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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 008-131-E
Division Number: III.
Professional Group: School Libraries and Resource Centres
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 131.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Reading skills and electronic

Institut Universitairé de formation des maitres
Jaunay-Clan, France


The reading of electronic documents leads every trainer to ponder on the specific skills that are required for its achievement.

Reading to search information already requires the mastery of different codes, but reading on screen is difficult all the more, for it is disturbed by different items (buttons, directional informations...) and the text must be read on a vertical level, not horizontally as it is usually done, thus modifying the reader's spatial representations.

In printed documents, the access to information is meant through intermediate tools, like index pages or tables of contents. The hypertextual functions avalaible in electronic books deeply change the reader's progress in the information corpus. They introduce interactivity and individual course. But the immateriality of supports causes a deficiency in evaluating the volume of information or data which is available.

In new information supports, searching information is possible together with gathering, to keep memory of it somewhere, or to work upon it later on. The reader becomes thus a writer, and can even take place in the debate.

The development of information and communication technologies reaffirm the position of the written word in our society. And the educational systems must be aware of it to prevent pupils from a new kind of illettrism by proposing adequate training sessions to help pupils to develop plural reading skills.


The major introduction of information and communication technology in our society has brought with it a new dimension to the act of reading. Without totally replacing reading of books, journals or even articles in an encyclopedia printed on paper, the reading of electronic documents today poses new problems and new requirements for the reader.

Various information technologies themselves modify the practice of reading because a message which appears on the screen is often accompanied by an audio-visual support. Such objections had earlier been raised in the case of illustrated documentary works.

However, in a traditional paper publication, the various forms of information offered to the reader are conceived in such a manner they should be read, either as stand-alone documents, or as a complement to the main message.

On the double page of a documentary publication the eye may switch from text to the "paratexts" - the latter being either in forms of icons or other illustrations ; and this change is according to the choice or desire of the reader. Each element is available and offered directly for his or her choice.

In an electronic document the situation evolves very frequently in quite a different manner. On the one hand because an audiovisual message may be totally redundant. This is the case, for example, with a text which one may equally read on the screen or listen to - where it is simultaneously read by an anonymous voice.

On the other hand, because the reader may in different situations either make, or not make, the choice by pressing a particular function choice to carry out a range of activities, for example :

This new representation of the written word on the screen immediately modifies the whole context and its relations replacing a juxtaposition of text and paratext present in one visual field by a specific position in a logical architecture which has been designed to control the organisation of the computer data.


Before considering the practicalities of reading and information recovery on the screen it is pertinent to consider in more detail the principal characteristics of informative documents. They are typically documents carrying a number of different codes which include text, diagrams graphs, tables, sketches and photos (even animated images) which require inevitably competence in understanding each of these codes. They are also polymorphic (stand-alone texts, illustrations, labels, notes, summaries, questions etc.) and in each case require different thought processes in the reader. Furthermore there is the question of the presentation in terms of layout. The information might be signposted by spaces, borders, colours, logos and each element has its own rules.

It is easy to confirm that in the majority of educational systems, learning to read is initially carried out by means of narrative text. This background means that many information professionals will confirm that there are significant difficulties in reading informative text when they are first met in a library situation.

By definition, there cannot be an information culture without mastering the different types of reading style. When reading an information document this skill is, in general, no longer the reading of a complete text but rather a selective reading where the objective is the retrieval of pertinent information with regard to a particular research subject.

In recent years, teacher librarians in the French high school system have collaborated with teachers in establishing pedagogic scenarii in order to encourage the pupils to develop these particular skills. The supports in the educational system, until recently, have been generally paper based, dictionaries, encyclopedias, manuals, and documents.

The substantial introduction in the library and information centers of other forms of documentation such as CD ROMs and the development of access to the Internet have raised some new problems. How should appropriate teaching steps be designed, to allow pupils to develop appropriate reading skills required for an efficient use of these new information stores?


Reading on the screen is carried out on a vertical and not a horizontal mode and this is a significant modification in space. It is linked to the flow of information in a window and is thus much closer to the reading of an ancient parchment scroll, as it was unrolled, rather than the turning of a page in a medieval manuscript or later printed book. The act of reading itself is interrupted by a number of elements external to the text being read (buttons, information, the structure of the work ...)

Since the invention of printing, the presentation of written work on paper has been constrained by the dimension of the page and by its lay-out in columns - these being typically adapted to the text and not to images. The latter are present only in a very limited manner in terms of illustrations.

