Reading & Literacy What the Research Says

Reading on Screen vs. Print: New Analysis Thickens the Plot on Promoting Comprehension

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 22, 2021 4 min read
Image of someone holding a tablet and a book.

The pandemic has increased the amount of reading young children do in digital formats, and a new research analysis suggests parent and teacher behavior can mean the difference in whether e-books help or hinder reading skills in the long run.

All else being equal, children 8 years old and younger comprehend storybooks better when they are in print rather than digital form, according to an analysis of 39 experimental studies published in the Review of Educational Research.

But print wasn’t an end-all, be-all, they found. Researchers also found that most of the commercially published e-books explored in the studies didn’t enhance the text in ways that focused children’s attention as adults naturally would when reading a story to a child, such as pointing out main story elements, asking questions, and focusing children’s attention on the chain of events in a story. The electronic books that did use these elements tended to outperform print books in children’s comprehension.

“We need to have a more nuanced language about when reading digitally or print is beneficial and when not,” said Natalia Kucirkova, the corresponding author and a professor of reading and early-childhood development at the University of Stavanger in Norwayand the Open University in the United Kingdom.

Co-author Adriana Bus, professor of language and literacy at Leiden University in Amsterdam, agreed. “Digital devices may always be distractive, thus predicting adverse effects of digital reading. However, our study also shows that books with digital enhancements can benefit and result in better comprehension than paper books if the enhancements support comprehension,” she said.

More reading time during the pandemic

Children have been reading more during the pandemic, including in electronic formats, according to the latest census by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that studies children and media. The group found that in 2020, children ages 8 and under spent on average, 32 minutes a day reading or being read to, up from 29 minutes a day in 2017.

Both print and e-reading increased overall, but e-reading rose particularly for some groups of students. Black students in that age group, for example, have gone from reading 28 minutes a day, including 8 minutes of e-reading and 20 minutes of print in 2017, to 48 minutes a day in 2020, including 33 minutes of print and 15 of e-reading. Similarly, students in families who earn less than $30,000 a year doubled their e-reading from 5 minutes a day to 10 minutes during that time.

Kucirkova said she expects wide variation in how children respond to e-reading during the pandemic, “attributable to the uneven quality of home schooling. I am particularly concerned about children who come from low-resource backgrounds with little history of reading and who do not have the supportive adult at home, who would be interpreting, and at times supplementing, teachers’ instruction,” she said. “The crucial influencing factor for these children is going to be the quality of the reading materials they accessed.”

The research analysis suggested children’s comprehension improved when adults read to them—but adults tended to read digital texts with children differently than print texts.

“Reading to children via Zoom has been happening in many families during the pandemic but anecdotal evidence shows that this was mostly for the most privileged children,” such as those with highly educated parents or grandparents or family members who could afford to spend more time reading with them,” Kucirkova said in an online message. She suggested teachers can help model for parents by holding videoconferenced reading sessions using both print and digital books.

The researchers analyzed the results of studies of more than 1,800 children from birth to age 8, comparing their comprehension and vocabulary learning when reading on paper versus on screens. The researchers also looked at the effects of common e-book enhancements, including spoken narration accompanying the text, design enhancements, and in-book dictionaries.

Some of the most commonly used enhancements didn’t add much to students’ comprehension. For example, Bus noted that audio narration of e-books did little, particularly for children who needed the most reading practice.

“They were the children who closed their eyes and just listened,” she said. In one eye-tracking experiment, for example, “not surprisingly, we found that good readers focus on the text while listening, thus benefiting from this experience. The poor readers did not look at all at the text, just at the illustrations.”

The researchers also found dictionaries did not improve children’s comprehension, but did build students’ vocabularies.

The analysis also found digital texts tended to be less effective than print ones in classroom settings. In part, Kucirkova said, this could be because the group-based reading used in schools may make less use of the interactive elements in digital books.

In videotaped lessons, Bus noted, “teachers [are] reading in small groups, and you can see that children are eager to interact with the book where possible in competition with their peers. However, looking for an opportunity to interact takes so much attention that they cannot concentrate on the story. So teachers have to organize sessions so that children can be sure of their share in the interaction with the story.”

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