Reading Digital vs Reading Paper: New Challenges

There’s no question that the concept of literacy is undergoing a transformation in the 21st century. We are all consuming more information through multimedia instead of just through text. And the text we encounter is more and more likely to be digital than print-based.

These two features of today’s literacy create challenges for teachers at all levels and in all subject areas. Most would agree that it wasn’t easy to get students to think critically about their reading when they were limited to textbooks and library resources. Today as more and more reading is digital, more and more research is multimedia, our students (not to mention we teachers!) have reading habits that have adapted to new platforms in ways that are not necessarily conductive to critical thinking. And that is not a good thing if we still believe a thought-provoking text, whether digital, print, or hybrid, is worth putting our brains to work with it.

An interesting article by Ferris Jabrin Scientific American, The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens summarizes research on just how we read digital text differently. Some of Jabr’s insights are especially important for teachers.

Some research shows that people have better comprehension with paper text than with digital text. The researchers surmise that one reason for this is that with a paper text, you have a tactile impression of the text. You can “see” the whole text at once, going back and forward easily and knowing how much you’ve read and have left to read. Have you ever had the experience of not being able to remember something you’ve read but remembering where it was located on the page? I have.

The researchers also suggest that it’s easier to interact with a paper text by highlighting and making notes. Of course, you can do the same with almost any kind of digital text, but, speaking for myself, I’m a enthusiastic note-taker and highlighter with print books, but I never do this with a digital book even though nowadays that’s practically all I read.

Another conclusion in Jabr’s article is that long-term comprehension of digital texts is worse than comprehension of print texts because reading from a screen is harder on the eyes. This is one aspect of digital texts that may have improved since Jabr wrote this article. Technology has improved the physical aspect of digital reading. Personally, not only do I often spend hours staring at a screen, both for business and pleasure, I have some fairly serious eye issues. Yet, I rarely experience tired eyes after long periods of using a screen. But maybe that’s just me.

A third aspect of digital reading is the attitude that readers have toward the text. We tend not to take these texts as seriously as what we might read or might have read in the past in print. We skim when we should read deeply. We follow hyperlinks that distract us from the content of the original text. And we bookmark or download articles to read later and then never do!

Still, no one can deny the benefits of the great access we have today to digital texts. Hundreds of thousands of classic texts are free to download and you can get any number of books, in print and even audio versions, from a library. I can’t even imagine going back to the day when I had to go to the library to get a book instead of just browsing a web site any time of the day or night.

Doubtless, we teachers all have to learn to adapt to digital texts, to carry over the skills that encourage critical thinking with print, to target new skills that apply especially to digital texts, and to develop instruction and assessment strategies to help students develop the critical thinking skills they need no matter what kinds of text they read.

John Jones disputes many of Jabr’s ideas at How Does Electronic Reading Affect Comprehension?  

  • Which of these authors do you think is more on track? Or is there another point of view you favor?
  • What are your experiences with print and digital texts? What have you noticed with your students?
  • Do the traditional strategies for increasing comprehension and deep reading of print texts work with digital texts?
  • What features do you think could be added to e-books and other digital content that would promote active, deep reading?
In December 2015, Peggy Grant joined our extended network of alumni.