MA Reflections – Reading the screen

One of the great advantages for distance learners these days is the accessibility of academic journals online. Some are entirely free, such as Language Learning & Technology, CALL-EJ and The Reading Matrix (see this comprehensive list by Talk to the Clouds for more free journals relevant to ELT), and others, like the ELT Journal and System, will most likely be available to you for free as long as you are a registered student. They are full of articles (usually downloadable in pdf format) covering a wide range of topics and disciplines and, together with a few well-chosen books, can provide the basis for most of your reading and research.

However, this also brings with it a problem and that is reading off the computer screen. As I began my first module last year, many of my fellow students commented on the forums that they found reading files displayed on their computer screen to be difficult. Common complaints were: getting a headache from staring at the bright screen; stiff neck/back from sitting hunched over a laptop; not being able to highlight/annotate pdfs; being ‘distracted’ by the internet (and Twitter!); and missing the ‘feel’ of paper.

After a narrow escape from the car, poor bunny found himself trapped in a different set of lights.
Image by Toms Baugis

I have to admit, I was among them in the beginning. I was fine with browsing the forums but reading the word doc given with each unit and the various articles was proving tough. I also agreed with those bemoaning their inability to make their mark on the articles themselves – having the file on computer and notes on paper (or a separate file) didn’t seem very efficient. I also found my mouse cursor constantly drifting towards my email client and Firefox (I hadn’t discovered Twitter or blogging back then) when I should have been concentrating on my studies.

And so, I started to print to read.( I should stress at this stage that I’m not one of those who misses the ’feel’ of the stuff. In fact, I find such claims amusing and my favourite retort to those who say they prefer the touch and paper and ink is to say that I’m a traditionalist and I miss quill and parchment! “There’s nothing like sprinkling dust on a document to dry it off – it just doesn’t feel finished otherwise.” Smile with tongue out). This seemed like a good idea at first as I cold carry a printout to work with me to read in free lessons rather than lugging my laptop in. In truth, however, printing wasn’t an ideal solution as I was acutely aware of how much paper I was using. I tried printing two pages per sheet but the small print seemed to give me more of a headache than the screen!

I decided I would just have to get used to it. My solution the headache/discomfort problem was to finally heed the advice I heard (but generally ignored) since I was a kid and first got hooked on the Commodore 64: after 45 minutes at the computer, take a break for 15. I found this was also beneficial for clearing my head and taking stock of the notes and articles I’d been reading. Quite often, concepts I’d been struggling with or connections I couldn’t see would come to me while I was having a cuppa or taking in the view from my balcony (not that there are any great views in Ankara!).

“That was never 45 minutes!”
Image by my dad, probably!

As far as scribbling random thoughts, underlining quotes and highlighting paragraphs goes, I was alerted to a great tool by a fellow student on the MA TESOL forums: Foxit Reader. The free version of this programme allows you to highlight, underline and add notes to virtually any pdf. Perfect! Another great little programme I found was Files Lite, an app which allows you to read documents on your iPhone/iTouch (if you’re lucky enough to have one). This proved to be perfect for background reading while out of the house. No need for a laptop or a plastic folder. I just got my iTouch out and started to read. (Of course, the recent iPad would make reading on the go much easier, but if you’ve got one of those, you’re a lucky git!)

I’ve found now that I’m used to reading from the screen. It comes much more easily now than it did last year, that’s for sure. I’m doing my bit environmentally by not printing pages and pages of course unit notes and articles. I’m even making my personal study notes on the computer now as well! I try to stay self-disciplined and make sure study time is study time with no aimless internet browsing unless I’m done for the day or taking a break (although I do have to shut down Tweet Deck  - that little pop-up box is too darn distracting!). Anyway, time to get back to studying. Those articles aren’t gonna read themselves!


  1. Hi,

    I'm one of those lucky gits with an iPad... I've taken to saving articles as PDFs for offline reading (via Good Reader - also available for the iPhone and iPod Touch, I think) and annotating them via iAnnotate - you can even clip text out and paste into another document if you need to.

