According to the results of 18 years of research in this area, involving 171,055 students, the levels of comprehension of printed text are higher than those of equivalent digital text. This difference was observed in all levels of instruction (from primary to postgraduate education) and increased over time. Given that digital media impair reading comprehension, but also play an ever-important role in society, the authors recommend the development of scientifically informed pedagogic tools that improve the reading comprehension in digital devices and also that students might be guided to develop the skills they need to use these media critically.
It is still too soon to throw away printed books
Today, most of our reading is based on a screen. But is our comprehension influenced by the reading medium? A meta-analysis of research published between 2000 and 2017, involving 171,055 students from elementary to postgraduate higher education, answers affirmatively to this question.
This has become a pressing issue in recent years, due to the gradual transition from paper-based reading to digital-based reading (e.g. on computers, tablets and mobile phones), whether in classroom contexts or for personal purposes. However, research on reading comprehension in digital media is still scarce, and the results are inconsistent. To make sense of the available knowledge, a group of researchers* analysed 18 years’ of scientific publications and compared the comprehension of printed texts with the comprehension of equivalent digital texts.
Research has shown that, in general, the levels of reading comprehension of printed texts are significantly higher to those of digital texts. This is especially true for informative texts (expository, descriptive and informative genres) and mixed texts (informative and narrative genres). Furthermore, the improved comprehension of printed texts was observed irrespective of students’ age (and education level), the length of the text, the type of comprehension that was being assessed (textual, inferential or both), whether or not the students were allowed to refer to the text to answer questions, the size of the studied samples, the type of test used (official/standardised tests or tests designed specifically for research purposes), or the means used for assessing comprehension (digital versus paper, including the assessment of the consistency between the reading medium and the medium used to respond to the comprehension tasks).
Looking closer at these results, we have identified the following effects and implications:
1. Time is not always the best medicine (the effects of exposure to digital media)
Over time (from 2000 to 2017) research has suggested that digital-based reading comprehension is actually worsening, when compared to paper-based reading comprehension. This suggests that exposure to technology (which is continually increasing and happening at younger ages) does not, in itself, lead to the development of the required skills to read efficiently on digital supports (e.g. attentional control and critical thinking). On the contrary, the impaired comprehension of digital-based reading cuts across all age groups, and the more experience the students have with digital media, the more their reading comprehension is impaired.
2. Speed and superficiality are enemies of perfection (reading strategies in digital environments)
Impaired digital comprehension has been linked to a shallow information processing style. This is more evident when the reading speed increases, as demonstrated by studies that established a limited time for reading. Given the same time to read, the readers' comprehension of digital media information was lower than that of equivalent printed texts. These data are consistent with the "Shallowing Hypothesis"a , according to which the quick interactions driven by immediate rewards in digital environments undermine the individual's ability to focus their attention and to perform cognitively demanding tasks such as reading comprehension. Research also suggests that a shallow processing may create a self-confidence bias, as readers tend to overestimate their levels of comprehension of digital text in comparison with printed text. The acknowledgement of these effects and of the finding that they get worse over time has led some authorsb to recommend a gradual and cautious introduction of digital reading into classroom contexts. Albeit, the awareness of these limitations is also contributing to the research and development of strategies to improve the pedagogical efficiency of digital reading.
3. There are still good reasons to read printed newspapers (the effect of digital media on different types of text)
Reading on paper has proven more beneficial for the comprehension of informative and mixed texts, regardless of the length of the text or the applied research methodology. The only type of text that did not present varying comprehension results was the narrative genre, which was explained by the fact that:
- there is a need to further investigate this type of text, considering the scarce number of existing studies, and that
- narrative texts are less demanding than informative texts, in terms of structure, vocabulary complexity and the reader's acquaintance with the respective subject. If a text is less demanding, the disadvantages of digital-based reading are minimised, which corroborates the “Shallowing Hypothesis”.
4. A Mouse, scrolling and other contributing factors (possible additional effects)
Lastly, the authors highlight several digital media effects that require further investigation, namely:
- the influence of the type of device used for reading (computer, tablet or mobile phone);
- the effects of scrolling, since research suggests that this activity may cause readers to lose spatial orientation in the text, resulting in a cognitive overload that impairs comprehension; and
- the effects of using artefacts (e.g. a mouse), of the presence of hyperlinks in the text, or of navigating on different pages.
Improving reading comprehension in digital media
Current literature research shows that there is a higher comprehension of printed texts than of digital texts. However, considering the proliferation and usefulness of technology in educational settings, it would be unrealistic to recommend students to avoid reading on digital media. Some studiesc suggest that reading comprehension in digital media could benefit from strategies that promote a more in-depth approach to information, such as summarising texts or presenting instructions that emphasise the importance of the tasks. Based on current research resultsknowledge, the authors recommend the creation development of scientifically informed pedagogical practices and the development of tools that improve reading comprehension in digital environments and help students to develop a critical use of technology.
Delgado, P., Vargas, C., Ackerman, R., e Salmerón, L., «Don’t throw away your printed books: a meta-analysis on the effects of reading media on reading comprehension», Educational Research Review, 25, 2018, pp. 23-38.
a Cf. Annisette and Lafreniere (2017).
b Cf. Duncan et al. (2015); Pfost et al. (2013).
c Cf. Lauterman and Ackerman (2014); Sidi et al. (2017).