The Internet TESLJournal

The Difficulties That EFL Learners Have with Reading Text on the Web

Min-chen Tseng
Chang Gung University (Taoyuan, Taiwan)
The purpose of this article was to investigate the difficulties of reading text on the web for EFL learners. The major difficulties students experienced when reading text on the web were: they experienced eyestrain, they skipped lines, and they could not take notes or underline any words or text on computer screens.


With the advent of technology, computers have become an indispensable part of daily life. Students access the Internet at home and at school on a regular basis.  They browse different web pages, check emails and chat with friends. While browsing different web pages they take part in a lot of reading activities. The Internet provides new text formats, new ways to interact with the information on the web pages. The new methods of interacting with information could overwhelm some EFL learners in Taiwan, who are taught to read from traditional text printed on paper.

Reading traditional text in the field of ESL/EFL has been well studied over the past few decades. When reading printed text, readers start from the top left-hand corner and finish at the bottom right-hand corner. Readers' eyes move in a straight line, making the reading experience a linear activity. However, the process of reading hypertext is uniquely different (Barnes, 1994). When reading web pages, readers click a hyperlink and then they are led to a different web page. The web pages on the Internet consist of graphics, sounds, pictures, text, animation, and clips of films. Readers read information in scattered bits and pieces not in a textual whole. Their eyes move in a circular motion. According to Ojala (2000), online reading is a non-linear activity. Reading hypertext is different from reading printed text.


Since reading printed text is different from reading text on the web, the purpose of the study was to find the difficulties that EFL learners experienced and provide pedagogical suggestions accordingly.  Students were asked to do reading comprehension exercises on the Internet, and then they were interviewed regarding the reading difficulties they encountered.

The Influential Factors of Reading Text on the Web

Students were asked the influential factors for reading text on the web. The answers were divided into five types.  
  1. Eyestrain and eyes-blurred: thirty students (36%) mentioned that their eyes were strained after staring at the computer screens for a period of time. They also felt their eyes blurred and could not read text clearly.
  2. Others: Sixteen students (18%) pointed out different factors. Three students mentioned they could not think on computer screens, five of them said it was because of habit, four of them said when they read online, they wanted to browse other irrelevant websites, two of them said the radiation of computers affected reading on computer screens, and two of them said the speed of downloading was a critical point.
  3. Background color: fourteen students (16%) pointed out that the background color was a crucial factor that affected reading on computer screens. They did not like a bright background that made their eyes feel uncomfortable.
  4. Lines: thirteen students (15%) said that it was easy to skip lines when reading on computer screens. They sometimes got lost between lines, and had to look for the line they intend to read.
  5. Font size: thirteen students (15%) stated that the words on computer screens were too small. It increased the difficulty in reading.

 The biggest factor of reading text on the web was eyestrain. When students' eyes felt tired, they just skipped the questions. Since their eyes felt uncomfortable, it was tiring to go backwards and forwards among web pages. The second influential factor was the background. Students did not like a bright background. 

The third influential factor is lines and font size. On paper, there are 38 lines on one page using a single space format. A participant can read the questions and find answers from the passage. When the length of the text is not long, some students might still remember where, in the upper, middle or bottom of the page or even which line they saw that particular words or phrases. But on a web page, there could be unlimited lines. When students tried to find a certain word or line, they had to go from the top of the page and look for the answers. They might just get lost in between lines as they mentioned. Therefore, it affected the way the students read in this study. Also, students felt that the words on the web pages were too small. It was fairly tiring for them to read every word on the computer. One particular influential factor listed in "others" was that students thought there were too many websites on the Internet; they would feel like going to other websites and this distracted their attention from the test.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Reading Text on the Web

Students were asked the advantages and disadvantages for reading text on web pages. Their answers were categorized as follows:

Advantages: (Excerpts from Students)

Disadvantages: (Excerpts from Students)    

While reading the text on the computer screens, students pointed out many disadvantages. For instance, they felt tired physically reading words in front of a computer. Also, that it was not convenient to take the computer everywhere, and that they could not focus their attention on the computer screens.

The Difficulties of Reading Text on the Web

Students were asked what the difficulties were for them reading on a computer screen. There were six types of answers.

Pedagogical Implications

The pedagogical implications for teachers are as follows.

The Importance of Selecting Web Pages for EFL Students 

There are too many different kinds of web pages on the Internet. They serve as good resources for leading students into a new topic or doing critical thinking.  However, some of them have fancy backgrounds and pictures, but they are not designed for educational or language learning purposes. Teachers should screen or choose appropriate web sites, which provide clear instructions, and proper content. Thus, students do not need to waste time searching for websites, but instead focus on reading the content of the websites. 

The Importance of Adjusting the Setting of Computer Screens and Web Pages 

From the study, students felt tired reading from computer screens. Students can be taught to adjust the brightness, width, and color contrast on the monitor, and enlarge the font size on the menu bar by themselves in order to find the most suitable screens for their eyes.  

Testing on Paper and Computers:

From the results, students performed better in doing tests on printed on paper than on tests done on a computer screen. When giving students tests on computers, it is important for teachers to notice that the difference of text presentation will affect students' performance. The familiarity of using computers is also a big factor when students do tests on the Internet.

The Importance of Teaching Students How to Read Text on the Web

Students get used to reading on paper, but they are not familiar with reading text on the web. One reason is because it is different from their usual reading habit and the other is they do not know how to read text web pages. Therefore, schools could provide courses that train students how to look for information on the Internet and how to read through it.  

Here are some tips for teachers:
It is not advisable to use computers to teach for one or two hours as students developed eyestrain in this study. It is suggested to combine materials in textbooks and some activities on computer screens. The purpose is to let students' eyes take a rest. Also, the combination of two mediums will make the class more interesting. Alternatively, divide the class into three phases: work-in, work-on, and work-out periods. In the work-in period, provide relevant background information or vocabulary to lead students into the topic. In the work-on period, ask students to read articles on the computer. In the work-out period, some exercises can be designed to test students' comprehension, or ask students to have further discussions. All the exercises used in the three periods can be prepared either on paper or on the Internet. If all the exercises are made on the Internet, eyestrain will be the biggest problem as the results of this study show, and it will impede students' performance.


The Internet is one of the major innovations of the twentieth century. It has had a profound impact on the teaching of foreign languages. Many publications, conferences and meetings are filled with papers and presentations that promote the advantages of teaching and learning with the Internet. However, the results of this study showed the difficulties of reading text of the web for some students. Teachers and researchers have to realize the difference and characteristics in the presentation on computer, and then develop programs or websites suitable for students in learning English. It is hoped the difference can be solved and learners can read text on the web as easily as they read on paper.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 2, February 2008