for those of us who believe that reading on screens can be a positive learning experience for students today and in the future. To me, they reinforce two important things:

1. Even as we recognize screen inferiority at this moment, we cannot ignore or deny the role that digital reading will continue to play in students’ learning experiences. As instructors, we must be willing to consider approaches that can optimize the benefits of digital reading and mitigate the inferior impact.

2. Reading is a socially constructed skill, one that’s shaped heavily by modeling and prior experiences.

Even as we recognize screen inferiority at this moment, we cannot ignore or deny the role that digital reading will continue to play in students’ learning experiences. As instructors, we must be willing to consider approaches that can optimize the benefits of digital reading and mitigate the inferior impact.

What do you say to faculty who are uncomfortable with the shift away from printed texts and are concerned about issues like distractions that are posed by engaging with devices? 

In Skim, Dive, Surface, I dedicate a full chapter to discussing these feelings. We’ve all had the experience of talking to someone only to discover that they’re absorbed in a screen. This can be particularly discouraging when it involves our students. Plus, the printed book itself is a precious object for many faculty. It’s a cultural signifier in academia, something that stands for learnedness, and is, frankly, something of a status symbol.

I encourage faculty to interrogate their own feelings and experiences with reading on-screen and on-paper. How might these be shaping your practices? Then, I think faculty should take a step back and consider how their experiences align with or differ from those of their students. What would it mean to ask and engage students in conversations about their experiences with reading? Providing options and making them genuinely and authentically available can help all students feel included as part of their learning.

Jenae Cohn, PhD writes and speaks about digital learning. She currently works as the Director of Academic Technology at California State University, Sacramento, and has held prior roles as both an instructor and staff at Stanford University and UC Davis. 


[1] Delgado, P., Vargas, C., Ackerman, R., & Salmeron, L. (2018). Don’t throw away your printed books: A meta-analysis on the effects of reading media on reading comprehension. Educational Research Review, 25, 23–28.

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