Is reading on a screen bad for comprehension?

Dr. Natalie Saaris
September 1, 2016

It’s not just Luddites who claim that reading on a screen is bad for comprehension. Many studies featured in high-profile media indicate that we are worse readers on a screen than we are on paper - we understand less, do not retain the information, and even have a more muted emotional response to the text. Does this mean that teachers should abandon their digital reading platforms in favor of good ol’ paper?

Though it might seem like holding onto paper is the right solution, it’s important to dig into the research and think critically about what may be overlooked in these studies of digital reading. Here are some things to consider when comparing reading on paper to reading on a screen. 

The research comparing the two mediums is inconclusive

Though the studies that denigrate screens are fodder for the news media, in actuality the jury is still out about whether reading on paper is necessarily better than reading on a screen. Studies comparing the two are often inconclusive or difficult to replicate, largely because of the number of variables affecting digital reading and the constantly changing attitudes toward screens. For every study you see decrying the nefarious influence of digital reading, you will find another touting the benefits of electronic text. Each of these studies looks at a different population of subjects under different circumstances. It’s important to note that the evolution of technology and the attitudes of people toward it have a significant effect on the results of these studies. Each generation of computer screens produces improvements in visual display which affect things like retinal fatigue and the speed of reading. Likewise, each generation of technology users changes its attitude toward reading on a screen; this increased familiarity and comfort with digital reading has shown to significantly affect the results of comparative studies.

“Before 1992 most studies concluded that people read slower, less accurately and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. Studies published since the early 1990s, however, have produced more inconsistent results: a slight majority has confirmed earlier conclusions, but almost as many have found few significant differences in reading speed or comprehension between paper and screens."

— Ferris Jabr in Scientific American  

One consistent finding is that the cognitive differences between reading on paper and screen are significantly dependent on readers' attitudes and preferences. Subjects who are comfortable with technology and prefer screens to paper show little to no difference in comprehension when switching from paper to a digital platform. Our interaction with digital text is conditioned by our previous experiences and the expectations that we bring to the reading process. Unfortunately, controlling for experience and attitudes related to technology among test subjects is uncommon. It’s hard to know whether the medium (screen or paper) is responsible for the result of the study, or whether it’s the attitude of the test subjects toward those mediums.

Not all digital reading is created equal, and some forms offer significant advantages over paper

It’s important to make distinctions between different types of digital text rather than lumping them all together into the same bucket, especially when evaluating the educational value of paper versus screen reading. A static PDF, a web page with hyperlinks and ads, and an interactive learning platform with features designed for learning promote very different reading experiences. The context in which these different types of digital text are employed matters as well—are the hyperlinks embedded there by the teacher and designed to help the student learn, or are they embedded there by the author whose intention may be to give large amounts of supplemental information irrelevant to the purpose of the reading assignment?

“We all take in information in different ways. Some people read more quickly and retain more information when lines are shorter, or when fonts are bolder, or in different colors."

— James Hablin in The Atlantic 

Furthermore, digital text offers several features that are unavailable in paper and potentially improve the learning experience for students. Studies have shown that enhancing electronic text with features such as a built-in dictionary and embedded questions improves students’ comprehension. The ability to alter the size, spacing, and color of the font in digital text is also helpful for certain groups with visual impairments, such as dyslexic readers. Reading a text inside a platform designed for educational purposes also conveys different expectations for the student than a website considered leisurely and superficial reading. These are all important factors to keep in mind when looking at the research comparing screens to paper.

Students need to learn how to read on a screen

One of the many objections to reading on a screen is that students don’t take digital text seriously. They treat a PDF assigned for class with the same casual attitude they employ for surfing the web. It’s often pointed out that students prefer to print out articles intended for deep reading and that they favor paper textbooks over the electronic versions. However, it’s important to note that these preferences are not fixed in stone, and that it may be worthwhile to re-train students to read digital text with as much attention as they give to paper.

We’re entering an age where even the most high-stakes information is communicated electronically. Messages from the doctor’s office pertaining to medical care, legally binding contracts, work-related documents, all are now sent via the web rather than the mailbox. After factoring in the time we spend on computers, smartphones, e-readers, and tablets, it's apparent that most of the reading we do today is on screens. To survive in this environment, students need to be attentive digital readers, which means they need practice comprehending challenging texts on a screen. Research has shown that teaching students strategies for navigating hypertext significantly improves the depth of their learning. 

An analogy could easily be drawn between reading on a screen and typing on a keyboard. Both ways of interacting with text involve sacrificing the all-important connection between the physical object, our body, and our mind. The tactile experience of leafing through a book is as important to memory as physically marking up a piece of paper by hand. Our mind learns better when we use our fine motor skills to take down written information. And yet the advantages conferred by typing, such as speed, the use of spellcheck, the ability to edit and reformat, copy-and-paste, and saving digital files onto a hard drive, are significant enough that few of us would give up our keyboard for a fancy quill. We need to start thinking of digital reading in the same way: the advantages of electronic text are already redefining much of what we read, and so we need to invest in becoming better electronic readers, much as we’ve invested in learning to type and use word processing software.


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