Sarah Bro Trasmundi, Associate Professor at the University of Southern Denmark, provides a fascinating look at reading in the age of digitalisation and how media shape the reader’s thinking

With the increase of digitalisation in education, it is not surprising that students’ reading practices have changed dramatically over the past 30 years. While reading was previously assumed to be simply the solitary study of ancient tomes, now researchers realise that the acquisition of knowledge and competencies can be obtained through a myriad of different approaches and media. This technological development gave rise to new reading skills, but also put modern reading practice under pressure. For example, research shows that modern students encounter more difficulties with longer, complex texts.

University students today read fewer academic texts and read less for pleasure than the previous generation. Students report that they struggle with silent, individual reading and, thus, are less trained in close reading as a transferable competence. Dr Sarah Bro Trasmundi and her colleagues at the University of Southern Denmark’s Centre for Human Interactivity suggest that since reading affords complex thinking, stimulates the imagination and the senses, and supports sincerity and openness to great ideas as the foundation of society and communality, we should investigate how exactly readers (fail to) generate these experiences to make a case for a renewed focus on reading in higher education. Based on recent studies, they explain the importance of investigating:

1) how students organise their reading environment,

2) the function of the body – and not just eyes and brains – during reading, and

3) the different affordances that emerge from a material engagement with the texture of a book or a screen.

Sarah Bro Trasmundi and her research team investigate those dimensions systematically in a video-ethnographic study. They observe university college students over one year to investigate what actually happens during reading to generate new understandings of the main constraints that characterise modern, and often digitalised, reading practices.

Beyond the reader’s brain

The research is built on the idea that reading is embodied and that cognitive processes involved in reading are distributed across the reader’s brain, body and contexts. The distributed and embodied view of reading involves a redefinition of reading, including new approaches to studying how reading is managed in both digital and analogue reading settings.

While reading traditionally is thought of as a silent and inward act of mental interpretation where the reader sits still, scans a page, and absorbs information, Sarah Bro Trasmundi and her colleagues at the Centre for Human Interactivity suggest that reading is treated as active, embodied and based on imagining others, and self in a world of possibilities, rather than about narrow, silent encoding and decoding processes.

Studying reading as embodied and distributed opens up new views on how the body, as well as a reader’s personal life experiences, can be used to manage reading activity. Specifically, Sarah Bro Trasmundi and colleagues explore how the materiality of the text and the ability to manipulate the text and the setting during reading impacts on the reading experience and learning outcome: how we use hands to fetch the text, fingers to turn the pages or touch the keyboard, the voice to bring forth aesthetic and rhythmic flow and, as we experience the results, write notes, imagine sounds, use gestural and visible expression and give structure to information.

In the dataset, the research team have identified how readers engage differently with different media and how that engagement relates to the readers’ ability to understand and control the reading flow, as well as the degree of enacting experience during the task. The team combines video observation of different embodied reading strategies with personality tests, interview data and physiological measures. “In that way, we can correlate physiological alterations with a reader’s display of emotional change, such as frustration and relief, for instance. And of course, we are interested in how such results relate to the different reading practices, including reading on different media,” Sarah Bro Trasmundi explains.

A reader’s voice

Once we come to understand the function and value of applying different embodied strategies, and what different media afford, we can use that knowledge to help students establish more efficient reading practices. Expected outcomes of such interventions include an increase in students’ academic performance, student satisfaction with education, student retention and graduation rates. It is also expected that more efficient reading practices will result in students feeling more confident and prepared for their careers after graduation.

One interesting outcome of a preliminary study conducted by Sarah Bro Trasmundi and Professor Stephen Cowley pivots on how voicing and simulating voicing evokes a history of talking and hearing others read in ways that allow for creativity, imagination and empathy to emerge. By drawing on the experience of hearing oneself and others give voice to texts, readers can enact different perspectives and treat reading in different ways which are observed in intonation and gaze, for instance. Often readers use active looking to evoke phenomena which are not there. This evocation of the absent, they suggest, enacts imagination.

The Centre for Human Interactivity is now beginning to develop a rich understanding of how students embody their reading. The research team aims to use those results to inform both teachers and students about how reading can be managed and which media best serve different tasks.

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Associate Professor, PhD
University of Southern Denmark
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