Text Complexity in the Digital Age: An F for Online Reading?

By Thomas DeVere Wolsey

If you are reading this, chances are good that you are a teacher or education professional. As a result, the subtitle probably caught your attention right away; but this blog post is not about the ill effects of digital reading. Instead, we are going to explore what reading online might mean at a time when we will all be searching for ways to increase the amount and quality of text students read and the complexity of those texts. Shortly, you will see why an F in digital reading can be a useful tool.

Why Do Digital Texts Get an F?

To understand how text complexity can be promoted in the online environment, it helps to know and understand how readers approach reading many webpages. As you probably know, readers’ eyes move across text sweeping from left to right (a saccade) and stopping on some words to take in the content and perhaps focus on more challenging terms or phrases (fixations). However, when readers go online to a search engine, their reading tends to skip wide swaths of text as they search for the content they need. Eye movements can be tracked, and during perusal of a search result, the places where the reader’s gaze tends to be most concentrated resembles an ‘F’ shape. It would not be productive to read every word of a search result. Rather, the reader takes in key terms most often on the left side of the screen and sweeps across in some places forming the arms of the ‘F.’ Would you like to see what eye movement tracking of a search result might look like? Check this out:

An image from Clickrmedia: Eye Movements on a Search Page

More important, once readers do select a web source to read, they tend to follow the same pattern during initial reading of the webpage. Because reading on the screen is somewhat different than reading on paper, web designers actually take advantage of this F-shaped pattern and write text using headings and key words that fall within the F-zone in an effort to gain the reader’s attention. This results in important concepts from the site being conveyed to the F-zone reader, and perhaps entices the reader to go beyond the F-zone and read more closely. This is a good thing for the same reasons we cannot and should not read every word on a search page. The challenge for teachers and the readers in their classes is deciding when to use this strategy and when to go beyond this approach and read a bit more thoroughly and perhaps slowly. In this photo, you can see what the F-shape looks like when eye movements are tracked. The redder the color, the more time the reader spends looking at the content on that part of the page.

An image from the Nielsen Norman Group: Eye Movements on Three Webpages (Notice the general shape of the ‘F’)

F-shaped Pattern

See eyetracking in action (real-time): http://www.vimeo.com/40021154 (source: The Nielsen Norman Group)

…and eyetracking in action (slowed-motion version):  http://vimeo.com/40021215 (source: The Nielsen Norman Group)

Is F-Shaped Reading a Problem?

Some voices in education believe this F-shape reading pattern is part of a larger problem that demonstrates how online reading in some way detracts from a reader’s ability to comprehend complex and longer texts. While we certainly need more research in the area of digital reading and how it affects young readers (and older ones, too), we can use what we know about the F-shaped pattern to our advantage in the classroom. Slow and careful reading need not be impossible in digital environments.

Effective reading online involves complex skills that can build what Newkirk (2012) calls a growth mind-set. This mind-set “…is the capacity to view difficulty as an opportunity to stop, reassess and employ strategies for making sense of problems” (p. 122). When readers encounter uncertainty, they may quickly navigate away from the webpage causing doubt; however, teachers can assist readers to make clear and conscious choices to seek out uncertainty, confront doubt, and consult many sources. Moreover, maintaining a healthy skepticism that promotes further inquiry even as some uncertainty is reduced, new doubts will surface. A  reason the Common Core State Standards Initiative (2010) includes qualitative elements represents recognition that young readers and their teachers have a role in deciding how they may challenge themselves to greater growth as proficient readers.

A really neat thing about the human brain is that it is very capable of changing its own behavior. Metacognition theories tell us that thinkers (in this case, thinking through reading) can be aware of their learning behaviors and consciously choose to adapt them to suit varying purposes and contexts. Because the Internet is full of worthwhile and complex texts, the online environment presents a challenge for young readers. Fortunately, the challenge is one educators are well-equipped to take on. Reading online has many facets, and four of them appear in the list below. In this post, we have zoomed in on reading habits in online environments. Others will be explored in subsequent posts.

