How We Read Digital Texts

How do people read digital texts differently than paper? What do we need to know about reading on screens?

There is some evidence to say that learners feel more inclined to read a digital text. Daniel and Woody (2013) found that assessment results were similar when comparing students using digital texts versus paper texts. Yet, students reported more time spent reading the digital text than a paper text. Daniel and Woody hypothesized that this is likely due to using completely different reading strategies.

Caution Points

Caution” image by Eugene Zemlyanskiy on Flickr.

Digital texts, while convenient, reliable and relevant to the real world, are leading to the development of unique reader behaviours.

Reading on screens is taxing for the eyes, and online readers innately practice eye strain conservation by reducing the volume of total readership to just 20% of presented text. Baron, Calixte, and Havewala (2017) found that the biggest benefit of screen reading is convenience and the biggest drawbacks are eyestrain and distraction.

When using digital texts, don’t assume readers can spend robust quantities of time reading a backlit screen. Provide suggestions for reading in dark mode, or select more brief extractions of text, rather than expecting copious amounts of text consumption.

F Pattern Reading

With advances in heat mapping and eye tracking technology, it’s possible for researchers to collect data about how people read on the web. One behaviour, F pattern skimming, has been observed since the beginning of online reading (Neilsen 1997). F pattern reading is where where a person reads across the first major heading, then skips down to read across the next major heading, then finally reads down the menu on the left hand side. This behaviour happens in inverted format for languages reading right-to-left, indicating it is cross cultural (Pernice, 2017).

Heatmaps from User Eyetracking studies” from Neilsen Norman Group, 2006. Retrieved June 24th 2019.

This reading strategy helps a person conserve eye strain from reading on screens, but while F pattern skimming is efficient, it doesn’t lead readers to absorb all of the written content on a page. Sites with rich quantities of written content, like those used for course learning materials, may go largely unread, especially if they don’t use common conventions of web writing.

Selecting or Writing Digital Texts

To make sure learners absorb content and interact more robustly with digital texts, keep these points when writing or choosing articles or texts intended to be read on a device screen, adapted from Pernice (2017).

Create or choose texts with:

  • concise and precise writing;
  • the most important points in the first few paragraphs;
  • effectively worded headings to guide readers through content;
  • bolded keywords, dates or important passages;
  • varied visual elements like images, infographics or video;
  • bulleted lists to chunk and order information;
  • links using keywords, rather than full urls.


Pernice, Kara. (2017) “F Shaped Patter of Reading on the Web: Misunderstood, But Still Relevant (Even on Mobile).” Neilsen Norman Group, November 12, 2017.

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