There are so many ways to read today. Of course, we can still go “old school” and read a text on paper (book, magazine, newspaper, photocopied article, etc.), but readers today also have more and more options for reading texts on screen. There are texts we read while browsing the Internet; there are texts we read on e-readers such as Kindle and Nook; there are even e-textbooks for many courses now. And most of these texts can be read on a variety of devices–laptops, tablets, and even smartphones.

As we add more technology into the classroom, there’s naturally going to be more access to texts on screen. This increased availability of screen-reading options brings teachers face to face with some important choices. How often should we have our students read texts on paper? How often should we have them read texts on one kind of screen or another? What kinds of texts are best read on paper, and what kinds are best read on screen? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

These are great questions, and it’s important for teachers to know what recent research tells us so they can make good choices to help maximize student learning from reading. Let’s take a look at some of the important findings and what they mean for reading in the classroom.

A Matter of Attention

One of the most important aspects of reading to consider is attention. Reading is a challenging mental task even when conditions are perfect, so anything that compromises concentration is a serious issue.

In this regard, a number of studies have found that certain features of some screen-based texts impair attention and take up space in working memory that is thus not available for comprehension. Live web links, for example, have been found to adversely affect comprehension (even when they’re never clicked on), probably because the highlighted links call to our stimulus-driven attention system and offer a choice (click or don’t click), and each of those choices distracts from maintaining in working memory the thread of meaning being presented by the core text. Other features of many web pages that can negatively impact reading comprehension are videos, audio clips, and ads. The conclusion is that students in general concentrate better when reading a paper copy as compared to hypertext (DeStefano and LeFevre, 2007).

This is not to say that all hypertext features cause a net loss of comprehension. There is evidence that linked definitions of challenging terms, notes functions, and a search function, when available, can actually help students retain focus and process the text.

Taking Reading Seriously

Another issue concerns how–and how seriously–people read texts on paper versus texts on screen. A number of recent studies indicate that people often don’t apply to screen reading the same amount of mental effort that they apply to reading a text on paper.

For example, in one study conducted by reading reseacher Ziming Liu of San Jose State University, it was found that people reading on screens take a lot of shortcuts, spending more time browsing and scanning for keywords, as opposed to people reading a text on paper, who spend more time reading the text line for line. In addition, the screen readers were more likely to read a text only once, while paper readers often reread portions of the text to repair meaning when it broke down (Liu, 2005). Overall, people appear to take the process of reading a text on screen less seriously than they do when reading a text on paper.

A Book in the Hand is Worth Two on the Screen?

Another aspect of the reading experience that should be considered has to do with how easy (or difficult) it is to navigate around a text. A book has a certain physicality as compared to an e-book. People report anecdotally that, when trying to locate a piece of information previously read in a physical book, they often remember where in the text the material appeared. With a physical book, one has a left-hand page, a right-hand page, and eight corners on a two-page spread. A reader often remembers, “It was on the left-hand page, near the bottom.” Also, one can see and feel how many pages have been read and how many are yet to read with a physical book. In an e-book, none of these spatial markers exist, which makes going back to find something previously read much harder in an e-book.

One study that looked into such issues was conducted by Anne Mangen and colleagues in Norway. In this study, 72 10th grade students of similar reading ability were divided into two groups. One group read a narrative and an expository text on paper, while the other group read the same texts on 15-inch LCD screens. The students were then given open book multiple-choice and short answer quizzes over the texts. Students who read the paper versions of the texts scored significantly higher on the tests than those who read the screen versions.

The researchers observed that those using screens had more difficulty navigating the texts to find answers, as they could only scroll through the texts or click through them one section at a time. Comparitively, those using paper texts could hold the entire text in their hands at once and easily flip from one section of the text to another (Mangen, Walgermo, & Bronnick, 2013).

A Matter of Choice

One study conducted by reading researcher Elizabeth Dobler (2015) suggests people prefer being given a choice between an e-textbook and a paper copy (when both versions of the text are available, obviously). In her study, she taught pre-service teachers how to better navigate and read using an e-textbook version of the class text. Some subjects, following this instruction, found the extra text features to be beneficial for learning, while others found the e-textbook distracting and opted for the hard copy.

The majority of research studies looking into people’s preferences when it comes to reading find that most people still prefer reading on paper to reading on screen. In a 2011 survey of graduate students at National Taiwan University, the majority of students surveyed said that they preferred to browse the first few paragraphs of articles online, then print the text off for deeper reading (Jabr, 2013). In her recent book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, linguistics professor Naomi Baron explains how she conducted a survey of the reading preferences of over 300 students in the U.S., Japan, Slovakia, and Germany. She found that 92% of students surveyed, when given the choice between reading a text as a hard copy, or on a variety of screens (desktops, laptops, smartphones, and e-readers), said that the hard copy best allowed them to concentrate (Chatfield, 2015). And a 2008 survey of millennials at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island concluded that, “When it comes to reading a book, even they [millennials] prefer good, old-fashioned print” (Jabr, 2013).

