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Teaching Opinion

Response: Reading Digitally vs. Reading Paper

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 28, 2016 16 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

This week’s question is:

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

We were all supposed to live in a Star Trek world with all reading done electronically and paper books, including textbooks, an antiquated curiosity. How’s that working out for us these days, and should it be a future we continue to strive for?

Daniel Willingham, Kristin Ziemke, Lester Laminack and Kimberly Carraway explore that topic today in this post. 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.

You might be interested in a recent Education Week article, Screens vs. Print: Does Digital Reading Change How Students Get the Big Picture?, as well as a recent post I published at one of my other blogs that’s titled New Software Makes Text Easier To “Read.”

Response From Daniel Willingham

Daniel Willingham is professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, and the author of several books, most recently Raising Kids Who Read. His website is www.danielwillingham.com:

Reading experiences vary. Students read different texts, and for different purposes. Students vary in their background knowledge, reading skills, and confidence. With such diversity of experience, you’d expect that the answer to a question like “screen or paper?” would be murky, at best. Yet it’s not. The research literature consistently shows a small cost to comprehension when students read from a screen.

This conclusion was drawn as early as the 1970s and ‘80s, but the question has been revisited in the last five years, and for good reasons. Screens are of much higher quality now, and todays ereaders are designed to recreate the layout and look of text on paper. Yet the new studies show that paper still wins.

The comparison has most often been made in college students reading academic materials. In these studies students are asked to read a passage from an electronic textbook and then answer questions about the passage, either with or without access to the text. The consistent finding is that reading on paper is more efficient: that is, comprehension is the same, but students are able to read the paper version more quickly (Ackerman & Lauterman, 2012; Connell et al, 2012; Daniel & Woody, 2013). When experimenters limit reading time, comprehension is better with the paper version (Chen et al, 2014).

There are fewer studies of K-12 students reading academic texts, but at least two report the same finding: paper beats screens (Kim & Kim, 2013; Mangen et al, 2013). For this reason I’ve elsewhere suggested that educators move cautiously when considering electronic textbooks (Daniel & Willingham, 2012).

One might expect different results for fiction or light non-fiction. After all, textbooks contain difficult, unfamiliar information and lots of it. Students usually read them for the purpose of learning and remembering. That’s not true of the books you would typically download for your Kindle. They wouldn’t be as information-dense, and you would read them for pleasure, not to memorize.

Fewer studies have compared screen and paper when reading narratives, but existing studies echo the textbook studies--paper is better (Rasmusson, 2015; Zucker et al, 2009). One study reported readers are less likely to say they are “transported” to the fictional world when reading on a screen (Mangen & Kuiken, 2014).

It’s important to bear in mind, however, that these studies have only measured comprehension, and that the screen disadvantage is small. Screens may hold other advantages--ease of access, for example, or portability--that make for a better overall reading experience. Certainly, people seem to love their ereaders--since 2011, Amazon has sold more ebooks than paper books.

To capture a snapshot of readers’ more global experience, researchers have conducted surveys posing the simple question “Do you prefer reading on paper or screen?”

And with that question screens, at last, look a little better--but not for academic reading. When it comes to textbooks, students want paper (Foasberg, 2014; Mizrachi, 2015; Olsen et al, 2013; Shepperd, Grace & Koch, 2008). In some studies, students report greater fatigue after reading electronic textbooks, so that, as much as the comprehension difference, may drive their preference (Woody, Daniel & Baker, 2010).

But students like screens for leisure reading (Foasberg, 2014) and report that they appreciate the convenience of ereaders when travelling, or when they don’t want others to know what they are reading (Scholastic Publishers, 2014).

The final bit of the puzzle will be to determine why reading from a screen is a bit tougher, and why that difficulty seems to be exacerbated as the material becomes more fact-laden (Rasmussen, 2015). At this point we can only guess. Anecdotal evidence points to the role of spatial information in comprehension and memory. It’s long been known that, when reading, spatial information seems to hitch a free ride--we can remember where something appeared in a book or even on a page, even though we did not much think about it when reading (Hasher & Zacks, 1979). People seem to feel that reading from an ebook lacks that feeling of spatial localization. We need further research for more definitive answers.

References for Dan’s post can be found here.