  1. Finding the most appropriate reading material
  2. Determining the best approach for reading that material
    1. Monitoring reading habits
    2. Reading text in a non-linear manner (cf. Reinking, 1997)
  3. Synthesizing multiple sources
  4. Integrating multimodal resources

A Challenge to Readers of Literacy Beat

As you read the remainder of this post, here are some reader challenges for you. Did you use the F-shaped pattern in selecting this blog post from a search engine? Did you use the F-shaped pattern as you read the post at first (remember, this is a good thing)? Did you read “below the fold” or the point at which you had to scroll to get at more content? At what point did you decide to abandon the F-shaped pattern and choose a different approach (you did, didn’t you?). Why did you change your approach? Finally, if you are a teacher, how have you helped your young readers to understand and effectively read online sources?

Tools and thinking habits for evaluating the reliability of online sources are well-known (e.g., Schrock, 2002). Therefore, we won’t spend more time with these tools here. A good point to add, though, is that online readers often do not apply principles successfully for evaluating sources even if they know they should do so (e.g., Leu, Zawalinski, Castek, Banerjee, Housand, Liu, & O’Neil, 2007). Effective instruction in choosing reading material online that suits the purpose for the search and challenges the reader to think deeply about the topic of the search is critically important. To that, I should emphasize that students need to be taught how to select online reading that is appropriately challenging to them rather than defaulting to the easiest material available.

While the F-shaped pattern seems to be the default reading pattern for reading on the web, there are appropriate times when readers should slow down and read closely. In Module 1 on the TextProject site, we defined close reading in rather concise terms:

“Close reading is characterized by the use of evidence from the text to support analysis, conclusions, or views of texts. For example, responses to the definition of text complexity would begin with a reference to the place in the text where the term is defined” (Wolsey, Grisham, & Heibert, 2012, p. 2).

The F-shaped pattern and close reading of complex texts need not be exclusive of each other. There are times when scanning content is appropriate and other times when slowing down and reading closely is the better choice—even for web content.

Please use the comment feature of this blog to explore this topic with us.

  • How do you help your students choose increasingly complex texts that challenge them as readers to work with uncertainty?
  • In what ways do you help students monitor their reading behaviors such that they move from the F-shaped pattern of most web reading tasks to the slower close reading tasks associated with complex text?


Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS). (2010). Appendix A: Research supporting key elements of the standards; Glossary of key terms. In Common Core State Standards for English language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf

Leu, D. J., Zawilinski, L., Castek, J., Benerjee, M., Housand, B., Liu, Y. & O’Neil, M. (2007). What is new about the new literacies of online reading comprehension? Retrieved from http://www.newliteracies.uconn.edu/pub_files/What_is_new_about_new_literacies_of_online_reading.pdf

Moje, E., Overby, M., Tysvaer, N., & Morris, K. (2008). The complex world of adolescent literacy: Myths, motivations, and mysteries. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 107-154.

Newkirk, T. (2012). The art of slow reading. Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH.

Reinking, D. (1997). Me and my hypertext:) A multiple digression analysis of technology and literacy (sic). Retrieved from ReadingOnline: http://readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=/articles/hypertext/index.html

Schrock, K. (2002). On a good website you can tell… Retrieved from http://kathyschrock.net/abceval/primary/index.htm

Wolsey, T. D., Grisham, D. L., & Hiebert, E. H. (2012). What is text complexity? Teacher Development Series. Retrieved from http://textproject.org/tds


3 Responses

  1. This is a wonderfully thought-provoking post! There is much here I didn’t know and will be sharing with my students. Thank you.

  2. Intriguing! The images of tracking on three different kinds of websites suggests the complex interplay of type of web page, purpose for reading, etc. The F eye tracking shape is most pronounced when we are scanning quickly for information (searching, at the top level of web page). The vertical stem of the F is dominant in the first image, where the text is primarily a single piece with multiple paragraphs. I can imagine kids thinking about what ‘shape’ their reading should take online! Thanks for a great post, Devere!

    • Your second question, “In what ways do you help students monitor their reading behaviors such that they move from the F-shaped pattern of most web reading tasks to the slower close reading tasks associated with complex text?” is really intriguing. Simply pointing out that there are different ways to read a text is key. It’s important for us to help students recognize when its efficient to skim and skip around a text and when a close careful reading is required is essential. It’s a matter of having a clear purpose and providing examples and supporting students as they engage in each type of reading (noting the similarities and differences). Lots to think about, DeVere!

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