Giving Screen Reading Its Due

Now, none of the above is meant to say that we should stop using screens for reading across the board. That would be ridiculous. Screen reading is here to stay, and the number of screen-reading options is bound to increase.

And screens are great for some reading tasks. Obviously, browsing the Internet for research purposes is the most common screen reading experience. In addition, new forms of text, created specifically to be read online, are popping up. The New York Times, Washington Post, and ESPN have all created highly visual articles that depend entirely on scrolling and could not be read the same way on paper. Infographics have become very popular, and many of them use scrolling in powerful ways. And some knowledge tools such as the interactive Scale of the Universe tool could not be printed out even if you wanted to (this is very cool, so if you haven’t seen it, check it out here). Some publishers are continuing to investigate the possibilities of creating visually rich nonfiction texts by embedding interactive graphics, maps, timelines, animations, and sound tracks into electronic texts, and some writers are combining their talents with computer programmers to produce interactive fiction and nonfiction texts in which the reader can determine what she reads, hears, and sees next (Jabr, 2013).

Recommendations

So, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. There are clearly times when reading a text online is the way to go, and other times when good, old-fashioned paper and ink better serve the purpose. Here are some recommendations for when and how to use each medium:

  • Whenever you have found a text online that you would like your students to read, if the text has any of the usual hypertext features (links, ads, videos, embedded sound clips, etc.), you’re usually better off cutting and pasting just the text you want into a word processing program and printing it off for students to read. Doing so will allow them to pay better attention to the text, and comprehension will be improved. This practice will also allow students to mark the text and take notes in the margin to capture their thinking.
  • Similarly, if you’re using an e-textbook for a class you’re teaching, if the e-textbook has a “hide links” feature, make students use this feature on their first read-through of a passage. This will facilitate better comprehension. You can then un-hide the links and direct students which links might be profitable to follow.
  • Of course, if some of the hypertext features (a video, for example) contains key information that doesn’t show up elsewhere in the text, you might consider showing the video to the entire class at one time so you can all process it together.
  • When the content of the text is very important and you want to make sure that all students learn that content, print out a paper copy for students. Since readers bring better attention to a paper text, this will facilitate comprehension.
  • On the other hand, if you’re having different students read different texts online about a general topic, then having them share with the class to build background knowledge (a jigsaw activity), and if it’s OK that they share only the gist of their articles (instead of learning about the topic in depth), you can go with the screen reading.
  • When students will need to go back to find information in a text, use a paper version, as they will be able to navigate around the text much more easily and quickly than they could do on a screen.
  • If you must have students read challenging texts on a screen for whatever reason (the school district has mandated that classes go paperless whenever possible, for example), just realize that comprehension is not going to be as good as it would be with a paper copy–unless you scaffold the reading experience carefully. Consider directing students to work with a partner to process the reading. Have one student read one chunk of the text out loud to his partner, then have the partner summarize what the first partner just read. Have both partners write down in their notes any key points from that section. Then switch roles for the next chunk. Of course, you could also apply any other reading strategies you normally have students do on paper to their screen reading–capturing their thinking in learning log entries, for example. The key is, never just simply tell students to read a difficult text on screen and expect them to comprehend it well. Structure the reading in such a way that they make meaning as they go through the text.

Conclusion

I hope this article has given you some food for thought. I know that some of the new kinds of texts being developed for screen reading offer some cool features. But make sure that you don’t simply have students read a text on screen because it’s the easy thing to do. Think about the research cited above, and make your decisions about paper vs. screen reading thoughtfully. Your students will benefit from your forethought.

Sources

Chatfield, T. (2015, February 23). Why reading and writing on paper can be better for your brain. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/23/reading-writing-on-paper-better-for-brain-concentration

DeStefano, D., & LeFevre, J. (2007, May). Cognitive load in hypertext reading: A review. Computers in Human Behavior, 23(3), 1616-1641.

Dobler, E. (2015, February 9). e-Textbooks: A personalized learning experience or a digital distraction? Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 58(6), 482–491. doi:10.1002/jaal.391

Jabr, F. (2013, April 11). The reading brain in the digital age: The science of paper versus screens. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/

Liu, Z. (2005). Reading behavior in the digital environment: Changes in reading behavior over the past ten years. Journal of Documentation, 61(6), 700-712, doi: 10.1108/00220410510632040

Mangen, A., Walgermo, B. R., & Bronnick, K. (2013, December). Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension. International Journal of Educational Research, 58, 61-68.

Williams, A. (2017, March 21). A call for fewer screens in the classroom. Education Week Teacher. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2017/03/21/a-call-for-fewer-screens-in-the.html