The science of reading in the digital age

Estimated reading time
3 minutes
7th March 2019
Author: Nick Mason
Posted in: Psychology & Science

Reading is not a natural process but an art we have taught ourselves. It has become a social tool to deliver learning and thought from person to person, culture to culture.

“To completely analyse what we do when we read would almost be the acme of the psychologist’s achievements, for it would be to describe very many of the most intricate workings of the human mind” – Margaret J. Snowling, The Science of Reading: A Handbook

As the digital age surges forward, how we read and absorb information is further evolving. Visual and interactive communication combined with text is becoming key to telling a memorable story. So as marketers we want people to read our content to the end, remember what it was about, who we are, and what we offer. We want our story to stick in the reader’s mind.

Considering the excess of content produced on a daily basis, this becomes a growing challenge for anyone wanting to be heard. Therefore understanding how we read can be vital in determining what content works. As well as how to deliver it most effectively to the desired audience.

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When faced with visuals and text formatted similarly on both an iPad and a static magazine, a one-year-old displays an expectation for interaction. This will without a doubt become the norm for future generations.

How reading has evolved

Reading imparts knowledge in a condensed visual way within a given context. It educates.

Reading is a complex “cognitive process” of decoding symbols to construct or derive meaning (reading comprehension). Reading is a means of language acquisition, communication, and sharing information and ideas.

Some of the earliest forms of writing, such as Sumerian cuneiform, began as characters shaped like the objects they represented — a person’s head, an ear of barley, a fish, all depicted in a meaningful sequence. It was in essence visual storytelling. It communicated something that was of use to the ‘reader’. Textual characters continued to develop further, becoming less elaborate and more linear. They became marks with meaning and were communicated via anything from imprints in clay. Eventually, recognisable text on weighty tomes of paper entered the field.

The invention of the Guttenberg Printing Press in 1450 enabled written content to become accessible to the masses. The ability to create text in a mechanical and repetitive way allowed for faster-paced creation and widespread distribution. Content began to reach far and wide.

Hieroglyphics of Hatshepsut - the history and the science of reading

Reading in a digital world

Reading today infiltrates so many aspects of life, and via the internet – which I guess you could class as a sort of 20th century Guttenberg Press – with worldwide reach. When it comes to digital the process of reading has become a fast-paced thing.

A reader very quickly estimates their interest in a page of writing. She browses the web, deciding on what to read and what to discard with just a few rapid mouse clicks.

It is now crucial that online content grabs and keeps attention by design. Plus, it needs to be accessible across digital channels to have a chance of reaching its desired audience.

By 2020, it is estimated 50% of the workforce will be made up of Millennials. They are digital natives with high expectations for their online experiences. If we want to grab their attention we need to understand how to craft an excellent, digital-first reading environment.

Want to learn more about the science of reading and other psychology-based marketing tips?

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