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Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation

Part 7: Attribute #5: Digital readers unconsciously read text on a page or on a screen in an F or Fast-pattern

by Ryan L. Schaaf

Series SynopsisDue to continuous digital bombardment and the emergence of the new digital landscape, today’s youth process information, interact and communicate in fundamentally different ways than any previous generation before them. Meanwhile, many of us, having grown up in a relatively low-tech, stable, and predictable world, are constantly struggling with the speed of change, technological innovation, and the freedom to access the overwhelming sea of information online – all defining characteristics of the digital world of both today and the swiftly-approaching future.

“Books are no more threatened by the Kindle than stairs by elevators.”

Stephen Fry (Comedian, Writer)




Digital readers unconsciously read text on a page or on a screen in an F or fast pattern. Most adults in the western world have been conditioned to unconsciously read text in a Z pattern. Today’s digital generations read in a pattern that’s very different from the way we learned in school.

First, some background: Images have the ability to quickly portray meaning. It only takes 150 milliseconds for the brain to process images and 100 milliseconds more to attach meaning to the images. The eye processes the content of photographs 60,000 times faster than the eye processes and interprets the content of text and words (Burmark, 2002) Seventy percent of our body’s sensory receptors are in our eyes, and 30 percent of the nerve cells in the brain’s cortex are devoted to visual processing (compared to only about 8 percent for touch and about 3 percent for hearing). It turns out we’re all, at our very core, inherently visual learners. So it’s completely natural that today’s students might be far more inclined toward visual processing because their brains and bodies are designed that way. Eighty percent of our information comes through our eyes. Our eyes have the resolution of a 576-megapixel camera, while most high-end digital cameras claim to have a resolution of 24 megapixels. Every second, our eyes take in 72 gigabytes of information. In fact, our eyes are the world’s greatest cameras. They use 86 billion neurons to interpret visual data and bring it to life. As a result, the brain is much more designed for processing visual information than anything else, so it’s completely understandable that today’s students might be far more inclined toward visual processing than text processing.

Recently, it was discovered that because of chronic digital bombardment, digital readers’ eyes move in a very different way than traditional readers’ eyes move when it comes to scanning a page, reading materials, and searching for information. The eyes of traditional readers unconsciously find an intersection approximately one-third of the way down the page, and one-third of the page in from the side. The Greeks called this intersection the golden mean. When traditional readers start reading for information, their eyes read in what is called a Z curve or Z pattern.

They use a simple Z curve if there’s only a small amount of information on a page, and they use a complex Z curve or zigzag pattern that involves a series of Z movements if there’s lots of information on the page. The zigzag pattern is how many of the older generations read large blocks of text.

Image: Z Pattern courtesy of Vanseo Design

However, new research has demonstrated that digital readers don’t read a page the way that older generations do. Scans performed during research at Kent State used heat maps to track the eye movements of readers in different reading configurations, and then summarized the results.

Digital readers first unconsciously skim the bottom of the page and then scan the edges of the page, before they start scanning the page itself for information in what’s called an F or fast pattern. F pattern reading has three components:

  1. Users read in a horizontal movement, usually across the upper part of the content area. This initial element forms the F’s top bar.
  2. Finally, users scan the content’s left side in a vertical movement. Sometimes this is a fairly slow and systematic scan that appears as a solid stripe on an eye-tracking heat map. Other times, users move faster
  3. Next, users move down the page a bit and read across in a second horizontal movement that typically covers a shorter area than the previous movement. This additional element forms the F’s lower bar.

Image: F Pattern Heat Maps courtesy of Nielson Norman Group

Digital readers unconsciously ignore the right side and the bottom half of the page. It turns out, they will only go to the right side or the bottom of the page if and only if they are highly motivated to do so. At most, they will only read about 28 percent of the words on a page—an average of 20 percent is more likely. In fact, you can literally draw a diagonal line from the upper right-hand corner of a page to the lower left-hand corner of a page, and typically, unless you find a way to attract and engage digital readers, they just won’t go below that line.

The conclusion seems to be that the F pattern mimics the way digital readers play video games and surf the web scanning the screen for information.

There are numerous strategies that educators can leverage to take advantage of these new reading behaviors in their classrooms.

First, exhaustive reading is rare, so the most important information should be placed across the top of the page in the first two paragraphs where it will generally be read. Effective materials are designed to stimulate the eyes so they’re naturally drawn to the visual component of materials. Pictorial information increases the speed and retention of your message. Pictures represent information and communicate ideas in completely different ways than words and convey emotions and facts simultaneously. The effect of an image is instantaneous, and viewers respond without conscious thought. Images have now become an integral part of our communications; this has made visual literacy a critical element in today’s visual world. Finally, consider using color in your materials or resources. Research conducted at 3M found the use of color in your materials:

  • Increases willingness to read by up to 80 percent
  • Increases motivation and participation by up to 80 percent
  • Enhances learning and improves retention by more than 75 percent
  • Accounts for 60 percent of the acceptance or rejection of an idea
  • Outsells black-and-white advertising by 88 percent

For additional strategies, please consider purchasing the award-winning book Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation: Strategies and Apps that Work. In our next installment of the series, we will explore the digital generations’ preference for “just-in-time” learning.

Read additional articles in the series:

Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation – Part 1

Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation – Part 2

Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation – Part 3

Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation – Part 4

Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation – Part 5

Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation – Part 6

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