With the screen, all these factors are inverted. The screen is better adapted to the development of images and these take pride of place leaving text in the position of subtitles or comments.

In certain encyclopedias the stock of images and text are separated. Thus one can scan a subject uniquely looking at these images and possibly combining these with an audio text. The fact that all elements of the text are digitalized using the same code implies that all messages have the same roots. On the screen is one reading a text or an image of the text ? The reader needs to develop new approaches in order to best use the information read on the screen. A discrimination in terms of the type of information becomes a critical element in reading competence.

The structure of information in the interior of the work is itself modified. In a paper-based work, since the output is organised in a series of chapters, the content may very easily be indexed by reference to a particular page. The concept of a page is a familiar reference point for the reader and this competence is essential in order that information may be recovered. However, in the electronic document the reader is in control of the way in which the text may be split up or the form that he wishes it to be displayed on the screen.

In this case what happens to the classic reference points? Up to the present, it is important to note that despite the vertical unfolding of an electronic text it continues to have references relevant to a book (page numbering, indexes etc.). Thus we stand in front of a hybrid of the parchment scroll and the paginated form and this requires a diversity of reading approaches in order to achieve an appropriate interpretation.

A further effect lies in the juxtaposition on the screen of information, which is part of the basic text and that which links back to the structure of the work or elements thereof. This allows rapid movement from one part part to another of the work. In paper documents there is a relatively uniform codification representing the key reference points of the book - typically found in the index - and which are accessible either at the beginning or the end of the work.

Using such reference elements requires a permanent to and fro between the index and the information being researched.

In electronic documents these key elements are most often present simultaneously on the screen and they are often presented in different manners - often on a left margin but also occasionally as a series of separate elements at the bottom of the screen. Furthermore these keys are rarely constant because depending on the page which is being shown the structural elements may themselves change.

This is a direct consequence of the type of structure of information available in the work. When the reader is present in an open file where a certain number of pieces of information from the work are shown, the options offered refer to a number of other available documents. It is even in certain cases possible that it proves impossible to identify the precise document in which the reader finds himself by any specific reference to information on the screen.

One of the competences required in reading in such a situation is to understand how the system may vary. There is no longer a fixed transferable reference system and the reader must be able to identify the different types of information which are offered to him. This requires, on his part, a much greater understanding of the rules which govern the information world and the document itself.

It also implies an ability to identify the icons and buttons which permit either proceeding further into the body of the information, or to moving back to earlier reference. But it also requires an understanding of the mechanisms by which the information is presented on the screen (total page, bookmark etc.).

Finally, it permits the identification of the written elements or icons and thus provides the opportunity to manipulate the text ; to select all or part, to print it, to copy it to a storage location, or to copy it to another file for further processing.


In documentary texts, periodicals, and paper based reference works, we have seen that access to information usually requires a constant to and fro between the index and table of contents, and the work itself. Beyond the change of approach required by the necessary different presentation of these keys on the screen, the functionalities of hypertext, to be found in electronic documents, totally changes the methods of accessing elements of the work. In fact they totally eliminate the need to use these keys in order to navigate from one part of the work to another. As soon as he identifies a particular piece of text, the reader may access a complementary piece and either superpose it or attach it beside the original piece. Furthermore, by a simple click, he may quit the first piece of information to access another piece which he has decided to review. It suffices that the designer of the electronic work has indexed the totality of the significant elements in the work and this is generally the case.

The functionality of hypertext thus introduces a level of interactivity and individualization to the research route. Each individual can read an electronic document as he himself wishes. There is no longer an overall view of the text but only of elements, portions of the text, within which he may make his own selection. Reading thus consists of choosing and of building a network of relationships within the text which may itself be linked with other data. The reader may integrate words and images according to his personal understanding and develop a permanent reconstruction of the information according to his own wishes.

The electronic document is no longer monolithic as is the case with the book as such. It is flexible and may be seen as a card game in which each element is laid down independently in front of the reader. The latter no longer needs to follow the traditional approach to reading in order to move through the text. He can construct his own preferred text according to the route he himself has chosen as he reads.

However, this fluidity in the support is not offered without any problems. It implies a lack of ability to show the totality of information accessible. A reader who finds himself in front of an encyclopedia presented in many volumes immediately has some impression of the totality of the information which is accessible. He has equally an immediate feedback of the share of the total information which he has himself identified using the index.

