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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Children Need Both Paper Books & Digital Texts’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 31, 2016 11 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

Which is better for students -- reading paper or reading digitally?

In Part One, Daniel Willingham, Kristin Ziemke, Lester Laminack and Kimberly Carraway contributed responses. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Daniel and Kristin on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Katie Keier, Stacy Nockowitz, Barbara Paciotti and many readers share their thoughts on the topic.

Response From Katie Keier

Katie Keier (@bluskyz) has been a classroom teacher and literacy specialist in grades K-8 for twenty-four years. She is the co-author (with Pat Johnson) of Catching Readers Before They Fall: Supporting Readers Who Struggle, K-4:

Take a minute and think about all that you have read today. Chances are, much of it has been a digital text: a blog post, an online newspaper, a text message, Facebook, Twitter, email, or a book on a Kindle or iPad. Many people still enjoy magazines, newspapers or a book in paper format, but in today’s world, more and more of our interactions with the printed word are in a digital format. So which is better for students - reading paper or reading digitally?

In my kindergarten classroom, I value the importance of both. I don’t see one as being better than the other. For me, it comes down to purpose. I think children need to have ample opportunities to engage in a multitude of texts - digital and otherwise - in order to make conscious choices about what format works best for their purpose or task. For me, I can’t have professional books on my iPad or Kindle. I need to have the paper book to write in, mark up with post-it notes, and be able to quickly refer to a chapter or page when I’m looking for it. A digital professional book does not serve my purpose. In the classroom, I use many large charts and big books for shared reading. I want them to be available to students to read and reread independently. I want children to be able to use wikki-stix and highlighting tape to mark up the text as they find known words or places in the text they want to return. Occasionally we use digital texts on the SMARTboard for shared reading, but these are not as easy to return to independently, so I make sure and have plenty of these texts in paper form for the children to revisit.

Our classroom is full of books. Real books made of paper, to enjoy, to make our room beautiful, to linger over and to touch, hold and yes, smell. (because who doesn’t love the smell of a new book?) We also have books on the ipads and digital libraries for our laptops. But I can’t see digital texts ever replacing my vast collection of children’s books. They add to it, they complement it and they provide another way to get kids to fall in love with reading - but they aren’t better. I don’t see myself ever grabbing an iPad to introduce the new Mo Willems book to my class.

Children need both. They need to read lots and lots of paper books, charts, big books and more paper books. But they also need to have opportunities to read digital texts and be empowered to choose which type of reading works best for them when they are reading independently. One is not better than the other. Children need to be exposed to both and be given many, many opportunities to engage in a variety of texts and formats - digital and paper - as they begin and continue their journey as readers.

Response From Stacy Nockowitz

Stacy Nockowitz has been an educator for 25 years, first as a teacher and now as a school librarian. She holds a Master of Arts in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a Master of Library and Information Science from Kent State University. Stacy is currently the middle school librarian at Columbus Academy in Gahanna, Ohio:

As long as the problems associated with reading on a digital device persist, print reading will remain the better choice for students. This may seem counterintuitive considering how much digital content students interact with every day. But it is the very nature of their regular use of screened devices that makes paper reading preferable for young people. With screens, they skim, they scan, and they just don’t delve deeply into what they’re reading. Distractions abound. Students have real difficulty staying focused on a lengthy digital text when social media or the promise of a cool video is just a click away. In fact, some neuroscientists say that the way our “digital brains” are now developing, it’s possible they are becoming wired to read superficially. With this in mind, it’s easy to understand how concentration and comprehension suffer with digital reading.

Students like being able to see how much progress they make as they read, something that is much more easily accomplished with a book in hand. They also find print books easier to navigate because they can create a mental picture of the text and map their journey through a physical book. Most of all, print reading is better for students because it’s easier to focus and concentrate with print text. American University researcher Naomi Baron found that, ironically, what students like least about reading print might be its greatest strength; it takes longer for students to read print text because they’re reading more carefully.

Researchers are finding what many teachers and librarians already know: digital screens cannot replace an actual book in your hands. Your dog-eared copy of “Lord of the Flies,” with its notes scribbled in the margins, will never beep, ring, or shut off. With a book, there’s nothing between the words on the page and the pictures they make in a student’s mind.

Response From Barbara Paciotti

Barbara Paciotti is a former secondary science teacher & librarian in the Dallas,TX Metroplex, having used paper & digital reading for herself & her students:

Students reading from print (paper) or from electronic (digital) sources isn’t about the textual presentation, but rather the purpose for which the student is reading.

