Will you learn better from reading on screen or paper?
Research now suggests that if you really need to learn something, you’re better off with print.
Studies have shown that when people read on-screen, they don’t completely understand what they’ve read, as well as when they read it in print. Even worse, we don’t realize we’re not getting it. For example, researchers in Spain and Israel took a close look at 54 studies comparing digital and print reading. Their 2018 study involved more than 171,000 readers. Comprehension, they found, was better overall when people read print rather than digital texts. The researchers shared the results in Educational Research Review.
The question is, why?
Reading is reading, right? Not exactly. Reading is reading, right? Not exactly. Maryanne Wolf works at the University of California, Los Angeles. This neuroscientist specializes in how the brain reads. Reading is not natural, she explains. We learn to talk by listening to those around us. It’s pretty automatic. But learning to read takes real work. Wolf notes it’s because the brain has no special network of cells just for reading.
To understand text, the brain borrows networks that evolved to do other things. For example, the part that evolved to recognise faces is called into action to recognise letters. This is similar to how you might adapt a tool for some new use. For example, a coat hanger is great for putting your clothes in the closet. But if a blueberry rolls under the refrigerator, you might straighten out the coat hanger and use it to reach under the fridge and pull out the fruit. You’ve taken a tool made for one thing and adapted it for something new. That’s what the brain does when you read.
It’s great that the brain is so flexible. It’s one reason we can learn to do so many new things. But that flexibility can be a problem when it comes to reading different types of texts. When we read online, the brain creates a different set of connections between cells from the ones it uses for reading in print. It basically adapts the same tool again for the new task. This is like if you took a coat hanger and instead of straightening it out to fetch a blueberry, you twisted it into a hook to unclog a drain. Same original tool, two very different forms.
As a result, the brain might slip into skim mode when you’re reading on a screen. It may switch to deep-reading mode when you turn to print.
That doesn’t just depend on the device, however. It also depends on what you assume about the text. Naomi Baron calls this your mindset. Baron is a scientist who studies language and reading. She works at American University in Washington, D.C. Baron is the author of How We Read Now, a new book about digital reading and learning. She says one way mindset works is in anticipating how easy or hard we expect the reading to be. If we think it will be easy, we might not put in much effort.
Much of what we read on-screen tends to be text messages and social-media posts. They’re usually easy to understand. So, “when people read on-screen, they read faster,” says Alexander at the University of Maryland. “Their eyes scan the pages and the words faster than if they’re reading on a piece of paper.”
But when reading fast, we may not absorb all the ideas as well. That fast skimming, she says, can become a habit associated with reading on-screen. Imagine that you turn on your phone to read an assignment for school. Your brain might fire up the networks it uses for skimming quickly through TikTok posts.
Where was I?
Speed isn’t the only problem with reading on screens. There’s scrolling, too. When reading a printed page or even a whole book, you tend to know where you are. Not just where you are on some particular page, but which page — potentially out of many. You might, for instance, remember that the part in the story where the dog died was near the top of the page on the left side. You don’t have that sense of place when some enormously long page just scrolls past you. (Though some e-reading devices and apps do a pretty good job of simulating page turns.)
Why is a sense of page important? Researchers have shown that we tend to make mental maps when we learn something. Being able to “place” a fact somewhere on a mental map of the page helps us remember it.
It’s also a matter of mental effort. Scrolling down a page takes a lot more mental work than reading a page that’s not moving. Your eyes don’t just focus on the words. They also have to keep chasing the words as you scroll them down the page.
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She studies how we read. When your mind has to keep up with scrolling down a page, she says, it doesn’t have a lot of resources left for understanding what you’re reading. This can be especially true if the passage you’re reading is long or complicated. While scrolling down a page, your brain has to continually account for the placement of words in your view. And this can make it harder for you to simultaneously understand the ideas those words should convey.
Another reseacher found that length matters, too. When passages are short, students understand just as much of what they read on-screen as do when reading in print. But once the passages are longer than 500 words, they learn more from print.
Even genre matters. Genre refers to what type of book or article you’re reading. The articles here on Science News for Students are nonfiction. News stories and articles about history are nonfiction. Stories invented by an author are fiction.
If you want to do better in school or even your career, it’s not quite as simple as turning off your tablet and picking up a book. There are plenty of good reasons to read on screens and as the pandemic taught us, sometimes we have no choice.