The reader in front of the screen has no idea of the proportion of the total information that he has accessed. Even if he has some indication when using a CD-ROM in knowing that this corresponds to a multi-volume encyclopedia (even if this is very approximate), such a concept is quite impossible when he accesses a database on-line. The text is not only dematerialized but has no geographical point of identification either. One has no idea where or in what form it exists. The reader is carried in a sort of current which appears and disappears often without leaving any trace. In such a cyberspace, messages flow and information is of all types. It is very frequently the case that information read on a particular day may never be recovered in the same form subsequently. The reader does not even know whether it has been placed in a different reference frame or whether it has just disappeared and is lost forever. The reader thus must be aware of this instability of the information perused and work out appropriate strategies in order to preserve the route of his reading.


When he approaches an electronic document the reader is using an intelligent system which can carry out a certain number of automatic tasks for him (full text searches, storing certain notes, correction of grammar, automatic indexing etc.).

With these new supports, information consultation is supported by the possibility of recovery of the information and saving it for re-working later. The reader thus becomes equally the writer and the information set is at least as much a notebook as a work to be read. These functions are not a true help to the reader unless he is capable of making use of them. Beyond the simple mechanical act he needs to understand what he is doing in selecting information, whether it be copying an extract from the work in order to create a document, or adding a personal note to an original text and memorizing the whole. The reader/writer needs thus to develop competence in the language as is a requirement for all writing. He needs to add to this an understanding of the functional logic of the computer tool as well as that of the programs being used (word processing among others).

With the use of the Internet this requirement becomes even more elaborate, since the reader may make contact with the author and become involved in real time debate. However, an inexperienced reader often finds himself with the difficulty of identifying this author. Again there are no longer the well understood references which enable the reader to evaluate the quality and scientific validity of the information which is offered. The wide diversity of sources available requires substantial analytical capability in order to distinguish true information from anecdotes. Indeed in this context each individual becomes the author of his own text and there is no longer a definitive bible. Each text and work may evolve each day according to the wishes of the authors.

Furthermore, once it is possible to access hypertext, every act of reading is a potential writing act as well. The new and different routes chosen by the reader may become incorporated in the structure of the work. He thus becomes a co-author because he may be able to modify the text by following a series of different operations.


What training is required for developing reading skills and information research in this type of environment?

It seems evident that in order to achieve such competence in information technology, the pupil should be able to transfer a competence in reading on one particular support to another. The electronic documents in themselves have not modified the intellectual access to information, they have particularly modified the presentation, extended the scope and have made such research more rapid due to the possibilities of calculation found in the computer.

The educator, and in this case in particular the French teacher librarian, is operating in the documentation center due to his or her professional competence in analyzing the functionality o the tools and specificity of the support systems. Consequently he is able to put in place pedagogic scenarii in order to permit the pupils to acquire appropriate skills.

In the majority of cases, both tools and supports have been developed by sector and training has the objective of achieving a certain level of competence within this sector. It is pertinent to raise the question as to whether this is the best approach in order to achieve a transfer of competence across sectors. The above method of thinking is similar to classic educational systems where each competence is defined by a specific field, independent of the use which might be made in a neighbouring sector. What similarities and indeed what differences will the pupil identify between the use of a summary and the index of a documentary work or of a paper-based encyclopedia and the use of an information source on CD ROM or a distant data base?

It is high time to look for the establishment of an educative process beyond the simple document where the objective will be the acquisition of competence in reading which is transferable for to all document types. Appropriate educative steps will offer the pupil the chance to analyze and compare information presented in many different manners. Today this seems to be the best route for him to develop competence in interpreting many different information forms, which will be indispensable in the information society.

In conclusion it appears clearly that the development of information technology and electronic documents has reaffirmed the predominant place of the written word in our society. The illiterate individual today would have major difficulty in finding a role because we live in a world in which the written word is everywhere, despite the appearance that there is a preponderance of images.

It is currently received opinion that those who are fully competent in traditional written forms may equally learn modern forms on the screen, but this is not a necessary conclusion. A new type of illiterate individual may appear in the near future in western societies. He will be unable to read efficiently material presented on the screen and will not understand the codes and specificities of this presentation.

The educative system needs to take into account this new requirement in order to permit the next generation to be able to access the different types of reading required by an environment, which is currently in mutation. In so far as this concerns information professionals, they should all be active in developing appropriate methods of interaction in order to diversify the methods of use of the documentary resources.