    In the end (and with the amount of reading and research I do on a weekly basis), I reckon I'm saving quite a bit of paper between doing that and not taking notes on lovely blank pieces of paper, onyl to lose them or throw them away when things are crossed off - and the only thing I print these days are boarding passes.

    Interestingly, I've noticed that the iPad actually makes certain things quicker - using an RSS reader on the iPad is quicker to skim than using Google Reader, for example.

    I know most people can't afford these gadgets (mine goes down as R&D for work) but the iPad for me has proved itself time and time again as a a useful, efficient, time-saving and enjoyable piece of electronic kit - almost exactly the tool I've been waiting for for ages.

    Perhaps reading from screens isn't for everybody, but it works for me - and coupled with something like Dropbox...

    Anyway, mustn't get too excited and that!


  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment Gavin.

    An article I read last year (I'll have to get back to you on the exact reference) quoted a study from the early 1990s that demonstrated L1 readers read at a significantly slower rate when looking at a screen compared to paper. However, the study was recreated 10 years on and produced different results as people were reading much more easily from the screen. This was put down to a number of factors beyond merely 'getting used to it', namely better screen resolutions, flatscreen monitors as opposed to those old chunky ones, different fonts, colours etc. and more user control in adjusting the size of the document on screen. I imagine that the iPad must make it even easier as you described. Alas, I'm locked in a disput with my wife at present as to whether an iPad for me or an iPhone for her should be our next major tech purchase!

    Good observation by the way - "The only thing I print these days are boarding passes." I wouldn't have a printer at all if it wasn't for the fact that it's attached to my scanner!

  3. Have you tried Mendeley? It was specifically designed for researchers. Does all the above and lots more. It lets you highlight, use virtual post its, keep notes, imports tags from journals ready to export to your essays as citations, and keeps an online version of your PDF library to access from any computer. Excellent tool. Best of all, it is totally cross platform. I am using on Ubuntu Linux but there is a Mac and Windows version out there too. I have hear good things about people doing exactly what Gavin describes with iPhones i.e. getting papers read to them while driving. Would love an iPad but think I will wait until a slightly more open piece of hardware comes along. Be nice to know that name of that paper about reading from a screen.

  4. David,

    This is what I would have written about as a guest on your blog. Thanks for asking and bringing this topic up!

    As you know, my experience with onscreen/offscreen reading for the MA was the reverse. I've been reading onscreen for years, and I've read a lot, but have never experienced any problems. So, when I started the MA, it was clear that I would read onscreen, especially given the amount of articles to read and being environmentally friendly and that …
    I soon found out that there were plenty of tools for annotating PDF documents (Preview, which came with the MAC OS; Adobe Reader, Skim for Mac, …). So, I happily read and annotated on screen.

    But then came the assignment time and when trying to pull everything together and write my assignment, I got completely stuck. One major reason for my problem was that I lacked an overview of what I had read. On screen, I could only see one or two pages at a time of hundreds of pages relevant to my writing and they all looked pretty much the same. I didn't have an overview. I needed the third dimension and the ability to quickly leaf through the pages, to sort the articles and put them in different stacks… Simply glancing over them gave me an idea where I could find certain information, how everything fit together, etc. So, once I printed out the articles, I was able to write fluently and coherently :-)


  5. Peter - I have heard of Mendeley and had in installed on my old laptop. I never had a proper look at it though in terms of how to export citations etc. I might have a look again though.

    Nergiz - I have to confess to scribbling a notes down on paper with regards to articles and page numbers I wanted to reference around assignment time! One other feature I like about Foxit Reader is that each article can be open in a different tab, which makes jumping back & forth a little easier. Btw, any ideas for guest posts are always welcome. Even covering similar ground would be great - a different perspective is always useful ;)

    Thanks for commenting!

  6. Hi DavidD
    Great blog! - got the link from one of Nergiz' comments on Blackboard in EDTech 70050. Thanks for advice on Foxit Reader - I've just downloaded it and will give it a go.


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