Response From Kristin Ziemke

Kristin Ziemke (@KristinZiemke) is the co-author of Amplify: Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-5 Classroom and Connecting Comprehension and Technology:

We know the best way to improve reading proficiency is to spend more time with text and so we must afford our students every opportunity to do this. For me, it’s not a debate of print versus digital, but instead an investigation into how we can guide students to become better readers across all types of text. We give them both and then teach them to navigate each effectively.

For the last 40 years, we’ve known what our students need to become proficient lifelong readers. Volume, choice, response and explicit instruction have become the pillars of workshop classrooms around the world. And yet, we continue to refine our reading instruction to better meet the needs of our students.

We need to apply the same principles of volume, choice and explicit instruction to digital reading too. Just because our kids have grown up with devices doesn’t mean they know how to use them. Digital reading is different than print reading and our minilessons on paper text don’t always translate seamlessly to reading on a device. We must teach our students to navigate, interact and apply thinking strategies with text on screen. Then we need to observe, reflect and respond when understanding breaks down and reteach as necessary.

Too often when we send a child to read on a device it’s task oriented, “Go to National Geographic Kids and read the post about tsunamis. Then meet with your small group to discuss.” We need to make time for choice digital reading and guide our kids to know a set of websites and apps that are appropriate and interesting. We provide students time to read, model and discuss what makes reading go well for us on either platform and guide students to understand the “why” behind what they choose to read.

As reading evolves we expand our definition of what it means to read and look for all the options available to build comprehension. As media becomes ever more present in our daily life we teach kids to read images and video. We model how to view a short video clip with a wide-awake mind and how to annotate media just as we would a piece of text. We teach students to reread a movie by pausing and watching a selection again to deepen understanding.

Today the possibility for response is infinite as we add new multimodal digital tools that invite students to share their learning in a way that makes sense to them. Whether writing on a sticky note or via a video book review, kids create to tell their story. And that creation piece is what inspires students to use their new knowledge, gather feedback and revise and refine their thinking as they go.

My hope is that we can move into a place where we’re no longer defined by labels like media literacy, digital literacy, or print literacy and instead get to a place where we simply focus on LITERACY. Read, research, write, view, ask, create, share--and then do it all again to learn more. For me, it’s not a print versus digital debate; instead, it’s kaleidoscopic in nature. We use all the resources available and coach kids to interact, think and respond effectively.

Response From Lester Laminack

Lester Laminack, Professor Emeritus, Western Carolina University now works as a full time writer and consultant. He is an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English and served as co-editor of the NCTE journal Primary Voices and as editor of the Children’s Book Review Department. His publications include several professional books and six children’s books. His newest book, Writers ARE Readers: Flipping Reading Strategies into Writing Instruction (Heinemann) is now available:

As the 2015-2016 school year opens every student enrolled up through 11th grade will have been born in the 21st Century. These students have never lived in a world without touch screens and voice activated search features, digital texts and instant information. They know the glow of an e-reader and seem to enter the world knowing to swipe their tiny fingers across the screen of a tablet. When confronted with the need for information even the youngest ones respond, “Ask Siri” or “just Google it.” They are accustomed to information available in seconds, skimming texts and scrolling through the screen to find bits that interest them or answer their questions. And perhaps they are in the habit of taking information at face value without critical examination.

Recently I was conferring with a 7-year-old who was using his iPad to research LeBron James. I asked what he had discovered so far and how he planned to organize that information. He gave me some interesting information including the “fact” that LeBron was killed in an auto accident in Ohio in 2006. As I sat with him to visit some of those pages it became apparent that my little friend had spelled LeBron several different ways as he searched. That, of course, turned up all sorts of information, most of which was completely irrelevant to his purpose and some of which was simply erroneous (e.g. LeBron James is alive and well at the time of this writing).

Following a review of several articles and research summaries it seems there is no definitive answer regarding which is “better.” Some point to the need for longitudinal studies while others suggest that comprehension is better when students read paper texts. One concern mentioned frequently is the lack of “deep reading” with digital text. The suggestion here is that students are more apt to skim and scroll with a digital text and more likely to remain focused in the paper text. In addition, there are reports that students prefer the ability to manipulate paper and flip back and forth between pages as information is revealed and their understanding of the text takes shape.

