Reference review — Touching, Tapping… Thinking?

Maureen Walsh is one of the authors of Touching, Tapping... Thinking? Photo from the Australian Government Office for Learning & Teaching.

Maureen Walsh is one of the authors of Touching, Tapping… Thinking? Photo from the Australian Government Office for Learning & Teaching.

The first piece of reading I did on the topic of technology in the classroom was written by Maureen Walsh and Alyson Simpson, scholars from the University of Sydney in Australia. The article is heavy on academic jargon, perhaps not surprisingly given the authors’ history of research and peer review in the area of digital communication in literacy and pedagogy.

In Touching, Tapping… Thinking?, Walsh and Simpson examine the effect of the physicality of touch screens upon the reading experience — previous articles had explored the differences between traditional texts on paper and modern milieu such as computer screens. Results fell in line with other research, all of which questioned the already fluid definition of literacy, and suggested a difference between linear communication and the multimodal intake of information that comes with online reading.

The emergence of portable touch screens (on tablets and smart phones) adds a new wrinkle, as tactile interaction now moves from the indirect, limited motion of a mouse to the multifaceted, direct touch of fingers upon the text itself. Swiping, pinching, expanding and flicking pages all present physical contact with the digital page.

Literature is divided on whether touch pads provide positive or negative influences upon elementary school learning. The authors of this paper observed 11-year-old students with iPad tablets and a website called Corkulus. Through this site, students were able to collect texts, photos and videos in order to explain the life cycle of a star. Connections between textual and visual elements were described “as a sort of mental hyperlinking” (153).

Commentary after the jump.

Walsh and Simpson assert that among other steps, students “found web links, copied, pasted and filed these as hyperlinks in their notes on screen.” This is listed as evidence of “[engagement] in effective reading and literacy practices” (ibid.), which enabled students to produce their own text “generated through the cumulative processing of cognitive understanding with the material affordances of screens and their modalities” (154).  Gestures and movement add a dynamism to the reader-text experience, one which may contribute to enthusiasm for a given subject.

Admittedly, I have little knowledge (or memory) of traditional elementary school-aged literacy building techniques; however, this activity seems to encourage typesetting and page design rather than reading and writing. In my (non-measured) experience, the Pinterest pages of adults — whether they be native speakers of English or international users of the language — rarely indicate advanced levels of textual literacy. In fact, reliance upon searches (through engines such as Google, Yahoo, Bing!, et al) by ESL students sometimes contribute to lengthwise plagiarism with limited understanding of the subject at hand.

Walsh and Simpson admit that their studies beg the question “What is literacy?” Their results suggest that their work with touch screens is in line with research into gaming; meaningful multimodal connections can be built between physical movement and mental cognition. However, they have not convinced this reader that this interaction is building textual literacy so much as creating an outlet for digital regurgitation.


Walsh, Maureen, and Alyson Simpson. “Touching, Tapping … Thinking? Examining The Dynamic Materiality Of Touch Pad Devices For Literacy Learning.” Australian Journal Of Language & Literacy 36.3 (2013): 148-157. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Jan. 2014.


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