Virginia Clinton prefers to read on a screen. Her love affair with digital texts began when she was a new mother, juggling the workload of a young academic with diapers and feedings. “I have warm, fuzzy memories of rocking my babies to sleep and reading one-handed on my phone,” Clinton said.
As an assistant professor of education at the University of North Dakota, Clinton had encouraged her students to save money on textbooks and buy cheaper digital versions or use free materials online. Her research specialty was reading comprehension. According to theories she learned in graduate school, she recalled, there should be no difference between reading on paper and reading on a screen.
But many of her education students told her they preferred paper, she said. Clinton decided to delve into at all the studies published since 2008 about reading on screens. She compiled results from 33 high-quality studies that tested students’ comprehension after they were randomly assigned to read on a screen or on paper and found that her students might be right.
The studies showed that students of all ages, from elementary school to college, tend to absorb more when they’re reading on paper than on screens, particularly when it comes to nonfiction material. “Sometimes you should print it out, especially if it’s long,” said Clinton.
Clinton now tells her students to order the book if they prefer reading paper. “It’s enough of a benefit that it’s worth the paper and ink and the cost of the book,” she said.
The benefit for reading on paper was rather small, after averaging the studies together, Clinton said. But 29 of the 33 laboratory studies found that readers learned more from text on paper.
Clinton’s analysis, published earlier in 2019, is now at least the third study to synthesize reputable research on reading comprehension in the digital age and find that paper is better. It was preceded by a 2017 review by scholars at the University of Maryland and a 2018 meta-analysis by scholars in Spain and Israel. The international analysis arrived at nearly the same numerical conclusion as Clinton’s study. Paper beat screens by more than a fifth of a standard deviation. (Scholars argue over how to interpret these statistical units. For controlled laboratory studies like these, it’s a small advantage.)
The mounting research evidence against screens is important because it clashes with textbook publishers’ long-term plans to emphasize digital texts. Pearson, the largest textbook publisher in North America, announced in July 2019 that it was moving to a “digital first” strategy. Books will still be available to rent but students will be discouraged from buying them by higher prices, fewer updates and limited availability.
This reading research also runs counter to well-intended advice for students to save money. A July 2019 report from the National Association of College Stores shows a record high 22 percent of college students are using free online course materials, up from 3 percent in 2015. Thanks to free online texts, overall spending on materials has decreased.
For proponents of digital texts, there is plenty to quibble about in the current research. The studies that Clinton included in her analysis didn’t allow students to take advantage of the extra bells and whistles that digital texts can potentially offer. Some argue that these add-ons — such as pop-up quizzes in the middle of a reading passage to check for comprehension or instant definitions of unfamiliar words — are what give digital text an edge. In Clinton’s underlying studies, students could only interact with a digital text as they do on paper. That pretty much restricted students to highlighting and note taking.
“My findings weren’t fair to screens because the screens couldn’t offer everything they could,” Clinton said. “They were really just a shiny piece of paper.”
Still, there isn’t yet convincing proof that the digital add-ons improve reading comprehension or even match the reading comprehension that students can achieve with text on paper. Well-designed studies to test this don’t exist. Clinton is planning to study reading comprehension with digital add-ons in her laboratory to see if digital texts will get better results.
Why students don’t read as well on screens is a fascinating question. Some experts think the glare and flicker of screens tax the brain more than paper. Others argue that spatial memory for the location of a passage or a chart on a physical paper page can help a student recall information. Digital distraction and the temptation to browse or multi-task is an obvious problem in the real world. But internet browsing or app checking wasn’t allowed in the controlled conditions of these laboratory studies.
The Maryland researchers who conducted the 2017 review thought that people were reading too fast on screens. But in Clinton’s collection of studies, she didn’t find any difference in reading time between the two formats.
Instead, Clinton suspects that the problem might be one of rampant self-delusion by screen readers. In many of the lab studies, readers answered questions on how well they thought they had performed in the experiment. Screen readers consistently overestimated their reading comprehension. Paper readers were more accurate in their self-judgments.
The excessive confidence of screen readers is important, Clinton said, because people who overestimate their abilities are likely to put in less effort. The less effort a person puts into a reading passage, the less they are likely to comprehend. That’s because reading comprehension, like all learning, isn’t easy and requires work.
Genre also matters. When Clinton separated out the studies that had students read narrative fiction, there was no benefit to paper over screens. (So, go ahead and read Jane Austen on a Kindle.) But for nonfiction information texts, the advantage for paper stands out.
What does this mean for teachers and parents? That depends a bit on the student’s age, Clinton said. For college students, she advises picking the format they personally prefer. For most students, that will be paper.
But increasingly, there won’t always be a paper version. And this is where Clinton recommends that professors take extra time to show students how to read a digital text more effectively by, for example, periodically self-checking for comprehension.
Usually elementary and high school teachers don’t have the flexibility to offer a text both ways. When forced to teach with a digital text, Clinton advises teachers to have students “explain more what they’re reading.”
“Ideally, I would like to see both [paper and digital] in the classroom,” she said. “That way kids are developing screen and technology skills and they’re also learning and getting the help of paper for developing reading skills.”
Her advice to parents is to remember that any reading — screen or paper — is good for children. Clinton says her own children like the games they can play as rewards as they move through an e-book series. Those kind of rewards can sometimes motivate kids to read more. “But if you have a child who has a hard time focusing when they’re reading — that complaint is common with screens — then paper might be helpful,” she said.
Clinton said both parents and teachers need to teach children how to manage and regulate their behavior on screens in order to benefit from them.
In the meantime, the researcher herself remains a screen reader. “I don’t like paper,” Clinton said, “because I keep losing it.”
This story about paper vs. digital reading was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.