For simple reading of text, as in a novel, an electronic reader serves the purpose as well as, or actually better than the paper version. It’s cheaper & less environmentally damaging to produce & store the digital version than a paper-based, printed-text version, and the electronic version can be highlighted or bookmarked or commented on as easily.

For study purposes, the print version is better: graphics are better quality & aligned with the text and it’s easier to flip back & forth through the pages to refer to previous reading as a reminder. So, textbooks, as much as we’d prefer not, are better served as those same bulky tomes we’re used to.

Reading of quizzes can be better digitally. Electronic presentation via group (like whiteboard) or individualized (like tablet) is easily read, and can also be aural or graphic. Add an electronic response system and feedback is immediate, preserves student privacy (if done properly), and saves the teacher copying & grading time.

Reading of electronic multiple-choice tests enables students to focus more easily. They’re sitting upright, questions are presented one at a time, and after answering, a single new question appears. Students can highlight or use the mouse pointer as a guide and there’s an on-screen calculator. With flat screen monitors, text & graphics are very clear. Contrast that with hunching over the typical 18" x 24" desktop & trying to manipulate a test booklet of several pages, a very dense bubble sheet for answers, and possibly a calculator. Which would you prefer?

Responses From Readers

AJ Sisneros:

I think paper would edge out digital because students are not as familiar with digital tools. My guess is that there is also a memory trick with flipping pages that helps your brain organize information with “where it is in the book”.

However, the ability to hyperlink key words to other sections of the book, the ability to highlight-define words on the fly, and the ability to link to wikis/other online resources will edge out paper text eventually. This isn’t even considering the ability to selectively highlight/bookmark sections without damaging the text and various other digital tools that streamline the process of text review. Once I discovered and learned how to use many of these features, I’ve transitioned almost completely to digital where I can.

Aysun Güneş:

This is a personal choice and I think there is no answer for the whole “which one is better” Actually READING is the best either way you can do it.

Angelene Chritton:

They took most of our printers away at work to save money under the guise of saving paper. I argue that quality of work will suffer and will cost the company more in mistakes/claims, rework and quality reputation. People won’t read as thoroughly digitally. How many times have you thought something was perfect and as soon as you print it, you see something wrong?


Your question of the week has been my research question for the past year.

From the research I’ve done, I’ve found that there is a difference between digital reading and paper reading. We subconsciously associate reading on a screen with superficial, skimming habits. There is a gap between digital comprehension and paper comprehension, particularly when associated with higher-level thinking skills, and while the gap is narrowing as so-called “digital natives” come of age, the gap persists.

As for which is better, I think that without explicit instruction, it depends on your purpose: do you want students to find facts? locate details? Then digital texts will do the trick. Do you want synthesis or analysis? Summary even? Without explicit instruction and guided practice, paper texts are still king.

My ongoing research question is how I can bridge this gap from paper text comprehension to digital comprehension, and what “explicitly teaching reading comprehension with digital texts” looks like. So far, I’m thinking a) metacognitive priming and reflection; b) increasing my student’s stamina of reading digital texts for academic purposes and c) using digital and collaborative annotation tools.


This question is a frustrating one for me because I think that anything that students reading in any fashion is a good thing. Having said this, I think we need to spend time with students discussing the inherent disruptions that reading online can sometimes have so that they have awareness of what works best for them. I find it hard to believe that reading words off a device in a focused manner would be any less effective than reading words off of a page.

The important thing for me is to have students establish a sense of self-awareness so that they understand which is better for them. If they are going to read on a device, they need to do so uninterrupted with all of the alerts that could pop up turned off. If they are unable to deal with the distractions of reading on a device, then they should read from a book. I think the most important thing for educators to help students do is figure out what works best for them. It is not at an either or proposition for me, it is what works best at a given moment and establishing a sense of awareness in the learner regarding what is most productive at a given time.

William Knotek

Strong feelings on this; though, I am totally open-i geek on this topic. I am a reading teacher too. To answer your question, first thing that comes to me? Neither, unless I am assuming it is the next natural step to the circumstance in which I find myself. Neither, unless it helps me keep going. Maybe I want to find out something in which I am really interested. A class project. A great feeling reading a favorite story, a letter, my classmate’s story. So I guess I am not sure where you are coming from. I think there are many forms of communication within which my students are ready to learn, grow. I limit, even kill things like reading, when I put too much on this form of communication. Plays, Song, Dance, Talking, Interviewing an expert, internet google..., social media AND reading a book is an off hand list of all the choices.

Other questions: Is this a question related to computer screen time? I do think many of have too much screen time. It is not healthy. Also, I really think my student AND I are very often healthier when we use computers second, not first. I think I feel I often think deeper!

Thanks to Katie, Stacy and Barbara, and to readers, for their contributions!

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