While we could argue the merits of each I believe the answer to this in not an “either/or” situation. Rather I am convinced it must be “both/and”. I believe our energy should be devoted to generating the conditions that make reading and information both appealing and engaging. Our classroom and school libraries need to be places where books stand tall in the stacks and face out in displays and on the tops of bookcases. Students need the opportunity to sit with a single book and pour over the images and soak up the language. They need to be able to flip the pages and place a sticky note on a spot they want to come back to. Likewise they need access to the instant information and quick comparisons they can find with a few keystrokes, touches or swipes. They need the opportunity to adjust the font size, alter the layout and stretch an image for a close up look. As readers we need access. We need choices. We need variety.

Response From Kimberly Carraway

Kimberly Carraway, EdM, a learning specialist and educational consultant focusing on the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and educational practice, holds degrees in cognitive studies and elementary education from Vanderbilt University and in learning and teaching from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. She is the author of Transforming Your Teaching: Practical Classroom Strategies Informed by Cognitive Neuroscience and founder of the Carraway Center for Teaching and Learning:

In today’s modern world, there is an incredible appeal to using all of the new digital devices and technologies available to us for as many reasons as possible. However, digital devices significantly affect the way we read.

Because our culture is so heavily impacted by reading from digital texts, reading is becoming more fragmented, sporadic, and haphazard. Digital readers are more focused on skimming, scanning, and searching for key words than on constructing meaning, analyzing the text, and learning how to sustain attention long enough to purposefully engage on a personal level with the text. The large amounts of time spent reading digital texts may be negatively impacting the cognitive processes that individuals engage in during the reading process. We should be concerned that the result may be a deficit of the development of in-depth reading processes.

Research shows that students score higher on reading comprehension assessments when reading from paper than from reading from a digital source. Students who are accustomed to reading digitally have been found to have a harder time focusing when they sit down to read a harder, longer text. The brain does not multitask, but rather switches attention very quickly between thoughts, topics, information, and situations. Reading on digital devices that have online access, changing visual images, or web links in the margins increases distractibility while reading.

The reality, though, is that, like most things in life, reading digitally is not all good or all bad. Teachers should educate students on when, how, and for how long they should be reading from paper versus from a screen. Difficult texts should be read on paper to increase students’ linear reading ability, mental representations, spatial and tactile knowledge of the text, and absorption of meaning. For pleasure reading or for searching for key terms in a research situation, digital reading devices are a good resource. Enlarging text on digital devices may also help dyslexic readers improve fluency and comprehension.

A few key points about reading digitally versus reading from paper:

  • Linear reading is different from nonlinear reading. Nonlinear reading, skimming across a screen or text as the eyes dart about the page, is fine for pleasure reading or for searching for key words, but insufficient for deep reading comprehension and absorbing meaning. It is critical that students’ brains engage regularly in linear reading, because this type of reading leads to the ability to understand complex sentences, identify hidden meanings, interpret difficult syntax, develop a deep understanding of the story or content, and engage in sustained attention. In order for students to create elaborate neural networks for linear reading, they must practice these cognitive exercises repetitively over time. Have them engage in slow, deep reading from printed text on paper for 30-45 minutes per day.

  • Printed books bring more physicality to reading than digital texts. The brain thinks of a text as a physical landscape made up of physical objects called letters. Meaning is embedded in the structure of the text. Mental maps are created of the content and information we read. It is easy to remember that something happened half way down the left side of the page or that the name of the town was located in the top right corner of the page in the third chapter. These types of spatial and physical relationships are not represented the same way in digital texts.

  • Digital reading causes greater eye fatigue than paper reading. Prolonged reading on glossy screens can cause eyestrain, blurred vision and headaches. Recommend that students read from E-ink screens (like that of the new Kindle) over reading from a glossy computer screen or glossy iPad.

  • Scrolling through digital text impairs necessary cognitive processes needed for absorbing meaning and comprehending text. When students scroll through a passage, they use valuable mental resources to focus and refocus on information. If your students are reading from a digital text, have them choose the view option where two pages of the book can be seen at one time instead of a view that requires scrolling.

  • Mindset matters. Studies have shown that students do not bring as much mental effort or seriousness when reading from a screen as they do when reading from a paper text.
  • Have students with working memory and/or attention deficits read from paper instead of from digital texts. Since reading from digital text places a greater cognitive load on attention and working memory, it is better for students who struggle with these cognitive processes to read from paper so that more mental space is freed up to think about the content and less of a heavy load is placed on working memory.

Thanks to Dan, Kristin, Lester and Kimberly for their contributions!

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