Do Students Learn More by Reading From Paper or Screens?

Many of us have anecdotal thoughts on whether reading from a physical book or an electronic device is better. Whether it’s the feel, weight or lighting, preferences vary and matter when deciding to get a textbook, for example, or the e-book version online. But price, availability and convenience aside, is one superior from a literacy and learning perspective?

Recent research seeks to determine which mode of delivery reigns supreme for learning outcomes in literacy — paper or screen. While the results for both paper and screen learning are mixed, educators must be informed of the pros and cons of both modes of learning to best help their students. An advanced degree, such as the Master of Education (M.Ed.) – Literacy online program from Eastern Washington University (EWU), equips graduates with the skills to support the diverse learning needs of P-21 students and assess evidence-based literary research regarding instruction, methods and curriculum materials.

Below is a summary of what experts have documented for reading comprehension and proficiency on both paper and screens.

Paper Wins, by a Margin

First, recent studies acknowledge that screen-based reading is on the rise, and researchers want to know if reading comprehension and efficiency vary much between media types. According to research from the Journal of Research in Reading, paper had better reader outcomes for expository texts only (compared to narrative). However, reader judgment of performance was better with paper books. Reading time was about the same for paper and screen.

Instead of pitting paper against screens as equals, however, a Science News Explores article warns against that. Writer Avery Elizabeth Hurt explains that our brains read by borrowing networks evolved to do other tasks like recognizing faces. However, our brain does not read text on paper as on a screen.

“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,” she says. Educators and researchers must consider this as they evaluate the benefits and challenges of print and online reading. If paper is only slightly better, and only in specific instances, does it deserve to be prioritized over e-reader devices and computer-delivered texts?

Overconfidence Can Hurt

When students have time limits to read a passage, screen reading suffers. Studies show that readers tend to overestimate their ability to read material on a screen. Often, they think they understand it more than they do, and this overconfidence could have consequences in testing situations.

Additionally, studies show that students do better with paper reading in timed situations than with untimed leisure reading. Teachers might consider the option of screen reading for research or free reading and saving paper reading for testing scenarios.

Age and Grade Level Play a Part

An article from The New York Times titled “How Children Read Differently From Books vs. Screens” argues that learners’ age, grade level and learning proficiency play a part in whether print or screens better serve their reading needs. Younger children engaging in “dialogic reading” and building familiarity with language might fair better with print text. School-aged kids are at a key age to begin practicing with different media types, so some online text can be accessible and convenient. For older readers between middle school and college, there is a disconnect between how they think they learn and how they actually perform. A handful of text and online strategies, when done well, can work well for them.

Preference Really Does Matter

While paper or online delivery might be better in particular circumstances, the reader’s comfort level remains an important consideration. In a society that values literacy and urges students to continue their education into adulthood as lifelong learners, educators must help students find delight in reading by making the right tools available. A focus on learning outcomes is natural for teachers, and if students genuinely enjoy reading more from a book, why not equip them to do this?

The discussion of paper versus e-reader is just one of the many leading topics for education experts recently. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and as technology changes how learning occurs, there will be many more.

If you are interested in learning how these studies better equip educators to maximize learning in the classroom, you may be a good fit for EWU’s M.Ed. – Literacy online program. Program courses such as Methods of Educational Research and P-12 Literature Study in the Classroom equip graduates with skills in research, strategy, literacy and technology that can impact reading outcomes and build students’ life skills.

Learn more about EWU’s online M.Ed. – Literacy program.

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